Mental Health, Shame, & Hiding

Jan 21, 2020

Jenna Camareno

Hello! Have we met? My name is Jennifer Camareno, and I’m a Christian therapist in Southern California. My work as a therapist flows largely out of the ways my own life has been transformed by God’s grace and good psychology. To me these two are inseparable; they go hand-in-hand.

Today I’m going to talk about people hiding. Specifically, I’m going to talk about how you and me hide. We hide from each other and we hide from God.

This post composes part 1 of a series on Shame and Vulnerability from a Christian worldview. Whereas today we will explore the problem, next time we will delve into the solution: the gospel-centered, grace-filled lifestyle.

This affects you whether you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, PTSD, or chronic anger. But it also affects you if you’re just a regular human being doing life. So keep reading.

Shame and Hiding

Did you know we hide? We do it in small ways every day. We slap on makeup before we go see a friend. (I’m a complete makeup fan, no judgment here.) You and I talk about others’ flaws while minimizing our own. We tell the “washed up” version of our lives at our church small group every week, eliminating the parts about how we yelled at our husband or downed a whole carton of Ben & Jerry’s half-baked ice cream in one sitting. We wait til everyone has left the house to get on that port site, or invite our secret lover over for some Netflix and chill.

I’m not preaching down to you. I’m speaking from personal experience. Up until about a decade ago, hiding had been my life. To this day, I’m still gradually edging out of its shadows.

We hide because we want others in our lives to walk away impressed. We want to present a picture of ourselves that looks pretty and shiny. Dang, how does that girl do it all? And her car is even clean too? Wow, I wish I could be like her. 

If only they knew. 

Social media plays into our longing for flawlessness with filters and touch ups. Here in Southern California we live in a culture defined by image and the performing arts! Acting and portraying an image are our specialty!

But you see, deep down, most of us know we aren’t all that.

Although many of us aren’t aware of it on a surface level, we all fight shame at our core. We are desperately afraid of being exposed as defective. Inadequate. Abnormal. A failure. Worthless. Maybe even as grotesque or perverted. This shame we all feel is part of the human condition. We know deep down that we are not wholly pure or strong. What’s more, we ache for a perfection, an untouchability, an omnipotence, that is not part of our human nature. 

Deep within our being we are convinced that we are unworthy of love. Unworthy of acceptance, of being embraced, of being part of something, of belonging. Brene Brown is a leading shame and vulnerability researcher, and I have a great deal of respect for her work. She points out that shame is the fear of not being worthy of real human connection.

And so we hide.

Shame is an incredibly painful emotion, perhaps the most painful of all the emotions. Most of us barely know how to sit with it or tolerate it. That’s why we as humans are so dang clever in our shame avoidance tactics. We distract from our shame in many ways. 

Shame vs. Guilt

People often confuse shame and guilt. Do you know the difference? Guilt is feeling bad about something we’ve done. Shame is about feeling bad about who we are. Guilt says, “I did this.” Shame says, “I am this.”

Shame and Mental Illness

And if we talk about mental illness, we can’t get far without mentioning the elephant in the room, shame.

Anger

Most of us don’t even realize how sneaky our brains are when it comes to dodging shame. Without even realizing it, We might turn our shame into anger, raging at the world and seeing ourselves as the victim. This is much easier on us than considering our own failures and shortcomings.

Anxiety

Or the performance-oriented among us (raise your hand, not really, you don’t have to. But I will) might work tirelessly to try to outrun our own sense of inadequacy and powerlessness, which at the core is shame. We drown in anxiety, stress, overwork, for the hope that at the end of the day we will not be exposed as inadequate and defective. I remember that as a teen I noticed a sort of suffocated ache in my stomach. I now recognize as the anxiety I felt from trying so hard to be perfect at everything.

Depression

Some of us try to avoid shame by not feeling at all, by numbing ourselves to our core. Often this can bear all the earmarks of depression. But if numbing is your antidote of choice, you will soon find that you are also incapable of feeling true joy. If you silence and suffocate out the low notes on the keyboard, you will find the high notes no longer play either.

Trauma

Likewise, those of us who have lived through the terror or quiet death of an abusive or unavailable parent, the horror of living in a war-torn region, the dull ache of poverty, or any number of other traumas, know well the sting of shame. We wonder what we did to deserve it. And most of us walk away believing deep down, that more so than having done something to deserve it, we deserve it because of who we are.

We can never outrun our shame.

Garden of Eden

Now, have you ever noticed that one of the very first stories in the Bible is about shame and hiding? Unable to accept their human limitations, and worship only the only one worthy of worship, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They sought their own aggrandizement. They wanted to be like little gods. 

Do you notice the human wish for self-aggrandizement? We are worshipers by nature. We want something to admire, something beautiful and glorious and perfect, and most of us wish that something was ourselves! 

When the forbidden fruit had been consumed like the pride-stoking poison it was, Adam and Eve heard God walking in the garden. And so what did they feel? Shame. Alas, they had fallen out of the natural and good order of creation. They had trusted their own understanding above God’s. 

Then what did they do? They hid. This was the fall. And so begins a story of humanity that would include a great deal more shame and a great deal more hiding. 

Family of Origin

For most of us, the ways we as individuals encode shame in our lives and our relationships stems directly from our childhood. Many of us learned from the time we were just itsy bitsy that the best way to stay close to those we love is by not rocking the boat. As eager little students of how to survive in a family, we understood early on that our own emotions could upset the adults in our home, those who we most needed to love us and like us. What we needed most of all was to assure ongoing love and care. Authentic acknowledgment of emotions was the martyr in this cause.

