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A Therapist Shares Her Secret for Self Forgiveness

How Sharing Your Secrets Heals Shame

“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.”

–Brennan Manning

I heard a story about one of my favorite singers, the late Rich Mullins, a singer in his mid-40’s who had just come from Amsterdam to a train station in Germany. He had been talking to his best friend Beaker in explicit detail about the nature of his temptation and struggle against sin, when a stranger behind him said, “Hey, aren’t you Rich Mullins?” Rich wasn’t sure if he wanted the stranger to know who he was. He was ashamed that his secrets may have been overheard. As he retraced his conversation he concluded, “I must be…,” whether he wanted to be or not.

I think most of us can relate to that story. How many of us wish for a different past? A clean slate? Or wish our minds never wandered to unhealthy places or that we were somehow mistake-proof human beings? How many of us have accepted the forgiveness offered by Christ but still cannot forgive ourselves? Many of us are familiar with secret shame. The word secret comes from a French word that means, “to sift apart.” One of the primary reasons I wanted to write this book is because I experienced frustration and pain that sifted me apart, but I also experienced the cure that put me back together. All people can throw off their shame by telling their secrets.

A Dark Path

I have a life and past I wish I didn’t have. I was raised in a church that stressed that my good works would get me to Heaven, but I knew that my bad deeds had taken on a life of their own. In spite of, or perhaps because of this pressure, my behavior soon spiraled out of control. As a counselor, I now understand why I did what I did. I had a painful story and nowhere to tell it. I had intense confusion, boundary violations, and great loss, along with no healthy models for coping with the storm in my home. I tried reaching out to a teacher but my ill mother felt threatened that the teacher and his wife were taking me away from the church of my upbringing. The life raft being offered drifted away. I turned to guys, drugs, and booze.

In college, my recklessness left me lonely and suicidal. In fact, one night I was on my dorm ledge, lonely and drunk. I wanted to change my lifestyle but I struggled to find an alternative one. The girls in my dorm thought I was a wild child, so it was hard to fit in when I really needed a friend. I have very few memories of my freshman and sophomore years, but here’s a smattering: dancing in the fountain at 2 a.m., taking hallucinogens and crying in my bedroom, walking on a freeway in dirty snow with bare feet, overhearing a smart pre-med student say, “That Lucille, she’s such a pretty girl, but what a waste,” and being sent to a counselor for having something on my ledge (myself!) and having to pay a $50 fine.

Even now, my memories of those two years haunt me. Somehow I survived and transferred from a small religious school to a giant school with a party reputation, but it was there I turned off the severe self-destruct button. Even though I escaped the super-destructive lifestyle, it was decades before I could look in a mirror without dissociating and calling myself horrendous names. It was only in my late 30’s that I began to fall in love with myself, say kind things to Lucille, bestow grace, forgiveness, and acceptance, and look wide-eyed at myself without shame. I hesitate to tell my story because this book isn’t about me. It’s about you, and what I believe will help you if you are hurting, stuck, or shamed. I only share this so you will know I’ve been down a dark path and found the way out.

Toxic Shame

In August 1991, I walked into the little white church building near my neighborhood. I heard the pastor read from the book of Ephesians saying “You are saved by grace, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” I felt duped. All these years I had believed my right standing with God was based on my good behavior. It took me a year to finally let the truth of free grace settle into my heart. Up until that time I believed a gospel that went like this: Christ on the cross + good deeds = salvation. But now I was at a point where I realized the truth: I did nothing to earn my salvation. Christ paid it all. Spiritually and logically, this was fabulously freeing. But in my heart, my emotions, my very bones, I still felt burdened by what I now know is called toxic shame. Guilt is something we all feel and can handle by asking forgiveness and receiving it for our wrong behavior or actions. However, toxic shame is worse, heavier. It permeates our very cells. It doesn’t say, “You messed up” – it says, “You are a mess-up.” It makes you feel permanently flawed, irredeemable. No human can bear its weight for long without acting out, self-medicating, or hopefully, finding a healthy way out from under its lies.

I suppose if people looked at my life from the outside they may have thought I was fine, but year after year went by and I couldn’t get rid of the shame that bound me. When you can’t heal the shame, you feel more shameful. “What’s wrong with me?” I wondered. I filled piles of journals with my heartache and tears; poured out my pain and begged God to take it away. I tried to tell my secret shame to a few people, but was basically told, “You’re forgiven. It’s over. Get on with life.” Hoping a Bible study would give me the answers, I devoured the Bible. I attended several studies a week. I taught. I read. I prayed. I cried. I journaled. Fast-forward 16 years. The shame was still there. The more I tried to let go, it seemed all I collected was shame, shame, and more shame.

Fear of Being Known

There is a fascinating book, Opening Up, written by psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker. His studies found that people spend much of their time thinking about something that is unresolved. He writes, “People have a basic need for completing and resolving tasks.” Since I had not yet found a healthy way to understand my past, I could not resolve it. At the same time, I had a desperate desire for someone to know me, all of me, and to accept me anyway. But I was too afraid to take the risk. I believe this desire to be fully known and accepted is a universal desire, deep in the heart of every person. After trying to share my heart, and being shut down with Christian platitudes, I was afraid of showing anyone my wounds, and so I missed all the intimacy I was searching for.

