Shame is a Liar

 

Dear Ellie,

More than ten years ago, I was in a series of unhealthy relationships. These men abused me physically, emotionally, and sexually. Ironically, during all of this, I was helping people find safety away from their abusive partners. I had several friends who were being hurt by their significant others, and I gave them lots of advice and a safe place to stay in my home.

I knew all the right things to say and do for someone else, but when I was in the same situation myself, I didn’t heed my own advice. I didn’t follow what my good sense was telling me. I made excuses for love while knowing in the deepest part of me that love shouldn’t be so painful and hard.

This has been the greatest shame of my life. I never wanted my friends to know, and to this day, I have never told them. I got through it, I survived. But I feel like I am hiding this broken part of myself from the people who love me the most and know everything else there is to know about me.

I am the single mother of a beautiful daughter who is now growing into a woman herself. I know that my most important job is to empower her, to help her become a confident person who clearly sees her own worth and value. I want her to understand what real respect looks like in a relationship, but I feel like a fraud.

How do I forgive myself for mistakes I’ve made? How do I keep these painful experiences from crippling me as I try to instill a sense of truth and strength in my daughter?

Signed,

Hiding


Dear Hiding,

A few months after my then husband moved out of the home we shared together, I attended my first Al-Anon meeting. He wasn’t an alcoholic, and I didn’t know anyone who was. But a friend had recommended that I go because of the help she’d found in her codependence with others. And I was definitely mired in codependent patterns, in thinking and action.

If I’m being honest, I was terrified. Afraid of being judged or gawked at. Scared of being misunderstood or told that I didn’t belong.

I sat in a circle of about eight or nine people and listened as they recited the serenity prayer to open the meeting… “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Tears streamed down my face the entire hour as I listened to those in attendance share their stories and welcome me into the fold. I entered that room a broken, ashamed woman and left a woman with hope.

One of the things I learned at that meeting was the difference between shame and guilt. I learned that guilt is the voice inside us that says “I just did something bad.” Guilt can be a helpful emotion because it alerts us to a situation that needs our attention. When I raise my voice at my children, the guilt I feel spurs me to look them in the eyes and talk about what happened. It encourages me to own my mistake and ask my sons for forgiveness.

Shame, on the other hand, is a voice inside us that says “I am something bad.” Shame is paralyzing and suffocating and isolating. It makes us feel unworthy of love and community and hope. And no matter who you are or what you’ve done, shame is a lie.

The shame that you feel, though, is something that really resonates with me. I hid the pain of my first marriage for a really long time. In fact, it wasn’t until just before we separated that I told my closest family members and friends about what our relationship had looked like for more than six years. I hid because I believed the lies shame repeated in my head over and over again.

The truth I want to first speak to you, Hiding, is that shame thrives in isolation. Once I broke my heart wide open and allowed people to see my pain, I felt less and less ashamed. Their understanding and compassion and willingness to sit with me in my hurt helped me see that none of it was my fault to begin with.

It is not your fault that people you loved and trusted abused you. We all have the freedom to handle our experiences in the way that is truest and best for us in that moment. The fact that you could not give words to your struggle at the time does not diminish your strength or your voice. You were doing what you could to survive, just like millions of women in the same situation have done.

The second truth I want to speak to you is that you are worthy. Of being known, of being loved, of being accepted just as you are.

You are worthy.

You are worthy.

You are worthy.

You ask how you can forgive yourself for mistakes you’ve made. My one true answer to that is that things take time. Just as forgiving others is a process, we must go through the same steps in forgiving ourselves. If you haven’t been in counseling to help you work through your experiences, I would encourage you to do that. Getting into therapy is truly the most life-giving, loving thing I have ever done (and continue to do) for myself. A qualified counselor will give you tools and help you down the path of forgiveness. It requires effort and work, but I can’t think of anything more important. With the peace that accompanies self-forgiveness comes the ability to grow and live a full life.

Regarding your daughter, it sounds to me like you are already doing the important work of modeling what it means to be a strong woman who sees her value and is willing to fight for what is right. Helping your daughter grow these same traits within herself will empower her to become a woman of strength and truth.

As she grows, especially in her “tween” and teenage years, you will be charged with talking openly and bravely with your daughter about consent and using her voice and letting people walk with her in life. Sharing parts of your story and your experiences with her will probably be difficult, but they will bond you in ways you could never imagine. If you haven’t started conversations about these things, I would encourage you to begin. Even starting small with the idea that “yes means yes and no means no” can open up a conversation that will hopefully continue for the rest of your lives.

After I told my parents some of the deepest secrets of my first marriage, I braced myself for their reactions. I was afraid that they would accuse me of exaggerating or be angry with me for withholding the truth from them for so long. But here’s what happened instead: my daddy stretched his arms across their dining room table, took my hands in his, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Your Momma and I don’t know what this journey will look like, but we will walk with you every step.”

