How many have heard the phrase “Fake it til you make it”? I can’t tell you how many people—usually professors, colleagues, co-workers-- said that to me when I started out as a psychotherapist and as a minister. Putting myself out there in front of people as an expert, a professional, someone who knows what the heck they are doing, when in fact they are brand new, not yet experienced, winging it the best they can is tough. Being vulnerable in front of someone who has expectations of you is tough. It is easy to experience “Imposter Syndrome.” Feeling like you are an imposter because you don’t know enough, are not experienced enough, not smart enough, just not enough to be what you are expected to be or do what you are expected to do.
I remember the first time I led a psychotherapy group, I decided I would look more like a psychotherapist if I were smoking a pipe. You know more thoughtful, more mature, maybe more cool—well I was much younger then. Looking back on it now, I didn’t do take up pipe smoking so that the members of the group would perceive a psychotherapist, but so I would feel less like an “Imposter.” I felt that the pipe gave me a gravitas so I could cope with those feelings of shame—“I am not good enough” “I am not who you think I am”-- and doubt that were running through my brain and my heart. I realized early on, no matter how much shame and doubt I experienced, the only way to get past these feelings was by being in the game.
The quote Brene Brown mentioned in the video by Theodore Roosevelt has always resonated with me and carried me through each and every time I put myself out there, as a professional, as an expert, as an advocate, as an ally: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Nowadays, I have had countless experiences of being in front of thousands of people, in rallies, in pulpits, in front of lawyers, judges, mayors, police chiefs, in front of people similar to me and those very different than me. I have been supported and I have been challenged, I have been affirmed and I have been threatened. The thing I have learned is that the person who is most likely to stop me from putting myself out there is me. I am my worst critic. I am the one who knows all the things lurking in my shadow, my shame, my doubt, the things I regret or feel guilty about, the times I let my shame and fear control me. And I will tell you, it is easier to remember those times than it is remembering the successes, the changes I help make in the world, the times I really made a difference.
Vulnerability is about being in the arena, about being willing to fail, about risk, about sharing a part of yourself, about “daring greatly”. I can’t tell you how many times, when I was new to ministry, that I questioned whether my message was meaningful, useful, inspirational to those listening to me. How could I possibly say something that would touch someone in some way that made them think, feel, be called to action, be inspired to embrace transformation? And my goodness if anyone said something, even a small comment by one person, about the message, well that just reinforced my “Imposter Syndrome.” I will tell you that I am not weighed down by that shame now. I do not let my inner critic, my shame monster, stop me from being in the arena or risking vulnerability. I know that I have made a difference in peoples lives; I have touched people, inspired people, called people to action. I also know that I am not perfect, that not every sermon hits it out of the park, but that is no reason to stop. If I stopped every time I failed, then I wouldn’t have been a psychotherapist and I wouldn’t be a minister.
Someone—a psychotherapy colleague-- once said don’t give up, keep doing what you are doing, and if you fail, just keep in mind that all you are doing is talking. Words cannot kill people. Well, that is quite literally true. But, over time I have come have a more nuanced understanding of the power of words. Words can kill one's spirit. Words can make people feel dead inside, and words cannot easily be taken back once spoken or written. And as a psychotherapist or a minister, my words can have more power over someone, whether I want them to or not, and significantly influence a person.
