Recently I had some professional and personal successes that left me feeling happy and excited, full of hope for my future. Within a few days, I was out for a walk and began being plagued by thoughts like “You’re not that great,” and “Who do you think you are?” These thoughts were accompanied by a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was dumbstruck. Why would I feel this way? I realized that this happened often after I had felt successful or proud of an accomplishment. I managed to talk myself out of it, but it left me feeling doubtful about my abilities, and frustrated that these thoughts should tarnish an otherwise happy time for me.
A few days later I was telling a friend about this experience and she basically said “Duh, you’ve seen this before. Remember Moses?” It was funny she should say that as I had recently taught Moses chapter 1 in Gospel Doctrine, and was reminded of the story after I struggled with those negative feelings.
As you’ll recall, in Moses chapter 1, Moses met face to face with God who told him a few things. God told Moses that He was the Lord God Almighty, Endless was His name, that Moses was His son, that Moses was in the similitude of God’s only begotten, and that He had a work for Moses to do. Then He proceeded to show Moses His creation.
Then God withdrew for a time and Moses was alone. What happens next, after Moses just had a giant glimpse of the world and his place in it? Satan comes along to tempt Moses, calls him ‘son of man’ and tells Moses to worship him. Fortunately, Moses didn’t have a short term memory problem, so he told Satan that he knew the difference between Satan and God, and to take off. Satan threw a hissy fit. Moses got scared, called upon God, received strength and again told Satan to depart. Satan, being powerless in the face of the God’s strength, left.
Obviously, Satan’s goal was to make Moses forget who he was and likewise, to make us forget who we are. He wants us feel bad about ourselves so we won’t accomplish anything of worth, and we won’t live up to our potential. Imagine if he had convinced Moses that he was nothing more than a ‘son of man.’ Would Moses have gone on to be the prophet he was? Who knows. But Satan saw Moses’ potential, and he sees ours as well. He wants to trip us up. Fortunately, Moses put his trust in the Lord instead of in Satan. Satan would have us be miserable like unto himself. One of his biggest tools is shame. And I can tell you from experience that it’s a pretty powerful tool.
After this experience I went back and re-read my favorite book on shame, Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. If you haven’t picked it up, I highly recommend it. It’s life changing. She defines shame as “. . . believing we’re not enough—that we’re not worthy of love and belonging.” That nails it. That sick feeling we get when we feel like a screw up. We’re just not worthy. We’re not enough.
From Brené’s research, it’s clear that everyone experiences shame. Some people are better at handling it than others. But part of the human condition is being exposed to shame. We received shameful messages from our parents, teachers, friends, and society in general. Most people don’t spread shame on purpose, but they do out of ignorance, probably because they received the same messages growing up and don’t realize how harmful they are. And after feeling that shame, many of us believed it, held onto it, and now speak to ourselves in the same way we were spoken to as children. No one is immune.
Brené details the different types of shame that women and men deal with. For example, the number one type of shame for women is related to body image. I totally relate to that. I was raised to believe that being overweight was one of the worst things a girl could be. It simply was unacceptable. I remember stepping on a scale at eight years old and knowing that I weighed too much. That was the beginning of a lifelong struggle with weight. There was always a magic number that I knew would make me happy if it showed up on my scale. I would certainly never find a man unless I was thin. The ironic thing about this was that my dissatisfaction with my ability to reach that magic number drove me to be an emotional eater, which of course moved me further and further away from that magic number and the Nirvana of thinness.
I finally did reach a normal size (still not that magic number!) when I was in my late 30s. I did this through an answer I reached through inspiration. But this followed decades of diet after diet, hypnosis, crazy exercise regimens, and never feeling comfortable in my own skin. I mourn those lost years. I mourn all of that wasted effort and self-disgust. Just think what I could have accomplished if I had loved and accepted myself despite what the scale and mirror said? I often wonder how my life would have been different had I had more confidence in myself instead of never feeling good enough.
