Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Heather Nelson wants to help you to find freedom from shame.

Heather Nelson: The two truths that God speaks into our hearts are, first of all, we have been living for the wrong person—and then, secondly, we have been seeking approval through the wrong means.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Gratitude, for Tuesday, July 18, 2017.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: There are so many pressures to live up to in our plugged-in world. Erin Davis and Heather Nelson talked about that yesterday. They talked about the shame we sometimes feel from not living up to expectations.

We’ll pick up that conversation today, where they talked about how to be free from shame. Erin and Heather recorded this interview at a Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference. They were at a booth where our team was greeting Revive Our Hearts listeners, so you’ll hear some background noise, but don’t let that distract you from this important message. Let’s listen.

Erin Davis: You address several layers of shame, and one you talked about is body shame. I’m not sure there’s a woman in history who hasn’t felt some version of that! How have you seen that in your own life?

Heather Nelson: How I’ve seen that in my own life? I think it really began developing in eighth grade, those awful middle school years. Maybe it’s good for someone—I just haven’t heard of any.

Erin: I’ve never met them!

Heather: No. Middle school and into high school . . . For me, I felt like it was really focused on clothing, which I know is kind of a weird aberration of body shame. But I felt like everyone else knew what cool clothes to wear, and I just was always a few years behind.

I made the connection of, “Well, if I knew what to wear, then I would have been accepted by the 'in' crowd—who always knew what to wear.” So that’s one aspect of body shame. But then, if we fast-forward to post-partum years, there’s a whole other aspect of body shame.

Erin: I would in post-menopausal years, that’s probably another layer. 

Heather: Right! Because the older we get as women, our metabolism does slow down. We can’t expect to have the same body type we had at twenty, when we’re thirty, thirty-five, forty. What a beautiful thing that our bodies can bear children and give life to another human, but we become focused on how they changed our bodies: “I have stretch marks. I can’t keep the weight off. I may not ever get it off! My body has rearranged itself.” There’s the shame of, “I don’t have the perfect body,” but it’s according to what standards?

So I find for me, I fight body shame way more now than I ever did, even in the adolescent years. Then the shame was more connected to clothing, which is more external to me. Now it’s shame connected to how I look, and feeling like I’m not my perfect version of myself.

Erin: Sure, yes. You have daughters, so I’m interested in how you address body shame, and that propensity we have as females to gravitate towards that feeling, with your little girls.

Heather: They’re five, so we haven’t really had to delve into that full-on. But there are different things, like really letting them pick out their own clothes and trying not to shame them for what they choose. “Okay, that’s super-cute—those polka-dot striped shirts with that bright pink . . .”

Erin: ". . . and your cowgirl boots!" Sure.

Heather: And letting them know that we delight in them, my husband and I. I think my husband’s going to have a huge role for them in really letting them know that they’re beautiful and that they’re loved.

I find that we’re already trying to focus with them on it’s what’s inside that counts. That’s what gives you beauty; that’s what gives you value. We try to talk about kindness way more than we talk about clothing.

Now, when we’re going through the shopping mall, sometimes I wonder if we’ve done any good. They’re like, “Mine, mine, mine! I want all of that!” But we are really trying to talk to them about clothing themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience that Colossians 3 talks about.

Erin: Sure. I only have sons, but I think we have such responsibility as moms.

Heather: We do.

Erin: I once heard it said that children are great observers but not great interpreters, so they observe everything we say and do about our own bodies and our own image, and then they interpret it, sometimes, in a kind of twisted way.

I think I would have spent a lot of years, as a woman, just thinking that body shame was a part of being a woman, just the way we had to be and the way we had to feel. To the woman who is listening, who for ten years, twenty years, forty years has hated her body—what would you say to her?

Heather: I would say, “I’m sorry,” first of all. Because it probably means that there are key players in your life who fell down on their job. They communicated to you—either through words or lack of words, or through their actions or their scorn—that your body was something to be ashamed of, to be hated, something that you wish you could escape.

I find if there’s this residual, perpetual body shame, there’s often abuse—where you literally hate your body. So there’s this disconnection there. So I think I would start by offering empathy and saying, “I feel ya, sister!”

I think this is one of the ways that women are uniquely affected by the fall, and it’s awful! And then I would also say there’s hope! One day, this body that you hate will be clothed with glory, and if you fix your eyes on that as a certain true reality—because of Christ’s work for you—then, could you begin to appreciate some aspect of your body?

Could there be some seed of glory or honor that’s there, that’s going to eventually become full-fledged radiance, and could you focus on that? And if you’re having a hard time seeing that—which I understand you might be—talk to a trusted friend.