In that moment, for maybe the first time in my entire life, I felt entirely and completely known and loved. And looking back several years later, I can tell you that they kept their promise. They attended every court hearing, held me close every lonely holiday that I didn’t have my children, and they haven’t stopped walking with me.

Hiding, I am so sorry for your pain and for what I’m sure has been a very lonely journey over the past several years. From your letter, I can tell that you have a beautiful, shining heart. You came to the realization that leaving an abusive relationship is the most loving thing you could do for yourself and your abuser, and that is one of the hardest truths to understand and live out.

Know that you are not alone, and the people who truly care for you will draw you into their chests and sit with you as you share the truth of your life. I promise you it will be worth it.

Yours,

Ellie

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.

The Place Where Healing Begins

 

Dear Ellie,

I married my husband five years ago, and we have a son who is two years old. Our marriage has hit a really rough patch, and I am writing you because I don’t know what to do.

My husband was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder this past year, and right now he is in counseling. Things seem to be getting better, but I am afraid that he will stop seeing his therapist at some point and I will be trapped. When things are good, they are really good. But when things are bad, he is manipulative and punishing.

I am afraid to talk with my closest friends and family members about all of this because I don’t want to damage my husband’s reputation. They know about his diagnosis and that he is in counseling, but they don’t know how much I’m struggling.

More than anything, I want us to have a healthy, thriving family. I was raised to treasure and value marriage. I never thought that divorce or separation would be an option for me. But there are times when I truly fear for my son’s well-being and for my own as well. I keep hoping for the sweet, loving man I married, but he seems so far from us.

What should I do? How do I know when it’s time to get out?

Signed,

Ready or Not


Dear Ready or Not,

Loving someone through severe mental illness is one of the hardest things we do as human beings. It is difficult because there is no handbook, no set of rules or guidelines or steps to follow to make sure you get it right. It is difficult because our pity and our sympathy often blind us to the truth of a situation. It is difficult because the person with the mental illness is the one who has to do the inside work while those of us who love them can only support the work and take care of ourselves.

Ready or Not, it is not your fault that your husband has this mental disorder (and it’s not his fault either). It is not your fault that he does and says things that make you feel afraid and manipulated and punished. I know that you want to protect your husband from what other people think of him, but the truth is that is not your job. In this moment, your job is to take care of yourself and give your son a safe place.

The first thing I would advise you to do is find the people who know you and see you and tell them the truth. You are further punishing yourself by withholding this important information from people you trust. You are robbing your loved ones of the opportunity to surround you and support you and wade with you through this.

When I was going through my divorce, I made a list of people who had shown up for me, who were real and honest and true. I looked them in the face and showed them my fear and brokenness and asked them to walk with me. It was the best thing I could have done for myself in that moment. Find your cocoon of safe people and let them wrap you up in their love and care.

You mention that your husband is in counseling, and you should be, too. Loving someone who suffers from mental illness can make you feel unsure and confused on the inside. Their pain can cause you to question reality and make it troublesome for you to know which way is up. You need an objective advocate who can help you see your marriage and your life through a clearer lens, so I encourage you to have your own therapist. This relationship will empower you and give you a safe place to fall when things feel unbearable.

You ask me how you will know when it’s time to get out, and I wish I had an answer. I knew it was time for me to get out when I saw the damage that my first marriage was causing in the lives of our children. It took years, but I finally had the courage to face the truth of my life: with this man, I could never build the thriving family of which I had dreamed. We couldn’t get on the same page, and I was unwilling to stay in a marriage like that.

Your son, though just two years old, is being molded and shaped by the relationships around him. By watching his mama and daddy, he is learning how to love others and live in this world. Parents cannot be perfect, but there is a big difference between making mistakes and allowing our children to witness and experience abuse.

I decided I would have to break my own heart so I could build a loving, thriving family with just my children and me. I loved their father, but I knew that I could not maintain a marriage relationship with him. It was a gut-wrenchingly painful loss. And I doubted myself a lot along the way. But you know what? I did it. Years later, I still say it is one of the bravest, most beautiful things I have ever done.

That breaking of my own heart, that undoing.. it was the place where my healing began.

Ready or Not, I know it feels like you are staring down a burdensome path. And you are. But the love and care shining through your letter tell me that you have a heart strong enough to face the truth of your life and wrestle it to the ground. And you don’t have to do it alone.

You can’t know where all of this will take you, but if you allow your cocoon of people to walk with you; if you lean into the sorrow and fear, allowing it it to soften and strengthen you; if you embrace this pain and questioning, trusting that all of it swirling together is working for your good and your healing, I know you will find your way.

Yours,

Ellie

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.

On Keeping a Friendship Alive

 

“Dear Ellie,

I have had the same best friend for over fifteen years. We met during senior year of high school but didn’t become close until we lived on the same hall as sophomores in one of the most run-down dorms on campus. As most college-aged kids do, we both had our fair share of drama and struggle. We were trying to figure out who we were, who we wanted to become. But we were there for each other through all of it. I look back on those years with such fondness.