I remember once when I was in Cedar Rapids serving Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist, that a young Evangelical minister preached that same sex marriage was as destructive as the devastating 500 year flood that wreaked havoc on Cedar Rapids a year before. He preached that his flock should do everything possible to stop same sex marriage. He was surprised by the hateful emails he received from the public as this message got out beyond the walls of his church. The local paper asked to interview me about his message, and one of the things I said was that this young preacher didn’t really understand the power of the pulpit, in other words that his message deeply touched people and called them to action, beyond his imagining. After the interview was published, he reached out to me. And I agreed to talk to him. He genuinely didn’t understand why people reacted the way they did, heaping him with shame and vitriol, I believe the weight of this shaming was on the verge of shutting him down. He had preached a message he truly believed, yet the response outside of his congregation was not adulation and support, as he had expected, but attacking, treating his message as shameful, and the attacks kept growing. I tried to help him realize that he was empowered by his congregation, his position, and the pulpit he stood behind to change people’s lives, and he needed to be aware of the magnitude of that power and be careful how he wielded it. Messages of othering and hatefulness of dictating that all of society should adhere to what he determined as either absolute right or absolute wrong wee, to say the least, problematic. I was not there to heap more shame on him, believe me, he was getting plenty of that non-stop. He was just about ready to step out of the arena. And some people might say I should have encouraged him on his way out the door. But what I tried to do keep him in the arena and encourage him to use his power constructively for love, for connection, for justice. He listened, though I am not sure to this day if he understood. All I can do is teach. I cannot make the other person learn. But I can still try.
When, my friends, are you in the area? How do you use the power you have? Are you willing to risk, to be vulnerable, for the greater good, for love, for building connection between people, for justice? And I wonder, how does shame –either yours or the shame others try to put on you--try to stop you? What messages do you give yourself – that you are not good enough, not strong enough, not smart enough—the messages that weigh you down and keep you from getting into the arena of life?
I guess you might say “Well, Rev Tom, you are probably not bothered by shame anymore because of all of your experiences and effectively coping with your shame time and time again.” And I would answer “It is true that I am less weighed down by shame than I used to be, but those shame messages are still within me. And when I am too tired, too hungry, my blood sugar is low, or when I am under a lot of stress, those shame monsters within me still impact me. But here’s the thing, I do not let them control me. For I know that each time I give into them, I empower them.
So, I ask you how do you manage the shame messages within you? I believe we all have them hidden away in the dark recesses of our psyches. What are the strategies you employ to keep them from weighing you down?
I want to offer you three strategies that have helped me manage my shame monsters, although I have already mentioned one. Don’t let the shame messages keep you out of the arena. I know this is hard, but I will tell you, the more you don’t give into them, the less power they will have over you.
Another way is to reach out to someone you trust and ask them to hold space for you as you give voice to them. Often by giving voice to them, you can see these thoughts and feelings for what they are: irrational and destructive. The person you trust simply holds space; they don’t give you any feedback or offer any advice, or tell you that the thoughts are irrational, he/she/they just need to be there to listen without judgement.
I have also found that spiritual practices help me as well. Meditation, prayer, ritual, let me get enough emotional distance from my shame monsters to more easily understand the irrationality and destructiveness of their messages. Let’s try this. What I invite you to do is to think of one of those shame messages. It doesn’t have to be a big one, as a matter of fact, probably choose one that you already have some control over. Now close your eyes and take a deep breath. Focus on your breathing. Feel the air entering and leaving your body. When your attention moves away from your breathing, gently bring your focus back to your breathing over and over again. Notice how sensations and thought and feelings move into your attention. Don’t try to push them out or hold onto them. Each time you are distracted, bring you attention back to your breathing, those distractions will seem to float around until disempowered, they gradually leave your consciousness. Now let that shame thought enter you mind. And just leave it there while you focus on your breathing. And bring your attention back to your breathing again and again and again. Notice how you feel. Notice what happens to that shame thought. Now take deep slow breath and open your eyes.
All these strategies are practices, coping mechanisms that require practice to be helpful and effective for you to reduce the weight of your shame thoughts, to disempower the shame within you.
To end, I want to share again the prayer I offered earlier. I changed the last line, to one that resonated more with me. I invite you to notice how you experience these words as you consider your own shame messages:
Spirit of Life..Teach us to love into brokenness
to give space for,
to be patient with,
Let us be strong in our vulnerability
in our not-knowing,
in exposing our less-than-perfect scary bits, to those in front of us.
Give us courage to face judgment, scorn, and hatred [in service to] the greater good.
Let us be disciples of Essential Goodness, strong in our knowing that in each Being there is a divine light of the soul.
Give us the strength, .., to keep feeling empathy, even when we are tired and broken.
For it is then that we are empowered to stay in the arena. Amen.