Talk to a counselor, talk to another woman who will probably offer you, “Well, here are the things that I love about you, and here are the things that I think are beautiful about you.” I think we do have to learn to appreciate how we’re made physically. It’s a learning process.

Erin: Yes, I think we all know that passage about us being fearfully and wonderfully made. 

Heather: Yes, Psalm 139.

Erin: . . . which we think applies to everyone—but us!

Heather: There’s an asterisk there somewhere. 

Erin: We were “accidentally” made or we were flawed when we were made or something. For me personally in that area (and that was an area that wreaked havoc in my life for a long time) it was about believing God or not believing God.

Either I believe His Word about my value, or I don’t. And so, I find that for women it’s not an issue of not knowing what God’s Word says; it’s an issue of not believing what God’s Word says or not believing it applies to us.

Heather: And it’s not loud enough. If you hate your body, that’s not God’s words, so what words are shaping your view of your body if it’s not God’s words? How can you use your body to worship God?

I love pairing Psalm 139 with Romans 12:1–2, that talks about “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Our bodies are actually given to us to be offered in worship. If you hate your body all the time, how can you be using your body as an act of worship to God?

Erin: You mentioned post-partum body. I take such hope in that verse. I mean, I’ve presented my body as a living sacrifice. I wasn’t meant to preserve a sixteen-year-old version of me!

My body has been stretched and used. It’s grown human beings. There’s great honor in that—and great thrill! It may not look like how I want it to look, but I’m so grateful that God’s given me that opportunity. I have to choose that truth  . . . often.

Heather: Absolutely, yes!

Erin: Another category of shame you talk about in the book is “social shame.” Can you please tell us what that is?

Heather: What I’ve said is that social shame is when you feel ridiculed or excluded by a group or person to which you want to belong. The opposite is being fully known and fully accepted as you are, for who you are.

Erin: I think we’ve all felt that feeling, like there’s a party going on and we are outside looking in. Somehow our invitation got lost in the mail—for whatever it is.

Heather: Exactly!

Erin: Do you feel like that particular category of shame is amplified in these times? Is there anything that is causing it to grow or be exaggerated?

Heather: Social media, big time! Before social media was big (which I’m dating myself to say that I remember before Facebook existed) you would still feel excluded—but it wasn’t to the degree or the frequency that we can feel it now.

Maybe you would hear friends mention the party you weren’t invited to a couple days after the fact. Now it’s instantaneous! You’re sitting at home by yourself with Netflix and a bowl of popcorn, and you’re flipping through your phone, and you’re seeing your friends out celebrating something, or someone, together, and you hadn’t heard about it. That’s instant shaming.

That happens all the time. My friends and I joke and call Facebook, “Fakebook,” and Instagram can be “Insta-Jealousy.” You see these pictures of people enjoying their lives in a way that looks better than your life, and you automatically feel that social shame.

Erin: I think we all know that on some level. We all know that it is churning us up in ways that aren’t holy, but we keep clicking. I’m wondering what your perspective is. Is there an element of shame that’s addicting, or is it just the social media that’s addicting, and we’re willing to pay the price in shame? What do you think’s happening there?

Heather: It’s a great question. I think it’s certainly, probably, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” It's the sense in us of, “Well, maybe if I keep clicking I’ll find something that I’m included in, or someplace where what I’m doing in my life is better than someone else.”

Maybe the clicking continues until you think you’re looking for a place where you can somehow be superior to someone else. You continue going because you’re thinking, I can’t stop! It’s really the seductive sort of thing of, I know I should stop, but I can’t, because shame is driving you at that point.

Erin: How have you specifically felt shame—social shame?

Heather: When I was in eighth grade, I was the victim of mean girls. Everyone in my—pretty small—class of eighth-graders, for whatever reason, decided that I was the excluded one. I would go up to a science lab table and no one would sit with me or they would all move.

I’d be the last person picked. I would come home crying every day. I would say that was where the introduction of social shame really began to take root.

Because then, from that point forward, there’s the fear of, “Well, once I’m around someone long enough, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to reject me—and they’ll tell their friends to reject me, too.”

So, certainly, that was the inception of social shame in my life. I would say it’s ebbed and flowed since then. I think there are ways that there’s a real danger in getting to the place where I’m the excluder. I’m afraid of that, and yet I’ve seen myself do that. There I am perpetuating the social shame that I hated.

And so, for me, the only rescue has come in being able to talk about it with close friends.  I talk about the painful story and talk about the ways my own insecurities (present tense) of—anytime I’m excluding someone else, it’s usually because I’m afraid of being excluded.

Erin: I would say the “eighth-grade me” was the opposite of you.

