Let It Go

Have you ever taken the Strengths Finder assessment? If you haven't, I suggest setting aside time to do it.

Personally, I've taken it twice. The first time was in high school as part of a youth ministry leadership class, and the second time was when I served as a New Student Orientation Leader in college. I only remember one from the first time: Achiever; but the five strengths called out during the second go round are 1) Developer, 2) Belief, 3) Empathy, 4) Responsibility, and 5) Connectedness.

Lately, I've been rereading the definitions of these as a way to find some new direction, both professionally and personally. While doing this, one consistently stands out from the rest: Empathy. I know what the term means; but at the same time, I don't really.

So, let's let the website's description shed some light:

You can sense the emotions of those around you. You can feel what they are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective. You do not necessarily agree with each person’s perspective. You do not necessarily feel pity for each person’s predicament — this would be sympathy, not Empathy. You do not necessarily condone the choices each person makes, but you do understand. This instinctive ability to understand is powerful. You hear the unvoiced questions. You anticipate the need. Where others grapple for words, you seem to find the right words and the right tone. You help people find the right phrases to express their feelings — to themselves as well as to others. You help them give voice to their emotional life. For all these reasons other people are drawn to you.
— Clifton Strengths Finder on "Empathy"

I feel confident in my ability to empathize with other people, but I'm honestly not able to do so with myself. That's when the definition blurs, and sympathy (or self-pity) sets it. And not only does self-pity strike, but self-hatred as well.

Why am I telling you this? Because shame is what's blocking me from empathizing with myself, and that ultimately keeps me from empathizing well with you.

He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’
— Genesis 3:10 (NIV)

Like Adam, it's easy to hide when we know we've messed up. It's easy to make excuses and play the victim. There may be a temporary reprieve, but then the shame cycle gets going. We're stuck in our filth, seemingly without an escape. But, there has to be a way out, right?

If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.
— Brene Brown

Recently, a new friend of mine shared his life story with me in a pretty bold way and asked if I'd be willing to do the same. It would have been very easy to bob and weave until the moment passed, basically talking around the situation with an abridged version. You know, the masked version: the story that's easier to tell when you're not sure how it's going to be received.

Instead, I reciprocated. It was difficult, but it felt right. In this moment, we were both trusting that the Lord already knew and that it was a time to step further into the light, sharing life in real community.

How does this work practically? As it relates to processing shame and understanding empathy, here are three things Ms. Brown suggests. I’ve also included some personal reflection below each point/heading.

TALK TO YOURSELF LIKE YOU TALK TO SOMEONE YOU LOVE

For me, this feels weird, but it also sounds reasonable. Basically, give yourself a pep talk.

Then, why is it difficult? I think it's easy, for men especially, to get trapped in the "Man up!" mantra that champions grit, resolve, and stoicism. There seems to be no room for "pep talks" and "self-empathy."

But, if we're supposed to treat others how we'd like to be treated, then shouldn't we treat our own selves that way too? Instead of being our own worst critic, it’s time to start trusting God and becoming our best encourager, allowing empathy into the mix.

REACH OUT TO SOMEONE YOU TRUST

Initially, I think there should be elements of prayer involved with this, for we as Christians should all be able to trust God. Pray for healing and forgiveness, and then pray for courage to share with other people.

Speaking of, who are the people in your community (family, friends, roommates, etc) that have committed to walk alongside you in life? If you know already, go to them. If you don't, then seek counsel from your local church body. I'm sure the congregation has a support group or community you could join as a first step towards developing this type of bond.

Tell your people what’s going on and allow them to carry the burden with you in prayer, encouragement, and love.

TELL YOUR STORY

As I’ve mentioned before, the first iteration of this blog was to keep people informed on my life in the city, which was my attempt to “make it big” as a lifestyle writer. Then, I shifted gears a little bit, writing as a way to process my emotions. Through this pivot, I was able to control the narrative and keep people at just the right distance. I’d created a false sense of that community of trustworthy friends mentioned above.

Now that I’m back, I hope this can be a platform to really share my story. So, what is it?

I’m a preacher’s kid from Mississippi, who has been saved by grace through Christ. I’ve experienced shame as it relates to a “need to perform.” Specifically, Satan trips me up 1) physically, as it relates to body image and strength; 2) socially, as it relates to popularity and friendships; 3) mentally, as it relates to vocational calling and skill; and 4) emotionally, as it relates to identity, purity, and being loved.

I believe there is power in sharing our stories, for it brings glory to God and brings shame into the light. It’s difficult, but hiding hurts even more because it leads to deeper and deeper isolation. I can’t promise immediate “results” by sharing your story, but I do believe God wants us to boldly do it. I believe He already knows it, wants to redeem it, and equips us to share it with others in a way that uplifts. We just have to trust Him.

Through God, His saving power, and gift of empathy, the shame cycle can end. Will we let it?