The Fight Isn’t Over

I’m feeling an enormous amount of shame today, shame and worthlessness and everything that comes with them: hopelessness, sorrow, anger, lethargy, self-judgment. The trigger was a typical “not what I’m looking for” rejection, nothing significant, but I think I must have been ripe for the attack of shame and the sense of unwanted-ness that has now haunted the past three days because it has left me fighting old demons. Old but clearly not defeated.

The thought that I don’t deserve happiness or that I am just plain not allowed to have happiness has become persistent. My reason for this lack of deserving and allowance? God’s will. Why would I think God has willed such a dark life? The reasoning comes from my religious upbringing, the knowledge passed on to me by church elders and youth group leaders.

One, I have never been meant to be happy. God knew this before I existed. The assumption is that some people just aren’t meant to know happiness in love. My churches taught that some people are meant to remain unmarried for their entire lives, and that if you are chosen for this, it should be accepted and adhered to, as it is God’s will. Certainly, if God wants people to remain unmarried, he must also mean for hearts to always be broken. In essence, this has always been his plan for me. 

Two, I’m being punished for something I’ve done, so I will not be allowed happiness until I’ve repented or made up for my offense. Was it the divorce? Is it because I’ve had sex outside of marriage? Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen these things as sins for some time. But now the fear of God preached by my church pervades. What if I’m wrong and what I was taught was 100 percent correct? What if this is God’s judgment? I was taught that if we disobey God, he may choose to cause terrible things in our lives until we turn back to him. Is the worst yet to come? It is quite possible I deserve this brokenness.

Or three, perhaps the brokenness is God’s way of loving me. He’s calling me back, and he’s doing it through the breaking of my spirit. Let me feel unlovable and unwanted and alone because then I’ll realize I need God and that I’m not living life according to his will. FYI, I know I need God. 

Four, God intended for me to be happy, but I messed up his plan seventeen years ago when I fell in love with and married my now ex-husband. Had I followed God’s plan, I would know peace and joy now, but instead, I’m cursed to remain lonely and sad for the rest of my life. I missed my chance and I must pay the price for my misjudgment.

I suppose all of these come down to the ever-present conflict of “God is love” versus “God is a jealous god,” a complicated dichotomy that has plagued me since my confirmation days. Is the character of God truly summed up in “I love you but disobey me and I’ll destroy you”? And is there nothing I can do to change it? Because I was taught that though I’ve been given free will, God will do whatever he pleases. So I’ve wondered for much of my life if prayer is even worth it. If God will do whatever he wants, can my prayers ever sway him?

Christian readers, do not fear for my soul. It is not my faith that is shaken; I know Jesus died for my sins and I love him dearly for it. Rather, it’s a question of how to live this life here on earth. Do I spend the rest of my life accepting loneliness, heartache, and the feeling of unworthiness as the payment for my crimes, or part of God’s plan, or God’s way of loving me, or the price I must pay for the choices I’ve made? Do I decide this is God’s will and accept that I cannot change it? Do I accept a life of utter joylessness and pray that I won’t live too long? Or do I tell myself this is shame speaking and that these things aren’t true and that God wouldn’t allow me to experience such a dark life? (A persistent voice says the last isn’t true; just look at the biblical figure Job.)

I don’t have an answer today. Shame is sucking the life out of me, and I don’t know how to stop it. I’m writing because speaking the hurt and shame aloud is supposed to be the key to healing. Shame researcher Brené Brown (http://brenebrown.com) says that we need to acknowledge shame and share our stories because shame thrives on silence. It’s difficult but necessary:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

So here I am writing to you, being vulnerable. I don’t see any more light than I did an hour ago, and I don’t feel any more wanted or hopeful, but maybe it’ll come with time. At least I’ve said something. At least I’ve confessed these things I’ve feared my entire life. At least I’ve broken the silence. Wiser people say this will help me heal, help me have hope, help me to see the value of me. I hope so because I don’t think anyone deserves to go through life feeling unlovable and worthless.

