Healing From Shame
Trigger Warning: Child Sexual Abuse
“I was molested as a child—when I was eight. A cousin who was ten years older molested me. You know, the effect of the molestation is you don’t feel it; you don’t experience the effect right away. And then it happened again when I was 13. I was with my youth group and we were giving some religious seminar somewhere for young people. We had to stay there overnight, and my youth group leader was not a priest but he was close to one. He abused me in the evening. We were alone in the room. Just those two traumatic events. The poison that it gave to me began to spread when I was 14, 15, 16, 17. I began to feel lost. I didn’t like myself. I really didn’t like who I was.
You know, later you put labels onto your experiences. So, I was reading a book on psychology, and the book was talking about a shame-based personality, and I latched onto that. It was an ‘aha!’ experience. I said, ‘My gosh! So this is what I experienced.’ I was ashamed that I was alive. I was ashamed of myself. I was ashamed that I even existed. But…why? You know, it’s so illogical, but why did those two traumatic events happen to my life? Why was I molested? Why was I sexually abused? Maybe because I deserved it? Maybe, maybe I’m dirty. Maybe I’m ugly. Maybe I’m…
So every time I woke up in the morning, I would feel extremely sad. And later on, I was able to identify that feeling of sadness, of incredible sadness. I would wake up every morning with shame. I became addicted to pornography because any kind of addiction is really trying to escape the sadness, the emptiness, the shame within you. And I became addicted to—even more than pornography—I became addicted to pleasing people. I wanted everyone to like me. I would bend over backwards just to let people like me. If people were angry at me, I’d be very afraid and I would panic. If someone didn’t like me, something in me would die. It’s like I wanted everyone to love me because I had so little love for myself. And it went on for decades.
I began to project onto God what I felt about myself. Maybe God was also ashamed of who I was. Maybe God didn’t like me because I didn’t like myself. And maybe God is a God with a checklist of my sins: ‘Oh he fell again in pornography. Oh boy. What’s new?’ And I was relating to that kind of a God for decades. Even if I knew He was love, even if I knew the right verses in the Bible that says God is love, I still could not take that image out of me.
So it was a gradual process. I cannot pinpoint a particular day and time, or, if I suddenly realized He wasn’t like that. But gradually it just grew on me that there is this God who accepts me and who loves me, and enjoys me, who likes me. He doesn’t just love me, He likes me, He likes all of me. And it happened all at the same time—me accepting me, God accepting me, me changing my image of God. And waking up in the morning no longer with any shame, but with joy and delight.”
Brother Bo Sanchez is a Catholic preacher based out of Manila in the Philippines. Around the globe, he is known as “the preacher in blue jeans.” I met Brother Bo in his home in Manila and he shared with me his journey from shame to a life of joy.
Bo was molested as a child on two occasions, once by a cousin and once by a church youth leader. Brother Bo never acknowledged or worked through those violations when they happened, nor for many years after. But he grew up with a deep sense of shame that he never understood. Even as he began his career as an evangelist and preacher and was earning great praise externally, his internal life made him feel unworthy and less-than. Brother Bo speaks openly about the addiction to pornography that he developed to cover the pain of his shame, and a bigger, more problematic addiction of pleasing people.
This led me to explore the topic of shame both from a spiritual and psychological lens. Here are very helpful definitions of shame and guilt from Robert D. Caldwell, M.Div.: “Shame is the inner experience of being ‘not wanted.’ It is feeling worthless, rejected, cast-out. Guilt is believing that one has done something bad; shame is believing that one is bad. Shame is believing that one is not loved because one is not lovable. Shame always carries with it the sense that there is nothing one can do to purge its burdensome and toxic presence.”
Jim Seckman, the Spiritual Director (and former CEO and clinical director) of an Atlanta-based men’s recovery center called MARR, wrote a helpful explanation of how we come to have feelings of shame: “Shame is not something that we are born with; it is something that is given to us or inflicted on us. In a shame-based family or system, anxiety, anger, and other members’ own shame, are projected (‘dumped’) onto the weaker members (typically children). This can occur through emotional abuse, physical abuse, punishment that focuses on character, or verbal abuse of negative and shaming messages. In shame-bound families and systems there are certain rules:
Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel
You should know how to act (even though no one ever tells you)
Always be in control
I can relate to Brother Bo—not in the experience of being molested—but in the carrying of shame. I cannot fully explain it, but for many years I felt like a mistake, that I should not have been born. It took a lot of work in therapy and in my spiritual journey to realize this was a lie and that I was more than worthy of being here. One teaching that helped me came from my friend Kenn Day who is a shaman in Cincinnati. He explained a indigenous teaching that it requires the decision of seven ancestors for a child to be born. Hence, no child born can be a mistake.
Unfortunately, many people have very clear reasons for their shame linked to abuse, but never identify the source of it, or, discover how to heal from it. For many people, the first time they become aware that shame is driving their life is through addictions. Jim Seckman goes on to explain the connection between shame and addiction:
“Many people have identified that shame was a major contributor for them to begin using alcohol or drugs. In an effort to avoid the emotional distress of shame and fear of exposure, they began to numb themselves and seek safety within the disease. However, addiction is a ‘shame generator.’ Not only does it not alleviate our pain, it creates more. We feel shame and so we use, but since we cannot control the process and do things that are inconsistent with what we believe and our self-image, we experience shame, which causes more emotional distress, which leads to more use. The shame just keeps ‘pumping’ into us.”
I have met many people (mainly men) who are, or have been, addicted to porn. I, myself, once bought a new, more powerful computer with the express purpose of being able to watch porn. I did not descend into that rathole because one week later, before I even got the new computer connected to the internet (it was 1997!), I started working with a therapist on the issues that were going to be covered up by the use of porn. And I can certainly relate to Brother Bo’s statement that he was addicted to pleasing people. In my case, it was more likely an addiction to being important and being right—both of which are reliant on external validations.
The message Brother Bo Sanchez brings to me and to us is that each of us is loved unconditionally and has a place in this world. Brother Bo uses the language of God and Christianity to describe this love, and, I believe this love is the birthright of every human and all of creation. It makes me smile every time I hear Brother Bo’s interview and he says he cannot remember exactly when it happened but he realized that God didn’t just love him but He liked him, He enjoyed him, He liked all of him.
I let go of my shame sometime in these past 20 years as well. I learned that there was no spiritual possibility that I was a mistake, and that I had work to do in this world that only I could do. As a professional coach once suggested to me, the more helpful and humble I became, the more I could be of service to others and get outside of myself. This cycle only increased my self-esteem and allowed me to release shame.
I am grateful to Brother Bo Sanchez for speaking so openly about his sexual abuse, his shame, his addiction, and his road to healing.