Co-authored by Alisa L. Drake
I was 6 years old. We had just celebrated my birthday, and I was so excited because I had actually gotten the exact gift I had hoped for!
A real cowboy outfit, complete with chaps, a vest, a cowboy hat, and of course, the dual pistols that would make any cowboy feel complete. I felt such tremendous pride when I wore this, I truly felt like I was on top of the world.
But that feeling was short lived when the world I was on top of came crashing down around me.
I’ll never forget the pain and confusion of the moment I was first molested. I had trusted her; she was my babysitter.
Why was she doing this to me? Why does it feel both good and bad at the same time? Why does my body respond when I know it is wrong? I must be evil. It must be my fault. I should have known better. There is something seriously wrong with me.
Shame entered my life that day and again and again on all the days after as the harm continued. Shame that told me I was unworthy; I was dirty; I was disgusting; I was not worth loving or protecting.
I believed these messages deep, deep into the core of who I was. I was not redeemable, I was disposable. Nothing or no one could convince me otherwise.
And I vowed that no one would ever see how despicable I truly was, because if they did, then they would be so horrified that they would expose me, humiliate me, and then abandon me.
These beliefs that I clung to were the lies of shame.
Shame is a poisonous cancer that seeks to erode the very part of us that believes we have value, that hope is real, and that change is possible.
Shame is something experienced by all of us. Shame is often referred to as a “feeling” but it truly is so much more than that. Shame’s true source is “a painful belief in one’s basic defectiveness as a human being” (Potter-Efron).
A person experiencing shame might not just feel unworthy, instead they believe that they truly have no worth, often to the point of believing that they should not exist. A person in shame does not believe they have DONE something wrong, they believe that they ARE something wrong.
Feelings are often fleeting and can change in an instant. But unlike feelings, beliefs are not fleeting, they are much more concrete and require a considerable amount of work to reverse, undo, and change.
Listen to Evelyn’s story:
“I was born into a very broken family, my mom was an alcoholic, haunted by her own sexual abuse, and my father was a child molester who turned his sights on me at a very young age. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he then decided he would start selling me to his friends and eventually to strangers. I was barely 10 years old the first time I was trafficked. And by the age of 13 I was an alcoholic and addicted to drugs. I am now nearing 40 years old and I have just recently escaped the trafficking lifestyle and am setting out to conquer my childhood trauma shame beliefs and all of the behaviors that came as a result of it. For over 30 years I believed the lie that I was worthless, dirty, a whore, and not worthy of loving or protecting. That was who I was and I lived out that belief in horribly destructive ways.”
When someone is struggling with an addiction or destructive lifestyle, whether it be sex, sex industry, drugs, alcohol, food, pornography, gambling, and more, you can count on shame being at the core – the very root – of that struggle. Evelyn did not believe that she had DONE something wrong, she believed that she WAS something wrong.
The truth is, her shame began long before her addiction and destructive lifestyle.
Addictions and other harmful behaviors are the fruits of a deeply rooted, shame-based belief. Addictions and compulsive behaviors are certainly A problem, but they are not THE problem.
Evelyn is not alone in her struggle.
My own shame roots and the harm done to me set me on a very destructive and secretive path of consuming women through pornography, prostitution, and strip clubs. Deep down, I desperately longed to be truly known and loved for who I was, but I believed so deeply that who I truly was, was unlovable. So, I hid that part of me from everyone in my world; my church, my wife, my kids, and my friends, none of them saw my struggle. I had convinced myself that my longing to be truly known and loved could be met through the images on the pages of a magazine or by a woman on a stage who was, truthfully, probably just as hollow, empty, and ashamed as I was.
Society has taught us to look at the fruit (addictions or compulsive behaviors) as the problem. We readily consume self-help books, go to counseling or treatment centers, turn to the church or religious institutions for help and guidance, or join one of the many anonymous groups in an effort to eliminate the behavior(s).
All too often, these well-meaning resources focus solely on eradicating the behavior – the fruit. But much like a tree that’s been pruned, the fruit temporarily goes away then often comes back later with a vengeance, stronger and more resilient than ever.
We could easily spend our whole life on behavior management, but until we attack the root of shame, we will not truly free ourselves of the behavior that is causing us and others so much harm.
Part of the harm we see in well-meaning recovery resources is the actual reinforcement of shame, rather than the eradication of it. As previously mentioned, someone in shame believes that they ARE something wrong or bad, not that they DID something wrong or bad.
Shame allows our struggle to become our identity. This is so destructive and causes that root of shame to grown deeper and deeper.
You hear this lie reinforced in popular support groups that coach individuals to rehearse the mantra of “I am’s.”
I AM an alcoholic.
I AM a sex addict.
I AM a drug addict.
We are taught the lie that we ARE our struggle and that our struggles define us. The truth is we are so much more than our struggles. We are human beings, created by God for a purpose, who, because of shame, happen to struggle with addictions and/or harmful behaviors.
