I found a pen in my office the other day, and on it read this: “I’M THIRD God is first, Others second and I’m third”
I am not sure where it came from, who left it, or why it was on my desk. Rarely do slogans on pens get me thinking so much, but this one certainly did.
At one time in my life I believed the message on that pen. I lived my life by a similar theme. When I first heard about Jesus, I also heard that I was a “sinner” and deserved some pretty wicked punishment. I learned that the best I could give God was just “filthy rags.” I heard lots of scripture and sermons that helped convince me of how broken and sinful I was. It seemed that what I needed to do was “give it all up” and “surrender everything” and ultimately put God and everyone else’s needs before my own.
This message shows up everywhere. This thinking is particularly thick here in West Michigan where shame and self-judgment seem to be as sure of a thing as lake effect snow. Steeped deeply in the history of fundamental Christianity, the message of “not enough” is a tenant taught to most of us on this side of the state about what it means to follow God.
When you tell someone that they are “not enough” and that they are broken, dirty, and undeserving, that is called shame. Shame is toxic and whispers, “you are not smart enough, skinny enough, or good enough, and, therefore, you suck.” You can’t escape shame. We all have shame, and, in fact, shame fuels the inner critic inside of us who lets us know all of the ways that we are screwing up. That inner critic is rarely kind and generally shows up as a harsh and demeaning voice.
So, what happens to children who, at a very young age, are put in Sunday school and told over and over again “You are a sinner?” What does that do to the fragile ego development of a six-year old who is constantly scanning his world and asking “Am I ok?”
Shame. That is what. Toxic, industrial-strength shame. Those children grow up into adults who don’t know how to ask for what they want in the world. They grow up believing that their needs or wants are not very important. Shame isolates us, too. It blocks vulnerability. It makes asking for help so much harder and prevents our human connections. We end up hiding, feeling alone and thinking that we are the only one that feels like this.
I don’t believe the message on the pen anymore. I am not even sure that I ever fully did. However, I got a decent chunk of my shame and “playing small” from the message that I should put myself on the bottom of the list. When this thinking ran my life I was tired and exhausted, fearful and alone, isolated and anxious. Too afraid to show my weakness and ask for help. I was suffering. Shame stopped me from reaching out.
And I was supposed to be the least of my concerns, right?
Delores Spence was an old and wise herb teacher of mine who oozed out sagely words and insights. She was fiery, but toward the end of her life, soft-spoken and weakened. I always stood close to her when she taught for fear that under her breath she might say something profound and life-changing and I might miss it due to my lack of focus or being too far away from her to hear. I remember her squatting next to a plant and saying:
“The truth shall set you free, and if it doesn’t, it is time to re-examine your truth.”
So, I decided I would change my mind. We all have that right to believe something differently even if we have been believing that something for a long time.
I have changed my mind and decided to offer myself compassion when I fall short…especially when I fall short. I have decided that it is ok for me to have needs, wants and desires. And that does not make me selfish; it makes me human. I have found that I can be in-touch, generous and empathetic to those around me without losing touch with myself. I have realized that to be my best version of me putting myself on the bottom of the list just does not work. I am enough. You are enough.
Shame does not make us better humans. Telling someone how broken they are does not inspire true change or growth. Teaching people to not value themselves does not create genuine generosity. Putting ourselves third on the list is not the answer to a life with more love, connectedness, kindness and compassion.
For more about shame, vulnerability and whole-hearted living, check out shame researcher, storyteller and author Brene Brown’s book: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.