Allowing others to define us | Survivor Saturday

Recently I was listening to a podcast that discussed, among other things, the difference between guilt and shame. It gave the example:

  • Guilt says, “What I did was bad.”
  • Shame says, “Who I am is bad.”

As I listened, I was contemplating the place in my healing journey when I began realizing that I am not my actions. I may fail at something, but that does not mean my identity is “Failure”.

Much of my healing has involved dismantling lies and replacing them with truth. Sometimes those lies were told to me by others, but sometimes they were things I told myself. As I was reflecting over this, I was reminded of some of my previous blog posts, especially one titled We are not fragile or weak. I ended that post with the following:

We can’t help the blindness of others. But it is important that we open our eyes to who we truly are. We are survivors. We are the ones who cling to hope. We are the ones who bend, but never truly break. We are the ones who put back together the pieces of our lives that are broken, and emerge even better than before. We are not fragile, or we could not endure. We are not weak, or we could not do the hard work of healing. We are survivors. We are overcomers. We are strong.

Looking back over my healing journey, it’s obvious that I didn’t act like a strong, brave, victorious, conquering Super-Survivor every step of the way. Sometimes I felt like I kept getting knocked down, over and over again, and could barely pull myself up to stand one more time. I felt weak. Sometimes I felt like the most dismally frail and weak failure of all time. I would drag myself up the stairs to my therapist’s office and whine, “I can’t handle this. It’s too much for me.”

He would point out that I was, in fact, “handling this”. I had managed to climb the stairs once again, had managed to sit myself down on his couch yet another time, had managed to continue to bring to light the most terrible of my terrible secrets…and I did this week after week after week. As we were winding things down, and I was getting ready to “graduate” from therapy, Donny let me know that he had asked me the most difficult questions that he could, and that I had bravely faced every single one. We left no stone unturned.

Healing from trauma is messy. Sometimes it’s kind of like being stuck in a time warp. We may find ourselves feeling, acting, and being like our much younger selves. It would be funny if it wasn’t so disconcerting. Other times, it’s not even remotely funny, but simply raw and ugly. None of that looks particularly admirable to those who don’t understand the healing process. So, when they attempt to label and define us — even if they don’t mean to be insulting or belittling — they tend to accentuate the negative. Often, it’s all they see.

When people define and label us…even if they are using positive labels…they are attempting to speak into our identity, to tell us who we are. I am not sure anyone really has the right to do that. Even if they refuse to separate what they observe about us from who we are — our actions from our identity — we need to insist on doing so.

We are not our sins. We are not our failures. We are not our trauma. We are not our pasts. We are not what people did to us. We need to be very clear on this. We will not be freed from the burden of shame — the burden that Christ bore for us on the Cross — until we stop allowing the lies of shame to define us.

Guilt should lead us to conviction and repentance — and that’s a good thing, because it heals our relationship with God and makes intimacy with Him possible. Shame, however, leads to condemnation, and that never leads us to anything or anywhere that is good.

One of the most powerful parts of my healing took place this past year, when I received some intensive inner healing ministry. Probably the most beneficial aspect was examining the whole concept of identity, and getting rid of the false beliefs — and the resulting shame — that had plagued me for far, far too long. Only God, my Creator, has the authority to define me, to speak the definitive and enduring truth about my identity, and to tell me my worth. And I need to remember that the same applies to other people: it is not my place to label or define. It’s time we agreed with God about who we really are. Our truest identity is found in Him, and in Him alone.

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