Dear Brené Brown,
I was one of the people who made your very first TED talk go viral. I watched it several times for the first week. I loved it. It jolted me. The language you used gave me a place and new way to process my life. I found encouragement, and gained strength and understanding. Then I put it in my toolbox where it got buried.
This is a thank you note and love letter combined. I haven't revisited any of your material, audio, video, or books since that first TED talk - mostly because I have taken a social media sabatical. Because I saw Rising Strong on an Amazon page, this last month I've immersed myself in all of the above - hitting rewind and rereading much of it. The margins of all four books are marked up and tear stained. Epiphany after epiphany has washed over me. It feels like I've been born again, again. I realize I wasn't ready for it before. I had to get on the other side of an experience to learn what I needed to learn.
I have found my way back to myself - from a traumatic event about nine years ago - that laid me flat. It robbed me and my family of wholeheartedness - while I recovered. I've never understood or had language for what happened or how I felt, but it finally has become clear.
One fateful night, after a great presentation from a couple who work in India, I asked Jim, my assistant pastor why he had once mentioned that neither he, nor Kelley (his boss), nor Wayne (Kelley’s boss), would never take me on another trip. What had I done to be classified as 'trouble'? I told him to tell me so I could learn and be an asset. It wasn’t a need to know in order to people please, but to grow. I really loved the trips I had taken and wasn’t aware that I had this reputation. I asked if I could please go to India with the next group? I felt brave and vulnerable asking this.
He instantly and venomously hurled examples of itemized personality and character flaws - a case he had built against me. It was as if he had documented things and kept a score card of my all failings for years and years. He ended up saying I was the most selfish women he had ever known, ever in the world. His lips were curled in contempt. His teeth snarled at me.
The room swirled. I couldn't catch my breath to get air. I wobbled down the long hall to the door and out into the parking lot. When I reached my car I was unable to unlock the door the first try. My bladder let loose and I started dry heaving into the bushes. When I sat down in the car, I began to wail with unrecognizable primal sounds. My eyes felt like they were being burned out of their socket. My eyelids swelled so much that it was like looking out of slits. I should have called my husband to come and get me, but I began the long drive home alone, pulling over when I couldn't see through the waterfall of tears.
I have a name for what happened now. It was a violation of trust, a spiritual trauma, and emotional abuse. A public shaming. His list shamed me in every way a human can be shamed. He masterfully hit every layer, every exposed nerve, every tender, vulnerable belly part. He even shamed me with things he'd heard - without asking me if his assumptions were true. Gossip condemned me without trial, without jury.
When I told a few close friends what had happened, they seemed weirdly unaffected, strangely unmoved. One couple asked him about it and came back with the report that he told them he did it because he loved me - implying it was a necessary, spiritual discipline - someone had to do it. It was for my good. I forgive you, Tim and Jan. You were going through some trauma of your own.
I wrote my senior pastor a letter asking why this abusive behavior was condoned. No answer. Everytime I mentioned it to anyone - blank looks and itchy, unspoken awkwardness surfaced. I soon realized that if I wanted to keep my friends, I must stay silent. Everyone counseled me to forgive and move on. If I became bitter or defended myself, I was the problem at Calvary Chapel Lake Stevens. I forgive you, Jim and Kelley.
I had done years of boundary and personal growth work teaching me to mend relationships with truth and love.
I went to talk with Jim six months later - because I was still hurting - and because he had spoken during one service about how painful family estrangement is. I brought no armor, and no witnesses. This was a mistake. It did not go well, and another layer of violation hit me. He would not take responsibility, feel remorse, or have any empathy. He let me know it was me - I was the problem. He used mockery and sarcasm and resorted to scripture whipping, saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”
I felt a little crazed. Then my friend Shelley came to visit - as my counselor. She told me sternly that I had asked for it, and told me I needed to know how unhealthy it was to keep going back for more. Since I hadn't talked with her about it, I don't know where she got her information. I invited her to leave. I forgive you, Shelley.
Another friend, Jill, took me to lunch. One of the first things she asked is why I always expected to be friends with men in authority. I couldn’t connect the dots and was really puzzled and wondered what she meant. I told her I always identified with men and/or visionary movers and shakers no matter their gender - because of their sense of adventure and zest - more than women's talk about beauty tips and shopping. It's true. I wasn't ashamed of craving this stimulating interaction. Nor did I feel weird saying it out loud. She counseled me not to expect or require men in authority to befriend me. Her disapproval was tangible. I scratched my head, truly puzzled. I could not integrate the shame coming at me with the reality of the perpetuator’s spiritual and emotional abuse.
That evening, I started loosing hold of my remaining healthy thoughts - and began shrinking inside. Isolation and powerlessness overcame me. In my head, I began to believe that I was bad, that something indeed was wrong with me. I felt so misunderstood and confused. I forgive you, Jill.
One good friend cautioned me to let it go, because if I drank the poison, I would be the only one to die. She was too embarrassed to admit that her and her husband were going on a long trip overseas with Jim as the leader - until two weeks before they left. It wasn’t that they were going on a trip with someone who had fatally hurt me - that didn’t feel so good - but she couldn’t be honest and upfront with me. That became a weird and shaming thing in itself - which we couldn’t find a way to ever talk about. I forgive you Debi.
Not one friend refuted the accusations Jim had hurled at me. No one said he was wrong. No one reminded me it was his opinion, not theirs. Not one friend wanted to talk about it and help me process the hurt. Not one friend reminded me that he had acted in an unprofessional, cruel, and unrighteous manner. Not one friend thought I was brave trying to mend it. I wanted someone, anyone, to help me think clearly and separate the truth from the lies. I wanted someone to fight for me and come to my defense. I was told it was a serious weakness for me to try and get people to side with me. It was implied that something was wrong with me, not him.
