“There’s a lion and when he roars he’s telling me I ain’t no good–It’s not just what I could, but he’s bitching what I should.” (Stalking the Lion King—Kw)
Shame is like a sticky music song syndrome that works its way into your mind and quickly forms a noose around your neck with the design of choking the authentic reality out of you. It all begins when you are very young.
I grew up in a very religious household. The clergy of the church I grew up in during my lifetime were servants from hell. The first pastor was in my life from birth to the 8th grade. He was a very abusive man. I have a lot of memories that were not pleasant. There were times he would challenge resistors to his leadership to a physical fight out in the parking lot of the church. Once he attempted to undress me when I was a second grader in front of the congregation. He said he wanted to use me, as an illustration, to describe “a gutter drunk” he was trying to save from hell.
When I was a kid, I wet the bed and was embarrassed that others would know. Once, this “saintly” pastor coaxed me into going to summer church camp and vowed to prevent others from knowing that I struggled with wetting the bed. In turn, he suddenly announced to the entire camp that I wet the bed and was a “pee-baby” during a morning flag-raising ceremony. There’s a long list of abuse and antics that this clergy person did and no one held him accountable. My parents would only say “Had it not been for this pastor, we wouldn’t have a church today”! He ran out all of the incorrigibles and the troublemakers so that he would be the only thug left to save souls. Well, it took a long time but thank God, or someone, that particular church is now defunct and out of business. Upon reflection, it’s settings like this during early formative years that shape and mold young minds with the earworm of shame-driven messages that dominate in later years. James Baldwin was right when he wrote “It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.” Shameful earworm messages work this way in your life.
After the preacher from hell finally retired, we got another one. Our new pastor was young and he related much better to the youth of the church. As a matter of fact, he related too well. He molested at least three of us and I am convinced there were many more. He disfigured the lives of so many kids that required more than a “born again” experience to ever restore. For many, it scarred and marred for life. Sexual exploitation is the abuse that keeps on giving, not just in the victim’s life but in generations to come because of the shroud of secrecy around the shameful behavior. Do you have experiences of exploitation that you have never talked to anyone about? Then you know the earworm of shameful messages that eat away at you and silently become transplanted into your next generation.
Shame that was ever present with my parents was transferred to every one of us kids. I experienced it around my inability to perform in sports. I was a great practice player but during actual games was dismal. Shameful earworm messages like “You can’t do this, who do you think you are” dominated and created miserable results.
I also experienced it around my sexuality. The only girl I ever dated as a teenager was in the church I attended. When it came to sex, shame pretty much dominated my thoughts and actions. Of course, there was no one to talk things out regarding healthy sexual experience or the crazy sexual abuse I had known previously. Under the cloak of shame, the earworm message would say that masturbation would send you to hell and that sex would be something you would automatically know what to do on that magical honeymoon night. Any other thought about it was considered dirty, disgusting, and to be condemned.
The earworm of shame would constantly ring “You must be more to keep from being less”. With the ring of shame, there is never a moment when who you are and what you have achieved is enough. No time to sit back and enjoy except for the rush you might experience while seeking more.
When I was little, my brother, Steve, and I used to mow very large lawns, 2 to 3 acres, with a power hand mower. We would take a pasture-size section and divide it in half. Then each of us would see who could mow their section the fastest. As we got closer to the finish we would mow faster and faster in an attempt to win. Eventually, each of us would be running. I remember how tortuous it felt toward the end. But, when it was finally finished, there was such a relief and adrenaline rush that felt great, win or lose! I would later try to addictively construct that adrenaline rush throughout my adult life. Truth is that the earworm of shame is often transformed into the adrenaline that comes from conquest and accomplished performance. It is a formative piece toward the development of addictive behavior.
I was often told that I would not succeed or be special in any way. It would always make me mad. I remember my business teacher in high school telling me that I would fail and be least likely to go to college. In college, my academic advisor told me that I would be a traditional “9 to 5” kind of guy and nothing special. To his point, I only wish I was a “9 to 5” kind of guy. It would have helped me live a more healthy life.
I have always had a burning desire to succeed in my life. I must admit that it became distorted in ministry in such a way that I lost myself and my way. Upon graduation from Seminary, my wife Eileen and I moved to Denver Colorado to work in a large evangelical church.
I was determined to learn to be the very best pastor I could be. I did a 2-year internship with absolutely no compensation. We lived off the 9 thousand dollar salary Eileen made working for an insurance company. I worked crazy hours. I would begin at 7 am and work until 10 pm. Then I would help clean the church from 10 pm till 2 am. During those days, Eileen and I would sleep in a gathering room at the church that was identified as “the Parlor”. I have always been embarrassed to tell people I did all of that for no pay. I wanted to be the best. There is this unrelenting subconscious need to correct the message from the earworm of shame that “I am not deserving” and that if I would keep driving myself that somehow in the end I would be enough. But, when I got to the end of the accomplishment, it was never a big deal and the approval I sought was elusive.
The dynamic of shame is all-inclusive. I have been working on this for 33 years of recovery and still must do recovery work simply to accept that what I am is enough. As a professional, I have noticed that I am not alone. Most recovery “gurus’ I know struggle with the earworm of shame in a similar way. The drive for notoriety, power, and possessions shelter this need to be more to keep from being less. There are times that this struggle becomes blatantly obvious through arrogant and socially unacceptable behaviors by some gurus. Sometimes, I have actually encountered folks who have never written a recovery book or even read one who have best exemplified managing the earworms of shame in their lives.
Earworms are common phenomenon to everybody. Shame has a way of sticking earworm messages in our hearts for a lifetime.
I am wondering if you are aware of shameful earworm messages that incessantly dominate and drive you toward addictive behavior? What shameful experiences did you have while growing up that set the foundation for the earworm of shame to drive you to your addiction later in your life? Can you identify the coping strategies that you have created in an attempt to avoid the shameful earworms that ring down deep in your heart?
Gestalt theorist Fritz Perls once said that “nothing ever changes until it becomes real”. Identifying the painful earworm messages of shame is the beginning of interrupting the pattern and creating a pathway that leads to serenity.