I used to have a system of conversing that endeared my friends to me, but I now know was an unhealthy way of coping: because I was desperate for intimacy but afraid of being known, I searched out my friend’s hearts and distracted them from learning more about me by what I called Lu’s Coffee Talk questions: What’s the best thing and the worst thing that happened to you today? What was the weirdest job you ever had? What are you looking forward to? What was your most embarrassing moment? This got others talking, so that I could feel intimacy with them, but protected me and distracted them from asking about me.

Safely Sharing Our Secrets

The mind has an amazing capacity to ward off what is unpleasant, painful or doesn’t mesh with who we want to be. Many people get good at denying, minimizing, and distorting a painful past. And that’s what I had done. I still can’t believe I hid things from my memory until my psychology classes began to open up a deep crevasse in me. I remember going up to one professor on a break, and in tears, whispered, “This is killing me.” He invited me to come to his office the following week. As I slowly shared my story, he pointed out the smile that was a cover for depression. Months went by, and a funny thing happened. The more I talked, the more I remembered. The more I remembered, the more I talked. Eventually the shame began to lift and take flight, until one day, it was truly gone. Talking with a safe, compassionate, non-judging person didn’t excuse or wipe out my past wrongs (I knew only Christ could do that), but it helped me recognize and understand the “whys” behind my sins. Seeing a larger picture of my personal journey helped me finally start to forgive myself and gave closure to my story.

Secrets are like trash in a compacter. Over the years, we push more and more garbage down. We think our secrets stay hidden, but they rarely do. Our history leaks out like nuclear waste that eats holes in our soul. Our history reveals itself in the form of anger, guilt, addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self- injury. The list is endless. When my clients share secrets, they usually fear that I’ll react in shock or disgust. Instead I experience hurt and compassion for the pain that pulverizes people’s lives, and I feel joy in their courage to talk openly. I feel privileged and honored to walk with them from shame to freedom.

I’m not saying we should share our secrets with everyone, however I feel it is critical to tell our story to at least one safe person because in telling it to someone else we tell it to ourselves. When a person compartmentalizes his life, as we too often see in well-known pastors or sports celebrities whose choices suddenly get exposed, the person is disintegrated (the opposite of integrity, when the outside of the apple matches the inside). The Swiss physician and author, Dr. Paul Tournier (To Understand Each Other), gained worldwide fame in the 1960s helping people with their psychological and spiritual health. He said, “We need to see that universal sickness, that innumerable throng of men and women laden down with their secrets, laden down with their fears, their sufferings, their sorrows, their disappointments, and their guilt. . . . Yet what eats away at them from within is that they may live years without finding anyone in whom they have enough confidence to unburden themselves.”

As I healed, I became frustrated and angry at the church in general. I wanted to scream, “For some people, receiving Christ and claiming a scripture about forgiveness isn’t enough. Why didn’t someone tell me how helpful it would be to talk about my life with a counselor?” James understood the importance of sharing secrets with someone in a compassionate community when he said, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (James 5:16, niv)

Research has revealed that emotional disclosure is linked to reduced medical costs, less absenteeism at work, better immune functioning, better physical health, and increased psychological well-being. There is actual measurable evidence on the benefits of verbal emotional disclosure! For people who have suffered trauma without the release valve of talking through it, the trauma tends to stays bungled up, stuck, in their minds. And yet, the minute someone touches their psychological sunburn, they react. But by talking, the various parts of the brain that store the emotional memory integrate with the part that is able to put it into words. By writing and talking (and expressing the accompanying emotion), people are able to create a narrative, or story, of their experience — giving it a beginning, middle, and end. When people do this, people find closure. Remember, we dwell on things that are unresolved. Once understanding and resolution happens, it literally frees up space in our minds that we’ve been renting to rumination or fear.

I recommend sharing your painful secrets to a select few safe people. I’ve made the mistake of prematurely sharing intimate events of my life with people who stared at me in silence. They made me feel like a pariah, and for a while I felt bad about that. But eventually, I used my, “What is she telling me about herself?” question (as described in an earlier chapter) and realized that just because she couldn’t hear what I had to say, didn’t mean I was wrong for needing to open up and heal. The person is telling me something about herself, most likely that she is uncomfortable with below-the-surface communication; this is not a reflection on me.

So how do you decide with whom and how much you should share? Consider what Jesus did. He reserved his private thoughts for those he trusted the most: his disciples, but even more privately with Peter, John, and James. Start slowly. If you think someone might be safe, offer a little bit and see what she does with it. If she acts judgmental, superior, or indifferent, stop sharing. A safe person opens the door for you to share more, at your own pace. She listens rather than telling you where you are. She is caring rather than offering platitudes (“Trust Jesus”). She invites. Rather than closing you down, she opens you up. She is humble.