He was The Man of God.
A malignancy started growing inside of me. I started believing I wasn't worthy of love and belonging. I had proof and noone refuted it. I felt bereft and hopeless and apologetic for breathing air that should go to a more worthwhile person. I began expecting rejection and acting awkward and uncomfortable around people. I became a recluse. My introversion trumped my usual enthusiasm for life, my zest for play and creativy, and almost squashed my insatiable curiosity.
I started to feel like I was dying. I fully understand the idiom "dying with shame" - but not until now did I connect it and name shame.
When I confided to a friend that I felt like I was dying, she looked at me with judgement and silence. Her grim look expressed it plainly. You are not taking responsibility. You’re blame shifting. You're the problem and you need to quit embellishing. Learn this hard lesson. I forgive you, Mary.
I remember thinking, but I was just standing there without provoking anyone. He came up behind me with an emotional baseball bat and beat me. I'm still broken and bleeding. Won't anyone take me to the emergency room? Please. I don’t want to sound like a victim but I think it’s possible that I am a victim. I have been violated and violated and violated. There is no outside evidence to collect. But it happened and he gets away with it. Help me.
If only someone had offered me the antidotes - the remedies of empathy and comfort - it would have merely been like a crash on pavement scraping my knees. Now I know this is how shame is named and healed.
The only thing coming my way was hints to keep silent, more shame and harsh judgement. Now I know this is how shame grows.
I wrote a letter telling my friends that they weren't helping me and that I was essentially leaving the group and fellowship with them. I explained why I needed to put boundaries in place. I heard later that they were hurt by this and felt rejected.
Oh how I dreamed they would read between the lines and see the tearstains on the page. Oh how I wished they would come and comfort me and listen and just be with me and hold space for this trauma.
I thought these were my my people. I had gone through so many hard experiences with them and thought I had invested enough over the years that I could make a hefty emotional withdrawal - it was my turn. I forgive you, church family.
About four years later, the senior pastor wanted to get together and let me talk about it. He let me say my piece, then he looked right at me and told me that of course he never would have disciplined Jim for saying or doing what he did. This stunned me, because it meant he approved and agreed. I had come without weapons and felt completely unguarded. Next, he tossed one last shame bone. He said, "Aunt Margie told me that you didn't work when you were on the Austria/Germany trip and I believe her." This sounds like a petty and small thing to repeat, but it was loaded with a host of large innuendos and contempt.
I told him that I guessed it was time for me to finally grow up and not need or want his approval. I did not defend myself. I felt beaten and terribly bruised, but brave. And angry. A glimmer of courage flickered in the coals of my anger. I thought, I’m done being treated this way. No more. The wrong people are feeling the pain.
We left for home and I decided to get well and become whole again. I also decided to completely block any and all unsafe interactions. This allowed my husband’s love and our children's love to soak in and become healing balm. I wish I would have found a therapist, but I did not have the language to explain what happened or how I felt. I did not realize that a good counselor would have known the right questions to ask me.
Dear Brené, your words reminded me of something I had forgotten. There is nothing wrong with me. There is something deeply wrong with humans who abuse those in their care. I'm enough. I always was. I am one of the beautiful beings created in the image of God. He loves me just like I am. And mostly, I finally understand that those people are suffering and are probably living in deep, broken shame themselves. They need to throw shame on someone else for relief. Even so, I should never have lost my belovedness.
I had a long spell of not being me, of not living wholeheartedly, but I'm back. I’m glad I didn’t bury my pain or put frosting on it - gold plating grit, as you say. My suffering has given me wisdom and great empathy for others in pain. I understand how shame and addiction, shame and shaming, shame and disorders work. It has also helped me understand the dynamics of my family of origin. Shame was the way the adults in our family interacted with everyone. There has always been a parent/child dynamic even with what should be adulthood to adult and peer relationships. I grew up being familiar with the pain of shame. I just never knew what to call that feeling. Now I am able to heal that reality and understand so much of my childhood. And forgive and offer grace to those who were doing the best they knew how. I've also been able to forgive myself and give myself grace -because I too have been doing the best I knew. Self compassion and compassion for others. I finally have the wherewithal, the language, and the margin to give it.
My favorite part of your work is accepting the fact that shame will smack me again, but because I have learned how to be shame resilient it won't have that same debilitating effect again. I might be bloody - and covered with mud - and face down - but I will get up again and again whenever it is now - and go back into the arena. I know how to do this. I have done it. I will do it again. This is a relief, and makes me be able to be grateful for a terrible experience that got me to this place.
Just last week, a girlfriend and I were walking along a lake path strewn with fall leaves. Nature's beauty facilitated deep talks about gratefulness, belovedness, creativity, shame, and vulnerability. Something triggered a familiar feeling as I recounted a painful relationship that I felt helpless to mend. I told her that I felt so weary and tired of being the one who kept having broken friendships. She held my head to her shoulder and said softly, you don't have to do it anymore. A feeling of complete release gripped me and held me still.
This smokey, bruise-colored swirl started whirling around the top of my head, down my body and swished out my feet like water draining from a bathtub. I felt it leave, rustling leaves as it curled out over the water. I believe it was shame. I said it outloud. It had to leave as I'm not being hospitable to it anymore. No welcome here.
[Kathleen gets up off the arena floor, rising strong]
She stands and says, "Hello, I'm Kathleen Overby. I'm wholehearted. I'm beloved. I'm enough. Bring it……"
[a vast throng of wholehearted witnesses stand to their feet - cheering and applauding wildly]
She is not alone. She no longer wishes to fit in. She is worthy of love and belonging. She knows. This changes everything.