As strong and resilient as I feel most of the time, all it takes is one insensitive remark or some overly sarcastic comment toward me, and suddenly I feel like I’m 17 again. Like I’m standing in one of those shadowy hallways, facing the covert digs of mean girls and the rejection of my peers, wanting nothing more than to run home, lock myself in my bedroom, and bury myself in the empathy of Elmo. My mind doesn’t go there only because the present moment hurt. It goes there because it’s triggered by the shame of my youth, the devil’s occasional yet overwhelming reminder that my past failures forever brand me unworthy of love, acceptance, and belonging.
As a senior in high school, I physically retaliated against one of my bullies. At the time, I only wanted to be heard and protected. I felt my actions were justified until my guilt surfaced and I was served with a five-day, out-of-school suspension. Eventually, I accepted responsibility for my mistake and decided I would learn from it and change my behavior in the future. But no matter how well I overcame my guilt, I spent the rest of the year navigating the responses of my disappointed peers. Understandably, I had failed them. They had every right to disagree with my actions. However, it wasn’t my retaliation they held over my head but my strengths and successes. Their ongoing lack of empathy and unforgiveness only helped shift my thoughts from, “I don’t deserve all of this” (humiliation) to “something is wrong with me” (shame). It was the turning point that forever changed how I interacted with people and thought of myself as a learner. I entered adulthood convinced I was socially repulsive and destined to fail in friendship. From there, whenever I felt the least bit rejected, my shame sent me into isolation.
Self-protection was comfortable, but it is not how I was meant to live. God intended for me to succeed in relationships, but how would I ever shake shame and find my way back to the kinds of connections I so greatly desired?
It is a question I see more young people facing today, many of which answer without even examining how shame is overtaking them. Instead, they submit to their hurt, disengage with others and hide behind the comfort of their phones, social media, or some other accessible outlet. If that’s you, have hope. There is a way out if you are willing. Hand over your hurt to Jesus. More than anyone, he knows what it feels like to be rejected and marginalized, yet he assigned no value to shame (Hebrews 12:2). If Jesus treated shame as an outcast, why should you and I welcome it? By focusing upon his shame, our shame loses power. In him, we will never be disgraced (Psalm 34:5). In him, we will forget the shame of our youth (Isaiah 54:4).
Suggested reading: Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection by Edward T. Welch