I don’t believe God makes bad things happen to us but I believe God allows trials in our lives that will mold and shape us. Scripture says God will comfort us so that we can comfort others (2 Cor. 1:4). But if we can’t heal or even acknowledge our stories, how can they be useful? Henri Nouwen said, “The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed but, ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” (Bread for the Journey)

It wasn’t the Bible or becoming a Christian that healed my shame. Those were pieces of my healing. It was finding a place to be authentic in relationship with others that finally made my shame flee and allowed me to write about it here. I hope you’ve experienced a place where you could be completely transparent. A place where you didn’t have to be anyone other than who you are. Author Wayne Muller says, “It is vital and true and deeply required that we tell our story. We must trace the shape of it, speak of the place in our body where it still lives, weep the tears of it, allow it to be seen and known. To have someone know the story of how we came here, how we came to be this way.”

Creating Safe Places to Share Secrets

Are we the kind of people who create safety for others? Like the professor who dimmed a light in his office so that it would be safe for me to tell my shameful story? Will we offer grace instead of judgment? Like he did when I looked up and he said, “You think I love you less. I love you more for having the courage to tell it.” Or are we more like Pharisees and religious rulers who drag people into the temple ready to throw stones so we can feel somehow superior? Will we keep people’s stories safe? Will our churches model authenticity thereby helping us to experience intimacy?

One of the most beautiful acts of compassion in the New Testament is the moment Jesus reached out to the woman caught in adultery. Caught in the very act. She hadn’t had time to shower or clean herself up. Jesus took the focus off her by shaming the crowd with the dare that anyone presumptuous enough to consider himself sinless should throw the first stone. Then he bent down and began writing in the dirt. (Some people think he may have been writing down names of others in the crowd who had also sinned and hid it.) One by one the rocks dropped from humbled hands, and the accusers dispersed (John 7:53 – 8:11). The only one who can throw stones doesn’t carry them. How can we take the shame off our brothers and sisters? I think the sin in people’s lives already causes them enough pain; and if not, let God be the judge, not you or me.

Qualitative researcher Brene Brown spent years studying shame (you can watch her TED talk in Houston on Youtube). One day as she was compiling all her research on shame and vulnerability, she came to a shattering conclusion that changed the way she lived, loved, and worked. She began thinking about connection and how it is the one thing that gives purpose and meaning to our lives. She began thinking of shame as being the fear of disconnection (“Is there something about me that if other people knew it or saw, would make me unworthy of connection?”). Unless you’re a person who has no capacity for empathy or human connection, it is a universal feeling to wonder about being good enough, rich enough, smart enough. She began to see that in order for connection to happen there has to be excruciating vulnerability. We have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.

Years ago, I heard a woman call a talk show where counselors offered advice. The first thing she did was apologize for calling because her life was perfect. She had a great home and family; she was attractive and educated and everyone around her was in perfect health. Nothing was really wrong except that she was lonely. The callers asked her when she ever let people see her flaws, insecurities, and imperfections. When she admitted she didn’t, the counselors told her other people couldn’t relate to someone who acted perfect – this was the reason no one wanted to spend time with her. Let me share another example: I have a friend on Facebook who daily admits all the goofy things that happen in her life. Hundreds of friends respond to her because authenticity is what draws people in. It’s a paradox: when we tell people about our fears, flaws, and failures it makes people draw close and love us.

When I studied group counseling, I learned a really interesting concept: If there is a group of people, and one person decides to take a risk in sharing a vulnerable piece of her story, she instantly becomes the most popular member of the group. Why? It’s a concept called “universality”: Every person in a group has traits or experiences or flaws or past mistakes that he or she wants to hide. When we see another take a bold risk and be accepted, we wish we had the guts to be that authentic. Of course, this concept could be taken to an extreme. It would not be prudent for a member to go into a group and reveal everything too quickly without getting to know the others. But a gentle unveiling of a vulnerable truth by one brave soul can offer the ripple effect of relief and acceptance to others.

Tips for Sharing Your Secrets

*Healthy people don’t see themselves at opposite ends of a pendulum: Either all good or all bad. They see themselves as human, flawed but worthy to give and to receive.

*Stop demanding love from others. Instead begin to love yourself enough so that you can give yourself what you need, and ask for it from others.

*Tell your story. Either find a counselor, a friend, pastor, or mentor where you can tell your whole story.

*Understand that people’s choices don’t happen in a vacuum. People’s choices make sense in light of their history. There’s a reason people do what they do, and when we know their story it makes sense.

*Look in the mirror and say nice things. “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” ~Frederick Beuchner

*Allow yourself to be flawed. Even if you tried to be perfect you wouldn’t be. Be vulnerable, messy, and real, and watch how people draw near. Make sure people understand you’re not coming to them to fix everything. You’re just coming to them in authenticity.

*Be a safe place for others to tell their story. Try listening without offering advice, platitudes, or scripture. Sure there’s a time for those things, but mostly what people need is safety. 

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