Heather: [gasps] You were a mean girl?!

Erin: Yes. I was the mean girl. I would say I didn’t know Christ yet—so I want to give that disclaimer. I was operating 100 percent in my flesh. Only moving worse than somebody operating in the their flesh is an eighth-grade girl operating in her flesh!

Heather: Amen!

Erin: When I say “mean,” I was mean. There was actually even a girl who left school because of my influence.

Heather: Wow!

Erin: I know. If I could take it back, I would it a heartbeat! But I think that I still have that tendency to want to “one up.” We were talking about social media earlier. It does bring out the eighth-grade girl in all of us, right?—that insecurity and our sinful desire to want to “one up” everybody!

So we’re both giving shame—which doesn’t feel good, ultimately—and then feeling shame, which doesn’t feel good. So apart from just becoming people with no social media, I wonder if you have any practical advice for how to stop that cycle?

Heather: Right. One thing that I try to do is not only post the beautiful moments in my life—like the awesome tropical vacation (not that I’ve had a lot of those!). But I really try to post the “real” moments, too, and the struggles. I'll say, “I’m having a really hard time parenting today. Could to pray for me?”

So, I think social media can be a way of actually combatting social shame, if we use it in the right way. [Erin agrees.] So, I try to keep it real. And then, I also try to keep tabs on my own heart. There’s a difference between checking into Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to kind of see what’s going on. . .and checking in because you’re trying to convince yourself that your life is better than theirs (someone else’s) or that their life is better than yours.

So when I see that shame beginning to creep in, that’s a real sign to me to sign off—right away!

Erin: Yep, take a break! You talk about risking our way out of isolation and into community. Why does that take risk?

Heather: It takes risk because what shame tells you is that “the only way to be safe is not to tell anyone about this,” and not to be in the presence of anyone—not to connect with anyone else. The risk is that you open up this area of shame to someone else . . . and you could very well be re-shamed.

In fact, you and I have probably had experiences of that, where we thought someone was safe, or we thought this was a safe context to share whatever struggle, whatever shame feeling. And instead of being met with connection, there were “crickets” in the room, and you felt more exposed than before.

Our emotions—and even our bodies—have a great memory for those types of situations. That’s the risk—trying to get out of this isolation that I know, according to Christ, is not good or healthy and is not a way to grow. I have to have the body of Christ. That’s going to take risk, and it’s going to take daring, and it’s going to take courage.

Who knows? Maybe the group that you’re with or the person you’re with is waiting for someone to be the first and do the very same thing. You going first and being courageous gives them permission to do the same.

Erin: I love that. In the introduction of your book it says somebody has to speak up first, someone has to go first. I think that’s such a defeater of shame, for someone to speak up!

Heather: Absolutely. 

Erin: The third category of shame you mentioned is performance shame, and if this was my true confessions, I would tell you that’s the area where I struggle most. I just don’t think I ever feel like I achieved enough in a day, or over the span of a career, or with my parenting, or whatever. I feel that intensely! I appreciate you addressing it.

I wanted to read a Tim Keller quote from the book, because I just thought it was powerful!

Many people pursue success as a way to overcome the sense that they are somehow outsiders. [We’ve been talking about that, that feeling of being an outsider.] If they attain it, they believe it will open the door into the clubs, into the social sets, into relationships with the connected and influential. Finally, they think that they will be accepted by all the people that matter. Success promises to do that, but in the end—it cannot deliver.

I think, in all areas of my life, I kind of operate in that way sometimes . . . even in ministry circles. If I can just achieve, I’ll be invited into a certain ministry circle that I feel like I’m not in, or a parenting circle, or whatever. And he’s right. It ultimately doesn’t deliver.

So, tell me how you’ve experienced performance shame, or how you’ve seen it in the lives of other women.

Heather: This is definitely my big one too, I would say, out of the three that I talk about. This chapter was probably the hardest write because it was the most personally convicting. I honestly don’t know if there’s an area where I don’t struggle with performance shame.

I’ll give this as a really silly example. We have a car that has a gas-mileage-per-mile meter on it. I realized a few years ago that I was, trying to get that number higher and higher. I was like, “Oh, last week, it was eighteen. That’s a terrible mileage per gallon. This week I can do better!”

Erin: You’re trying to “win” at your gas mileage.

Heather: I’m trying to win, and that’s ridiculous! We are driving around the town. I’m picking up my girls from preschool and we’re going to church, and I’m trying to beat my own gas mileage! Like, there is never a time I let myself off the performance treadmill. I can turn everything into that.

