I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.
As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.
I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.
Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?
My help feels like a blinding spotlight in her desperate eyes. She reaches out and reluctantly hands me a piece of myself because she hopes that I can help her, yet at the same time she is afraid. She is afraid to let go of these pieces that she’s been holding onto – parts that have somehow shielded her and given her protection and comfort in the darkness. Holding onto these pieces is all she has ever known. It has kept her alive. She fears what I will do with them as she hands them to me. Will I help her to put them into place or will I use them to hurt her as I’ve done so many times in the past? Can she trust me enough to let me see what she needs to show me?
My shame is a shapeshifter. It changes its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain. It hunts and stalks me with careful precision, lurking in dark places where it can remain undetected. My shame transforms into whatever I think I need, masked as protection as it tempts and lures me into its darkness. It looks like a friend sometimes, offering me comfort and relief. But as soon as I accept it, my shame once again changes form and devours me.
My shame craves the silent darkness. It grows strength there, waiting and watching, and always knowing when to strike. It senses my vulnerabilities and seizes those moments as opportunity to inflict harm. At times its attacks are quite subtle. It slyly lingers nearby sending quiet whispers that seem to slither their way into my brain. Other times it brings an overwhelming force so loud and so heavy that it demands submission and engulfs me in a way that makes me feel unrecognizable. It takes who I truly am and buries it under all that I fear about myself. When I surrender and crumble into its grip, my shame claims victory. It sharpens its knife with a knowing smile, offering a simple solution to dull my pain. Only that solution merely becomes more fuel to a destructive fire already burning inside of me.
My shame does not like you. It feels threatened by you and in turn works to keep me from getting too close to you. It doubts your sincerity, questions your intentions, and urges me to remain quiet and small. When I choose to reach out to you my shame works overtime to reel me back in. When I stumble – when I fall – when I withdraw from you, my shame becomes my only companion. It guides me back into its darkness. Its consistent messages somehow feel safe and reliable when faced with the alternative unpredictability in you. But there is a cost to this perceived safety. The cost is relationship – the cost is true connection – the cost is a sense of belonging anywhere outside of the prison I feel myself trapped in. My shame tries to convince me that its protection is worth the cost. Often times I am persuaded. Yet somewhere inside of me shines hope for another way.
I have learned that my shame has a weakness. Its power wilts and fades away when it is exposed to light. I try to use this weakness to defeat it. I venture into the darkness, searching and digging through all of the crevasses where it hides, tracking its movements and patterns in an attempt to cast a light onto this enemy of mine. But no matter how hard I search and how deep I dig, my shame’s quick and clever maneuvers keep it one step ahead of me. It seems to multiply at every turn, making it harder for me alone to chase. I need an army – an army of light to help me hunt down and destroy my shame. But there is risk with this army. To call upon this army means that I must be willing to let them see all that I wish to keep hidden. My fear is their judgment, which keeps me silently cowering in hiding, clutching onto my shame as a familiar safety blanket. My shame knows this. It depends on this. It thrives in this. The only way to defeat my shame is to call it out by name for my army of light to hear and to allow their presence, their comfort, and their healing light to shine on all of my dark places.
Imagine your life as a puzzle. Each piece represents a small part of what makes you who you are – physically, biologically, spiritually, relationally. Each piece adds its own color and flavor and is unique to only you and your experiences. While perhaps a single piece of your puzzle may appear insignificant on its own, when put into place it brings your life into focus – connecting to other pieces that ultimately make you complete and whole.
Imagine your puzzle contains a few missing pieces. Perhaps there are enough other pieces surrounding those empty spaces that it does not impact the entire puzzle. You can still see the whole picture even without those small pieces. Those empty spaces may exist, but they don’t make you feel or appear any less whole. Now imagine you are missing some critical pieces of your puzzle that make it nearly impossible to connect the surrounding pieces. You are left with floating gaps and holes that draw attention and confusion and make it difficult for the entire image to come together. This leaves you searching for those missing pieces – searching for completion – searching for wholeness. You seek not to dwell on the emptiness that exists in those gaps, but instead you yearn for the healing victory that comes from finding and carefully placing a single new piece into position.
Your search begins to shape you as you learn just as much about yourself from your failed attempts as you learn from your victories. This journey, while at times feels life consuming, becomes life altering as you discover and connect the various qualities and experiences that have come to shape you and ultimately make you who you are. You wonder if you will ever succeed in completing this complex puzzle. Will you ever come to a place of feeling truly complete, together, and whole? While this question may remained unanswered, you press on, digging and searching with the hope that each new day brings the possibility of adding just one more piece to your puzzle.