For example, depending on our family, certain expressions of distress may have provoked frustration, fear, or guilt for these grown-ups. Their scowls, exasperated tone of voice, or overwhelmed comments etched themselves in our little brains, and we started to believe that the fullness of who we were must be too much to handle. Indeed, we must be bad for having such feelings. We did what any adaptive child would have done: we did our best to survive by curating an emotional expression that fit our families and didn’t rock the boat too much.

Shame and Closeting Our Emotions

See, if I believe my feelings are bad, it’s a very quick jump to, I’m bad. Or at least, there are parts of myself that should be kept in hiding and not allowed out into the light of day. Keeping peace or favor or approval or some version of attention from the adults in our family became a survival response. Maintaining the emotional status quo trumped emotional openness in our list of priorities. We learned to smooth over wrinkles and rough edges, even if that meant downplaying our own distress or curtailing certain aspects of our selfhood.

In his book Hiding From Love, Christian psychologist John Townsend explains that we hide because, “all of us to some extent live two lives: an external life, in which we learn the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors that are ‘safe’ to express; and an internal life, in which we closet our ‘unsafe’ traits, which exist isolated and undeveloped” (p. 30).

In our journey from childhood to adulthood, we may continue to hide behind emotional masks because our feelings really embarrass us. Or perhaps we have so distanced ourselves from certain human emotions that we don’t even realize that we are wearing a mask. We might think the mask is our actual skin!

Perhaps we suspect our emotions are nonsensical, exaggerated, silly. Maybe at the end of the day, we even question whether we belong in an insane asylum for how moody and emotional we can be. Having others bear witness to our emotional messiness can really bring our shame right to the surface.

We worry that our loved ones would be overwhelmed if we told them honestly how we feel. In fact, that burden might be too heavy for them to carry. They might end up resenting us, and in the end, they might disengage, cutting us off from their love and care. In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes, “Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears – the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable” (p. 52).

My Story

Now, this “pretend-everything’s-fine approach” was me in my college days! Brunette A-line haircut and rolling backpack in tote, I smiled at all my friends as I strode across our small campus. Almost no one knew that smile was a mask. I would never tell any of my girlfriends if they had accidentally bruised my heart. If I talked about such emotional topics, I might start crying, and that would be supremely, deathly embarrassing. Most of the time if I felt shunned or rejected, I pretty much figured it was my fault for being so pathetic anyway. So I swallowed my lumps, kept that plastic smile on my face, and made sure to spend most of my time by myself, where it felt safe.

It all started when I was a kid. I grew up with a deep conviction of my own unworthiness. I was showered with love at home, but I still believed that my parents’ delight in me was conditional. The messages of love I received at home got confused with my own inner voice that told me I was either a failure, or ever on the verge of being a failure. 

“I must be perfect.”

My motto was, “I must be perfect.” This motto worked as a feverish motivator, depriving me of peace and joy, sitting heavily on my chest, stiffening my neck and upper back, and sickening my stomach.

Once I entered my college years, that familiar shame converted into something new, an eating disorder. My maniacal cycle of perfectionistic restraint and pain-numbing binges became a tyrant. It stuffed me with sugary calories that quiet the screams of the soul like a pillow pressed over a face. Then the tyrant turned on me & flagellated me for my indulgences with starvation diets & feverish hours at the gym. I couldn’t win. I couldn’t beat it. The battle waged for years til I felt like a rag doll, tossed, bruised, & beaten by the enemy of my soul. 

Legalism and Religious Hiding

Did you know that the church can be one of the biggest places of hiding? 

Evangelicals know that salvation is a free gift. But then we immediately get tripped up thinking sanctification is something that we must accomplish by our own will power and good behavior.

When I start measuring my status before God by my behavior, I get reduced to my scorecard. Then I start keeping an eye out for other people’s scorecards too. 

Without Grace

When we no longer see grace as the sanctifying force, it makes us anxious, cold-hearted, judgmental people. I alternately judge others in my heart, or see their lives and feel “less than”. Such a legalistic environment leads to hiding, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

When people experience mental health struggles in this grace-starved atmosphere, we are tempted to hide from being known. No one wants to open up about their emotional struggles just so they can get beaten down by Bible-quoting Christians who seem to have their lives together. 

Similarly, the church environment can mirror our home environment in that only certain emotions seem permissible or safe to share! To “fit in” to a church setting, we often filter ourselves, curating emotional experiences that we believe our fellow church members will be able to tolerate, and will approve of.

Crazy as it sounds, the Bible itself can be a hiding place for Christians. As therapists, we call this phenomenon the “religious defense.” When our lives are filled with struggles and challenges and suffering, but we rush quickly to biblical platitudes such as, “But God is good”, or “Everything happens for a reason,” or even, “God has delivered me from fear,” we can unconsciously be using these statements to avoid taking a candid look at our own souls, and the shame we may feel underneath.

But don’t lose hope! As we will see in the next post on grace-filled living, Jesus has showed up in our shame and hiding. His presence offers healing as we take the risk to come out of our hiding places.

The Gorgeous Life is about all the facets of female life in Christ Jesus. You’ll find tips to cultivate glowing health, be more present and alive in your relationships, develop inner and outer beauty, and laser-focus your sense of purpose in the world.

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