“My name is Gene, and I struggle with sex addiction.”
My struggle does not define me. And your struggle does not define you.
Shame cannot be cured by shame.
This concept of living out our shame is further reinforced by a well known Proverb:
As a man thinks in his heart, so is he. Proverb 23:7.
What we believe in our hearts, we become. When we are conditioned to believe that we are unworthy or unlovable, bad or evil, dirty or soiled, we will often live out our lives in ways that reinforce that belief. We can call this a self-fulfilling prophecy or we can call it the impact of shame.
Can you see how shame became the driver for both myself and Evelyn? Both experienced painful, childhood woundings where shame-based beliefs took root and became the filter through which they lived out their lives. Shame disqualified them from believing they were candidates to receive real love. So they set out to fill that longing with counterfeit sources that failed to satisfy.
And guess what we, as a society, do?
We celebrate, award, and pay for entertainment, movies and music, that highlight and glorify this lifestyle. Then when it happens in real life, we act disgusted and call the consumers “johns,” perverts, and scumbags and we call the women/workers whores, sluts, and often so much worse.
We water their seeds of shame and we drive them deeper into their destructive behaviors.
Shame keeps both the consumer of the sex industry and those working in it from entering real relationships. They still operate out of the same belief that was instilled in them as young children, “I am dirty, broken, and unlovable. I don’t trust anyone to know that side of me. It is relational suicide if I reveal it. Everyone would walk away from me.”
Fear and shame of possible exposure keeps these stories buried and hidden far from view.
But you cannot heal what you hide.
This hidden struggle prevents any opportunities for true healing and recovery. If people can’t struggle in open honesty, then they will struggle in the dark, alone, and unsuccessful. The ability for people to access change and recovery to do life differently requires them the opportunity to live authentically and openly, to have other people come alongside of them and support them in their desire for change, and to receive words of encouragement and acceptance that they are more than their struggle.
In the words of noted author and researcher, Dr. Brenè Brown, “Shame cannot survive empathy.”
We can accept the person without accepting the behavior. We can reject the behavior without rejecting the person.
Once my destructive lifestyle was exposed, I experienced a long season of humiliation, rejection, and isolation. I was publicly shamed and those who I considered to be my closest confidants and friends literally walked away from me. My church rejected me. My marriage failed.
And my shame beliefs compounded like you can’t imagine. I was officially unredeemable.
It wasn’t until I reached the point of contemplating suicide that I took one final risk to share my entire struggle with a dear and trusted friend and mentor. I just KNEW he was going to be angry and reject me, but I took the risk anyway.
What he did in response to my story changed my life. He got up and walked towards me and as I prepared myself to be physically thrown out of his office, he leaned in and literally put his arms around me in the tightest, most powerful embrace, and he wept for me.
Someone had finally accepted me for who I was, a broken, but redeemable man.
He did the exact opposite of everything I had experienced in my life. He set aside all judgment and instead chose love and acceptance of me. His embrace spoke truth over my lies. His empathy allowed me to separate my being, who I was, from my doing, what I had done and what had been done to me. His actions that day changed the course of my life and I was finally able to begin my healing and recovery journey.
His actions did not save me from the consequences of my choices; I still had to live those out. Loving someone well doesn’t mean excusing the behavior or pardoning the sin, but let’s allow the properly appointed officials to carry out the pursuit of justice while we carry out the compassion.
Dream with us for a moment. What would it look like if others who struggle with this lifestyle could get even a small taste of the redemption, hope and acceptance that I experienced that day?
What if we could be the one friend that sees past the cloud of destruction and pinpoint the humanity of the individual who is struggling? What if we were truly able to focus in on the intrinsic value that they have inherited as image bearers of Christ?
If one man’s compassion changed another man’s life trajectory, which in turn has positively impacted thousands of broken and hurting people, imagine the radical change we would see if we all followed suit. Imagine all the men, women, and children who would be spared from their own struggle with shame.
Let’s set aside our judgment and work together to provide a safe place for people to heal from the shame that they carry.
Gene McConnell is a popular speaker and author. His signature message, “The Power of Porn”, is about the sexualization of our culture and the impact it has upon individual lives, relationships, and communities. Gene was awarded Los Angeles County’s Citizen of the Year. Gene is in the leadership team at the renowned South Central Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska, fulfilling a vital role designing and delivering life-changing services for disenfranchised and under-served populations of native Alaskans.
Co-authored by Alisa L. Drake, MA, a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Alaska. She has spent the past 17 years working with adults whose lives have been impacted by sexual abuse, childhood trauma, sexual assault, domestic violence, and more. She currently works as a therapist and independent contractor, developing programs that address these traumas by providing a framework for healing and recovery.
If you’d like to hear more from this author or seek resources in becoming part of the solution, please visit Authentic Relationship Institute.