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My Concern About "Shoulds," Shame, and Ordinary Matters
Since the launch of Ordinary Matters I have been pondering what this project means to me. Alastair opened with a beautiful reflection on Ordinary Time—the space that exists between Pentecost and Advent when we live into the story of God in our regular everyday lives. His post holds out the question to me, How can I live more fully into Ordinary Matters?
I have to confess I find this question overwhelming because my head fills with ideas—or maybe ideals is a better word. Should I be engaging in greater social justice? Should I be more generous with my finances? There are so many needs in this world, so many important callings, so much that really matters. What should I do?
Ideals even show up in the mundane. Should I be parenting my children differently? Should I eat all organic farm fresh foods? Should I be reducing my carbon emissions? Should I be doing yoga or strength training or actually getting 8 hours of sleep cause I cannot seem to do all of it? And, of course, I should somehow do this all for the glory of God (without going cuckoo crazy as we say in our house).
Anyone who has been in counselling or taken a psychology course might recognize this slippery slope known as “the tyranny of the shoulds,” or my personal favourite “shoulding yourself” (say it out loud for a little chuckle). It is this part of being human that pushes us forward, but sometimes without mercy. It tells us, somewhat critically, where we are falling short and how we should be doing more. It is a tricky part of us because it wants to help make things better, but often—Oops!—by heaping so much on us, we become paralyzed.
For me I have learned this little tyrant and it’s bullhorn of shoulds wakes up my shame. As the shoulds shout “Do more!” shame adds, “You’re not enough!” And, then, a more vulnerable part of myself is stirred too. The part of me that knows I am not enough.
Get Curious With Me
Now, before any of you wonderfully kind people jump in and say “No, Julia! You are enough!” Can we give this experience with shame some space? Yes, I am a counsellor and this may be the most counsellor-y thing I say: Slow it down, get curious with me, and don’t push the shame away quickly.
When we evaluate ourselves and ask, “How am I doing at this business of life?” our shame and vulnerable places of hurt can be activated. I;n me, the striving part activates in self-criticism, pushing for action. It follows a script like, “You are not generous, you should give more money to charity.” But it can come on too strong and the negativity pushes me past any possible effective change into shame, which often makes me retreat or freeze. The shame script recites, “I am no good at this, I am such a terrible Christian.” An inner tension arises, a push (from the shoulds) and a collapse (into shame).
What does this look like? Well, in my life, it can be a very busy mind smushed into an overwhelmed frazzled body system, followed by shut down (think retreating into bed in a dark room to reset). For others, it can look like an unending stress loop, lots of activity but not a lot of productive growth. I call this spinning your wheels. It could be a total lack of energy and suffocating negative thoughts about oneself—burial by self contempt. Maybe it is confusion or uncertainty when facing decisions, trapped in the eternal pause. Or, one of my favourites, a desire to delete this article the second it lands in your inbox, “Great, another thing to tell me how I am not adding up!” I would call that shame avoidance.
As I point my finger at any problem, even as I am writing this, the shoulds awaken and the striving part in me presses, “How do we get better?!” Even now, these parts want to escape the tension. I am laughing because the cycle is deep and endless. What else can we do but laugh at our complex and neurotic humanity? Again, I am going to ask you to hang in there with me. Rather than pushing to a quick resolution (hint: there isn’t one), we are going to ask the striving part to turn down the volume and let us hear what shame might have to say to us.
We want better. But we are also well acquainted with our limits—our not-enough-ness. We strive for more (or think we should) but sometimes cannot even muster enough energy to get out of bed without hitting snooze. I am highlighting this tension between our knowing that we are not enough and our striving because my fear is that Ordinary Matters might become just one of many self-help tools in your life that inadvertently activates shoulds and shame. What a horrible reaction for me to create in you! So, before we dive into Ordinary Matters I needed to address this:
I am not here to tell you how you should live your life.
And if that is what is happening for you, please hear my care for your shame. We all feel like we are not enough. It is a normal human experience.
Because we are not enough.
Please pause here: we are not enough.
I am not enough.
Again, I appreciate you taking this slow with me.
