On Shame and Self-Regard

I was fourteen when I started attending church regularly, and when I did, I was immediately drawn to the ritual and repetition of the traditional presbyterian service down the street. I loved that I, an awkward teenager with absolutely zero familiarity with whatever “church culture” was, could follow along, and even participate fully. There were no suprises, just a seat at the table for anyone willing to join in.

I found myself particularly drawn to the prayer of confession. Right there at the beginning of the service, before we heard the word proclaimed, before we passed a plate or meditated on a single interpretation from the pastor, we paused and acknowledged our need for God’s grace. And we didn’t try to talk around anything either. We spoke plainly about sin, and suffering, and brokenness. We acknowledged the truth: that we had screwed up this week, on our own and as a group, and that we needed help from God and one another to do better. I loved this prayer so much that I memorized the most often used version in our worship:

Almighty God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name.

But lately I have found myself looking again at that impulse to confess. Worship begins with confession, but it doesn’t *stay* there, and yet it is an easy place to get stuck. And so I have found myself wondering: is it possible that this spirit of confession can go too far, stretching beyond a recognition of our brokenness into a worldview that sees ourselves as fundamentally shameful? That is the question that I have been struggling with lately. The recognition that the shadow side of confession is deep shame about my own embodiedness.

I am certain that I am by no means unique if I admit that I, an average woman in her 30s, has struggled with shame attached to the simple fact of having a body. I mean, it’s practically the most ordinary thing in the world to admit (and for the record, I think that OUGHT to be the thing that is shameful about this whole picture). Instead, the reality is that many women just like me live their entire lives embarrassed to inhabit a body that has needs.

We feel shame about what we eat (or what we don’t)

We feel shame about what we wear (or how we wore it)

We feel shame about how much we move our bodies (or how little)

We compare our bodies to impossible standards and then sacrifice ourselves in pursuit of some vision of perfection.

And so often, we tell ourselves that the shame we are feeling is some kind of “honesty” that will improve us.

But will it? Does it?

In my experience, this shame led me to punish my body in ways that I am still recovering from. It has changed the way I interact with other people for the worse. It has led me to doubt my own instincts and to mistrust my own needs. It sneaks into every corner of the house that I have built for myself. It leaks into the most unexpected interactions.

In his book Ethics,  Boenhoeffer writes that “Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief from this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin. … Man is ashamed of the loss of his unity with God and with other men.” (p. 24).

And that is what really clicks for me. The notion that shame is what happens when we live apart–from our communities, certainly, but also from our bodies. When we forget that our bodies are not tools to be manipulated but rather as essential to our existence as the minds that we so often privilege, we are in shame territory. And the only way to heal that is to do the work of reconnecting. I have been slowly coming to the recognition that the shame I feel around my own embodiedness can only be healed by falling back in love with myself.

What does that mean for me? It means being curious about this vehicle that carries me through my life and regarding it with affection rather than distrust. It means paying attention to how my body feels when I engage in any number of activities in my daily life, and privileging those things that bring my body joy. And it means resisting the urge to make quick judgements about my wants and my desires, because they have something to teach me about myself. It also means accepting some messiness on the road to discovery.

I confess (ha!) that this is not easy territory for me. I am so used to living as though my body were something to be concealed, ignored and denied that doing the opposite feels dangerous. And yet I cannot afford to do otherwise. We have one precious life, and to live it in shame is the greatest waste of all.

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