(Mothers of daughters: please don’t body shame your girls. Please let them know that you love them unconditionally. Teach them to love and appreciate their bodies for all of the things that their bodies allow them to do. Make cookies with them. Make healthy salads with them. Don’t give them the message that they must reach some ideal to measure up to your or society’s standards. One of the biggest ways you can do this is by demonstrating it in yourself. Let them see you loving your own body. This will be a huge gift to them that will serve them well the rest of their lives.)
This is the problem with shame. It focuses our attention on our lack (or perceived lack) rather than on our potential. And it’s usually a lie. Why do I need to be thin to be worthy of love? Does extra weight make a person less able to love and be loved? Absolutely not. But it’s one of the lies that Satan has successfully told the world. Society has picked up the idea and run with it. The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that preys on our not feeling good enough about our bodies.
Sadly, people use it to shame each other. Brené discusses how people shame other people because they feel shame themselves. If they can point to others in judgment, they can say “At least I’m better than them.” Then they can feel better about themselves for a short time. It’s a vicious cycle.
Shame brings with it anxiety, fear, and depression. I know when I feel those emotions, my progress stops. Inspiration ceases. It’s hard to parent, to be productive at work, and to reach personal goals. Instead I am caught up in trying to get rid of those feelings, usually in an unhealthy way.
So what can be done about it? Brené mentions some great ideas. Self-compassion is a huge one. When you start feeling ashamed for whatever reason, question it, think it through, and then be kind to yourself. When I’m having a good day and shame pops up, I give myself a mental hug and tell myself “I love you, Annette.” When a bad memory surfaces where I am reminded of something I did wrong in the past, I mentally hug that past Annette. I wish I could go back and hug Annette from every age until now. And heck, I might as well hug future Annette, because I know she’s going to make a boatload of mistakes, just like past Annette.
That raises the issue of shame versus guilt. Shame, as I mentioned, is not feeling worthy of love. Guilt (or as my former bishop says, godly sorrow) is a feeling of having done something wrong. Guilt is a useful tool to bring us to repentance. Shame is not useful. It’s soul-destroying. It’s important to recognize the difference between the two. Act on guilt by repenting. Reject shame.
Another way to combat shame is through talking about it to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. Like all of Satan’s lies, when it’s exposed to the light, it withers away. Writing about it is another recommendation of Brené’s. Journaling is helpful because it allows you to get it out of your head and onto paper where you can analyze it instead of just blindly accepting it.
As people with knowledge of the gospel, we have an even bigger tool to combat shame-remembering who we are. In President Uchtdor’s talk in October 2017 General Conference, Relief Society session, he said
If you find yourself worrying about what other people say about you, may I suggest this antidote: Remember that you are of the royal house of the kingdom of God, [sons and] daughters of Heavenly Parents, who reign throughout the universe.
You have the spiritual DNA of God. You have unique gifts that originated in your spiritual creation and that were developed during the vast span of your premortal life. You are the child of our merciful and everlasting Father in Heaven, the Lord of Hosts, the One who created the universe, spread the spinning stars across the vast expanse of space, and placed the planets in their appointed orbits.
You are in His hands. Very good hands. Loving hands. Caring hands.
And nothing anyone ever says about you can change that. Their words are meaningless compared to what God has said about you. You are His precious child. He loves you. Even when you stumble, even when you turn away from Him, God loves you. If you are feeling lost, abandoned, or forgotten—fear not. The Good Shepherd will find you. He will lift you upon His shoulders. And He will carry you home
Another of my favorite quotes is from Marianne Williamson (often erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela):
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Let’s all remember who we really are and that our potential is limitless. Let’s reject Satan’s lies about us and embrace God’s unconditional love for us. Let’s embrace greatness, and know that we are worthy, that we are always enough. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to those we come in contact with. When you feel shame, reject it. Don’t own it. Think about it, talk about it, write about it, and pray about it. Let Heavenly Father remind you that you are His and that you are worthy of His love EXACTLY THE WAY YOU ARE.