Shame can become toxic, full of lies and criticism and vitriol. It balloons over our sense of self and we get lost in the shadow. If this is something you experience please send us a note so we can see if there is a counsellor in your area who can care for you.
Shame may actually be speaking a truth that is inviting us on a journey somewhere past the negative stuck identity markers.
Shame is part of the human experience. Shame is present for each of us. Sometimes it is debilitating and toxic. But not always. Shame may actually be speaking a truth that is inviting us on a journey somewhere past the negative stuck identity markers.
One morning I was walking to work and having what I like to call a shame attack. By sheer luck I have never experienced a panic attack. But the sudden and intense onset of a dark emotion that seizes your body feels like familiar ground for me. This morning it was heavy, penetrating, tears streaming down my face, I walked on unwilling to stop because I had been in this space before and feeling like walking on was my best option rather than wallowing in—or being swallowed by—the not-enough-ness. Every part of my life was being internally questioned: my work, my mothering, my wife-ing, my housekeeping, my faith journeying. So I just walked on.
You can add to the drama that it was a cold drizzly grey Vancouver day.
As I reached the peak of the Granville Bridge the Spirit had a gift waiting for me. The Spirit said gently, “It’s okay.”
The message was simple and clear:
All these internal criticisms were probably close to true. I was not excelling in work compared to some peers. I was mothering and wife-ing on average. The house was topsy turvy—Grade it a C-. And I had not had a peaceful moment to pray in many days. And God’s response was, “It is okay.”
The shame was not wrong. I am not enough to keep all these plates spinning. I cannot do it all. Rather than a criticism, that morning it became a prayer for mercy. A plea. Peeling back to my very soul.
And the Spirit said, “It is okay. You are an okay human being.”
I kind of laugh now. It seems so small. But I stood near the top of the bridge, stilled and actually stopped by this truth. I am not enough—but I am okay. I am not meeting all the shoulds around me, but neither is anyone else. I am just as okay as the next person.
I am not enough—but I am okay. I am not meeting all the ‘shoulds’ around me, but neither is anyone else. I am just as okay as the next person.
The shoulds were loud and seemed to be screaming at me to do more. Shame activated and I felt like I was failing at life. But the shame became something else, a path to a deeper truth. Shame shifted to crying out on my behalf—and my shame was heard and answered:
“You are an okay human being”
Now I know this may not be positive psychology’s most impressive self-reflection—just ask Stuart Smalley. But this is not the goal. It is not the goal to power struggle with our shoulds and shames, but to somehow understand them and, if we dare, even see that in some ways they are right. There is more to do and somedays I am not cutting it. The world needs more and somedays I am failing. Somedays my worth does not add up according to the marketplace/cultural standards. And I actually don’t have the time, energy or resources to rectify that. But what the Spirit said to me was that that is actually okay.
Here is the good news: God is not weighing you. God is not counting the pennies in your bank account. God is not shaking his finger at you. He is also not relying on you.
Do not confuse all the shoulds with his voice.
God knows your frame. God made you and me and God knows—God knows—we are weak. Romans 5.1-11 is a breath of fresh air. While we were exactly as we are, what our shame knows us to be, weak, sinners, even enemies of God, Jesus came toward us in love. He says “It’s okay” and moves closer to us. (If Jesus moving closer to you scares you—write to us and maybe we can talk about it on the podcast!)
This is what the Spirit offered me that rainy morning. And what I hope God is offering you.
I am an okay human being.
And God is okay with that. God made a way for us to be okay in all our ordinariness, this unending ordinariness.
This is my heart for you, as God’s heart is for me. Let the stirring of shoulds and striving and wanting more and to be more, open up the vulnerable places, the shame places. But let God join you in those places too. Stay there and let him draw near.
Perhaps in following Ordinary Matters the invitation will be to an actionable step in your life. Perhaps Ordinary Matters will invite shame to the surface, for that part of you to hear, It’s okay to be ordinary. All the ordinary is something God still loves. And that I, an ordinary human being, matter to him.
God is accepting of your ordinariness and mine—and that makes us matter. Because we matter to him. Let’s see if we can keep landing there together.