Now that we’re in our thirties, things have settled down a lot. We both have careers that we enjoy, and she is married and trying to have kids. Even though our lives seem a lot less complicated than when we were in school, I find myself having a really difficult time with our friendship.

When I hear her talk about her husband and their life together, I feel disconnected. Don’t get me wrong – I adore him. He loves her and they both make each other very happy. I just… I am nowhere near a serious relationship right now, and I guess it makes me feel bad. I am afraid of losing my friend because our lives don’t really look the same anymore. What can I do? Are we bound to drift apart? Am I a terrible friend for feeling this way?

Signed,

Missing My Friend”


Dear Missing My Friend,

About three and a half years ago, my best friend of more than ten years (I’ll call her Bess) wrote me a three-page email that was essentially a break-up letter. I still go back and read that letter from time to time. I can’t read it without crying, but it is a reminder to me of many things that I needed to learn during that season in my life.

Here’s the deal. I was in an unhealthy relationship, and I did not want to leave. This man was my best friend, and I was all twisted up inside over the whole thing. I had allowed this struggle to overtake me, and it nearly swallowed me whole. I developed a pattern of only going to Bess for advice or reassurance about this one huge struggle in my life and not really investing in our relationship in a meaningful way.

Selfishly, I brought all of this to Bess’s proverbial doorstep over and over again, asking her – really, expecting her – to help me make sense of it all. She cared a lot for both of us and truly wanted us both to be happy. She would listen, empathize, and give me thoughtful advice. Bess did this countless times for over a year. And every time, I was not ready to do the hard work of ending my relationship with this man until he was in a healthier place. It became a destructive cycle that I still mourn. Eventually, it led to the ruin of our friendship.

In all of this, my biggest mistake was not considering my friend. I was so consumed with my life and my mess that I couldn’t see Bess at all. I can’t imagine how exhausting and painful all of that was for her, riding the rollercoaster of ups-and-downs I was on. Once I realized what I’d done, it was too late. If I could go back, I would do it all so differently. And I would start by looking at my friend and her needs as much as I looked at myself and my own.

Don’t be a one-way friend like I was. Think about life from your friend’s perspective. Sure, bring your own needs and wants and fears and hopes to the table, but leave room for hers, too.

I think one of the biggest difficulties that plagues relationships between friends in different phases of life is misunderstanding the daily grind and the needs of the other. Just like you don’t know what it’s like to be married and trying to have kids, your friend probably has no idea what it’s like to be single, thirtysomething, and figuring out your career.

I would encourage you to be honest. Tell your friend how you feel… that you feel bad when you look at your life and her life and how seemingly different they are, that you wonder if you will drift apart because your lives seem to be taking different paths. Let her hear you, and then hear her.

When I read back over the break-up email, one obvious truth shining through is that Bess had been hurting for a long time, and I had no idea. I truly did not realize what I was doing in dragging her through my destructive relationship woes. I wish that things hadn’t been so bad for so long, and I feel foolish for not being able to see it.

If you are hurting or worried about your friendship, find the courage that I know lives deep within you and talk with your friend about it. Shine a light on the shadows you’re living in. Give your friend a chance to walk with you and figure it out together.

Around the same time I got this break-up email, another friend of mine reached out to me. She said she felt like I had been distant and selfish and wanted me to know that she was hurting.

That same day, we were able to talk through and resolve the conflict between us. It wasn’t easy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a complete failure in the friend department, but I was so thankful that we had a chance to make things right. Her friendship is still a special part of my life today.

The truth is, Missing My Friend, most friendships don’t end because people are too different; they end because people don’t know how to communicate. This starts with laying your heart bare, sharing your fears and worries and letting your friend speak to those things. It means being willing to not only say difficult things but to hear them as well.

Bess was so hurt that she didn’t have the emotional space to resolve the conflict that had been brewing between us for a long time. And I couldn’t make her talk to me. It has been over three years since I got that email, and we haven’t spoken since. The reason we aren’t friends anymore isn’t because we hurt each other; that’s a natural part of being in a relationship. We aren’t friends anymore because we didn’t know how to talk with each other in a loving way about our hurt and fears. The loss of my friendship with Bess brings a grief that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I can tell that you cherish your friend. Fifteen years is a really long time, and it seems like you have carried each other through a lot in your life. You might not have this person in your life forever. I do believe that friendships have a shelf-life, and just because a friendship ends doesn’t mean it was a failure. But it sounds to me that you and your friend have a truly beautiful thing that has brought you both a lot of joy. Lean into that, Missing My Friend. Rest on the strong foundation that you’ve both been building over the past fifteen years and decide together how you want the rest of the house to look.

Yours,

Ellie

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.