On Shame, Humiliation, and Redemption

Once in a while, I watch a TED talk. It makes me feel smart. Not long ago, I watched the Monica Lewinsky TED talk, in which she shares her own experience with shame. She tells about how humans feel the emotion of humiliation deeply, that it is one of the most deeply felt emotions–more so even than anger.

People have mixed feelings toward Monica Lewinsky, understandably. But she has lived with a high-profile, highly public level of shame and scorn for decades now (a type of which I do not think was directed at the other person involved in her actions). So, in my opinion, the woman knows that of which she speaks. I wiped tears from my eyes during those twenty some-odd minutes of her talk. Because, like her–like everybody–I have my own stories of shame.

Ms. Lewinsky’s TED talk focuses on establishing a more compassionate social media environment; she speaks out against online bullying. I’ve never experienced online bullying (probably because I’m too old–there was no Internet when I was a teen). But the in-person kind? I have. And I was humiliated. I also believe it set the stage for what experts call a “depressive episode” when I was 18.

At age 16, I became the drum major for our high school band. We had try-outs in the spring; then that summer–not long before the next school year started–I took on my drum major duties. I loved being in this role; I had practiced much and even taken lessons. This job fit me.

It was the beginning of my junior year when I stepped into this role, and some of the senior girls seemed to dislike this set-up. Particularly one girl, whose ex-boyfriend (with whom she’d broken up) had taken me to prom the spring before. He had graduated, but she had one year of school left.

initials at the park

During summer band rehearsals and after-school rehearsals, she would gather a group of girls around her, and she would spout words like, “Let’s talk about her hair–she has GOT to do something with her hair.” I could overhear them and could tell that the words were directed AT me, but not spoken directly TO me. I easily brushed these instances off. But later in the fall, I faced something I couldn’t as easily dismiss.

During homecoming week, the cheerleaders organized spirit week, and each day had its own theme:  inside out day, hat day, “I’m Glad I’m Not” day. This took place in the fall of 1990, during the first Gulf War (I told you I was old), so I wore a pair of Daddy’s old Army fatigues to school for “I’m Glad I’m Not” day (as in, I’m glad I’m not fighting in a war). But the senior girl from band and a double handful of other girls chose to dress as me–or a caricature of me. I remember walking through the hall and seeing another facsimile of me and thinking, “Not her, too!” It was no secret that these girls had orchestrated this–and they wanted people to know whom they were mocking.

Reactions from friends and friendly acquaintances varied, but most were furious on my behalf. I, however, was simply devastated. How can people so intentionally hurt another person? I thought. They had to organize this, talk on the phone and make a plan and coordinate this. All for what? To wound me. To show me just how much they hated me. 

I cried that day at school, all throughout classes. What before had simply been gossip I could shrug away had morphed into targeted cruelty. And those girls had hit their mark squarely.

My self-worth spiraled. I felt ugly, embarrassed, ashamed to be where people could see me and notice whatever it was that was so inherently wrong with me that others would be prompted to treat me this way.

I went to a high school basketball game with a friend a few months after the “I’m Glad I’m Not” day debacle. I remember walking into the gym, having to walk by bleachers full of other students, and wanting to get past them as quickly as possible. I remember the outfit I wore that night (which I thought was cute) but then wondered if other people would esteem it–and me–as tacky and ridiculous and beneath them.

In all this time, I didn’t realize the need to forgive these girls. Although I didn’t nurse anger at them–I was too busy questioning my own value–I simply didn’t recognize the need to forgive. That winter, I attended a youth group retreat and dared to share this with the group. I received support, enough to understand I needed to forgive these girls. This helped me to move on to a degree. The rest of my junior year improved.

Then in the spring of my senior year–facing the transition of leaving high school, moving away from home, starting college–I slipped into a swarming sadness that took me by surprise. Perusing my old journals, I see how I filled pages about my “Problem.” That’s how I wrote it–with a capital P. I also wrote this…

“My Problem…That’s the only way I know how to refer to it. It’s not only depression, it’s also lack of self-confidence. It’s self-doubt and confusion and ridiculous inhibitions. I can’t stand crying for no reason.” 

Later: “I don’t know what’s causing all this.” And then I reference that basketball game from the previous year:  “Last year I remember crying coming home from a basketball game. I just sat in the back of the van, crying while everybody else just talked…It’s so funny that people would never suspect that I had all these strugglings going on inside of me. Sometimes I feel really happy and pulled together, and then, all of a sudden, I’m an awkward, reserved snob. I know that I need to snap out of this…I used to think that if I ignored this, it would go away, and it did for a while, but it’s back now. It resurfaced more painful than ever.”

As I continue flipping through the journal, I still read, many months later–even after starting college–“All this is making me sad.” And, “I’m not depressed like I have been lately.” Before, I never really connected the dots–and certainly lots of factors contribute to a person’s sense of depression; I faced a tremendous amount of transition, and insecurities are part of human experience no matter what. But what I failed to recognize was that, although I might have forgiven those girls and “moved on,” I was not healed. Those wounds had not closed up, the wounds which led to thoughts of “I must have done something to deserve this. Why would anybody want to be around me? Do I have any reason to feel good about myself?”

I wouldn’t have known it then (schools didn’t have policies in place to handle bullying in 1990), but I recently read in this book  that experiencing bullying can contribute to feelings of depression in adolescents. I had a “eureka” moment when I read that. And then I had a great deal more compassion for my 17- and 18-year-old self.

God brings so much healing to my heart, to my hurt. Not just once, but over and over, going deeper and deeper into my hurts–whatever their source–to heal and then even to bring more healing. No matter what I felt or thought, the treatment from those girls didn’t define me or indicate something horrible about me. I’m so thankful that God has been teaching me for these many years who I really am:  His workmanship. His creation.

I cherish the times when the Lord gently leads me back to the ruins of my past and helps me to mine them for gold. Even shame and humiliation have redemptive power in His tender hands.

“Sin has played many evil tricks upon us, and one has been the infusing into us a false sense of shame.” – A.W. Tozer



2 thoughts on “On Shame, Humiliation, and Redemption

  1. Dear Allison, again just what I needed to hear today. Being put back into the situation with Tim is so trying. I get no thanks and keep getting more and more put on my plate. It’s hard to not get angry whith the family when this happens. It’s hard to forgive when you don’t feel like it either but, I am going to make it a priority to forgive no matter what.


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