That’s the trivial. The more intense would be (this was a huge cause of burnout for me) trying to serve in the church out of a good heart, wanting to love people well, wanting to use my gifts. But then it gets twisted into doing enough to get enough approval and to get enough love and to get enough accolades. I was not saying “no” when I should have.

Erin: Yep. And, when you feel like you don’t get those things, then you feel shame.

Heather: Then I feel shame. If I’m not sure that whatever I’m doing is perfect enough, I just keep adding more—which is a recipe for burnout!

Erin: Yep. Just this week I’d had a really crazy few days—at work, at home—and evening came and my children were asleep. In my mind I’m saying, “I still have to do the laundry, and I gotta to pack for this, and I have to read this manuscript.” There was just this internal thought, You can be off the clock now. You can downshift.

But shame frequently says to me that I could never sit on the couch, for example. We have a hammock porch—all of our children have hammocks, my husband has a hammock. I have a hammock—which I’ve never been in!

Heather: But that sounds lovely!

Erin: It sounds lovely! I like to take pictures of them in their hammocks, but I feel like if I were to actually press “pause” and get in my hammock, I think I would feel shame.

Heather: Exactly!

Erin: I would first hear the running to-do list, and then I would feel shame that I wasn’t doing those things. I think that’s probably true for most women I know. Is it true for most women you know?

Heather: Absolutely. I think, for most women, they tend to resonate either more with body shame or with performance shame. I think all of us experience social shame to some degree or another.

In one group of women, I was writing this book and we did a study together on it when it was in the manuscript stage. Most of them resonated with body shame, but there were a couple of us who resonated with performance shame.

So it seems like it’s kind of one or the other, which maybe that’s the mercy of God—that you don’t have both. But they’re all interrelated. I mean, sometimes if I’m not feeling good about my body, I’m like, “Well, at least I’m successful at this! So let me just focus my efforts on my performance,” if I feel like this isn’t going well . . . and vise versa.

Erin: It’s ultimately a false gospel. I’m trying to earn the Lord’s favor by doing more than any other human being on the planet could possibly do! I don’t need any of that to save me or to earn God’s grace or His favor or His love. It was all completed on the cross!

I really have to constantly counsel myself with the very simple, very beautiful, very powerful gospel . . . which is, I’m saved by grace—not my to-do list. I know that, sitting here, but I don’t always know that in real life.

Heather: Yes . . . not when you’re checking off your to-do list.

Erin: So you say that God speaks directly into our performance shame with two truths. Can you just share those two truths with the women who are listening?

Heather: The two truths that God speaks into our hearts: first of all, we have been living for the wrong person, and then secondly, we have been seeking approval through the wrong means.

So, the wrong person is pretty obvious. We need to change our audience. Stop living for the people around you, or for yourself (trying to be the best version that you think you can be). You need to be living for God and looking at Him. And then, when you’re doing that—when you’re living for Him—then that does change. 

How do you get God’s approval? It’s not through anything that we’ve done, but it’s through resting in Christ and being saved and redeemed by Him. That’s the only way that we’ll be approved, is to abide in Jesus. So our work is to abide—which seems very counterintuitive, particularly for someone who struggles with perfectionism and performance.

Nancy: Do you sometimes feel shame and failure in a world where women are tempted to post pictures of their beautiful homes and picture-perfect families? Erin Davis, from Revive Our Hearts, has been talking with author Heather Nelson about just that.

Heather is the author of Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame. We’d like to send you a copy when you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size. Be sure to ask for Heather’s book when you call us at 1–800–569–5959, or visit us at ReviveOurHearts.com.

Leslie: The relationships that should feel safe to us sometimes are the causes of the most hurt. Tomorrow Heather Nelson will be back to talk about freedom from shame in our closest relationships.

Heather: Your marital status—whether it’s single, divorced, widowed, separated (which in of itself becomes a source of shame)—feels like there’s something that’s not quite right with me unless I am married. 

Secondly, within marriage there’s a myriad of ways that it can shame you, in the imperfections that are inherent with marrying a fellow sinner. Your husband’s not going to fulfill all your needs. He’s not going to tell you, “You’re beautiful!” enough for you to feel really beautiful.

He’s not going to love and pursue your heart in the ways that you were meant to be loved and be pursued—which is by a God who loves and pursues all of you all the time. Your husband’s not going to fulfill all the places that we think that marriage should fulfill. And then that can bring a sense of shame, or be a trigger of shame.

You look at the worst examples—in an abusive marriage where a husband takes this place of great intimacy and actually uses it for destruction—in that sense, there’s tremendous shame there, because the place that should be your safest human relationship has turned into the place of deepest destruction.

Leslie: Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to experience true freedom! It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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