When I receive criticism, it triggers an overwhelming feeling of shame. That shame regrettably turns into the intense emotional response of anger. Similarly, to protect myself from anticipated criticism, I would shy away from any risk of public humiliation, or I would resort to perfectionism. I asked God to take away the angry reactions, the shyness, and the perfectionism. He did not instantly wipe these away, but instead, He allowed me to be imperfect as a way to draw me closer to Him through His mercy and compassion.
I made it a lifelong habit of fleeing from any form of criticism. As a second grader, I recall overhearing my teacher express concern to my parents about my shyness. It was then I was first able to place a label on what I was experiencing. Being always the smallest kid in the class, I had to endure the cruel social dynamics of elementary playgrounds where particularly amongst the boys, power struggles to establish belonging, hierarchy, and acceptance were a daily occurrence. The power struggle would play out into my adulthood with seemingly more passive, innocuous expressions through people pleasing and an unhealthy drive toward professional success.
Growing up in the 80s where self-esteem development was all the rage, one of our household mottos was, "You become what you think about." I avoided negative self-talk at all costs. This included the freedom to feel any negative emotions such as disappointment, sadness, or anger. My sister and I were taught to instinctively enter into problem-solving mode to devise an action plan to fix the problem. Now as an adult, the pattern is a well worn-in groove where I go straight from problem to solution. I thought I was avoiding the negative self-talk, but the truth was I was operating from the non-verbal effects of shame.
It was recently I was able to place a label on what I felt when criticized. Shame. Making every effort to avoid sitting in discomfort and objectively reflect on the criticism, I reflexively would overreact and angrily displace my pain by blaming another, coupled with an incessant need to be right. The shame seems so apparent now. I have read much about the topic, but it was too painful to sit down and put into words through prayer, reflection, and conversation how it played out in my personal experience. I made many attempts to manage the anger strategically or to overcome my shyness but never put in the more difficult work of facing and sitting in the shame.
An unconditionally loving wife and a safe, trusting environment with my faith sharing groups provided the space for Jesus to enter into the shame with me. Openly expressing my shame in a faith sharing group relieves me from the isolation and allows God's tender mercy to touch me by knowing I am accepted, seen, and heard in a non-judgemental way. I believed I was protecting my wife by always appearing to be as strong as our culture prescribes for males. When all along, her compassionate presence proved to me I do not have to be perfect.
My old self sidestepped revisiting shameful events whether the criticism was from others or self-inflicted. Jesus invites me to exercise self-compassion by looking at the shameful events through His compassionate eyes and heart. To see me as He sees me. In the nightly Examen prayer with my wife, we ask each other when we fell short. Typically I would list the transgression, but now, our prayer and conversation dive into the shame that triggered the fault. Looking at the shame with Jesus and my wife inches me closer to healing and forgiveness. The peace advocate and educator, Landrum Bolling says, "Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past." By wholeheartedly surrendering to God's reality of the shared human condition made of joy and suffering, I can shift the anxious focus from myself to grow in compassion for myself and others and to peacefully receive life as a gift.