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Unlovable

Lovable: of such a nature as to attract; deserving; amiable; endearing.

Unlovable: not lovable: of such a nature as to repel; undeserving; repulsive; hateful.

I imagine everyone knows what it’s like to feel unlovable, if only briefly. It is a sense of unworthiness, a belief that there is no possible way or reason you could be loved. It is a feeling, a sense, a belief I know well. Perpetuated first by shame, feeling unlovable has been my constant companion for the better part of the past two decades. It has influenced my decisions and behavior. It has stolen happiness and left wounds and saddened me more than once. And it has continued to feed that which birthed it: shame. It all comes back to shame.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

It sounds an awful lot like feeling unlovable to me.

Why I believe I’m unlovable, my reasons for such a diagnosis, per se, has evolved over the years, following the opposite path of Dictionary.com’s definition of “lovable” as if it was a map: this way to hating yourself.

When I was unmarried and pregnant and was being shamed by friends and family and the Christian group I belonged to and my own beliefs in right and wrong, I felt undeserving of love. I felt lucky, blessed even, that the man who was both the father of my child and my rapist wanted to marry me despite my shameful, repulsive state. So I married him and stayed married to him for a long time. My family and friends who did stand by me, they were kind and good beyond all expectation and necessity because I didn’t deserve their love or support. I didn’t deserve anyone’s.

I carried that sense of undeserving  into and through all the years of my marriage. I felt that being pregnant before I was married was something I would spend the rest of my life fighting to make up for. I was already a perfectionist, but now I thought being perfect might earn back my ability to be loved. But every time I failed to be perfect, I also failed to be lovable.

And when I started a new church early in my marriage and wanted so terribly to belong, be accepted, be loved, I believed the lies my mentors told me and followed their guidance to a fault. The group was for married, Christian women with young families; the mentors were highly respected women in the church who had raised or nearly raised their children to adulthood. I felt honored to be invited to be part of the group and sure that if I did what I learned there, I could lessen my shame and be worthy of the love and friendship of the other women, and I could deserve to be part of my church.

One night we talked about sex, and the mentors told us that we were to have sex with our husbands whether we wanted to or not. They called it “sympathy sex” because we were taking pity on our husbands’ desires and needs. It was guidance I took heart, having sex with my now-ex-husband again and again, whether I wanted to or not, an act that has left me with nightmares. I believe now that if I hadn’t been trying so hard to be the perfect mom and wife and member of my church, to be lovable, I would have seen the fault in their words; I might have spoken out about them. God help the other women who believed them.

Today feeling unlovable looks different for me. I do think I’m deserving of love. Rather, why would anyone want to love me? I have a dark past. I’m anxious and emotional and intense. I experience PTSD-like responses to unexpected triggers as a result of past trauma. I’m not an easy person to have in one’s life. Some might say high maintenance. Repulsive.

And if you’re not already repelled, I’m divorced and have children. My ex-husband, the man who raped me, is still an irremovable part of my life because of my children. And if you want children, I not only don’t, but I can’t have them anymore.

I have so much that I carry with me. I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly want to love me. It doesn’t matter that I’m a good person, have a good heart, or have a nice smile. The fact that I work hard and pay my own way doesn’t improve my prospects either. I deserve love, but that changes nothing. I have come so far and fought so hard to get here, but I believe all those repulsive and repelling things cancel that out. And my shame forces me to ask, who would want to be with someone like me?

Today a man I’ve been dating, and have really been starting to care about, told me he only wants to see me once or twice a week, at most. He’s not into texting, though phone calls are okay, occasionally. He said he’s easygoing and calm and that I’m intense and emotional, and that this perplexes him. But he told me that I shouldn’t alter my behavior—that is, my desire to talk to him and see him more often, my penchant for texting, my efforts to plan ahead, my need for connection, my intensity—for him, that I should be who I am. Then he said he’s going to be who he is too and not alter his behavior either. I’m not sure where this leaves us.

I don’t blame him for needing his space and time. Everyone needs those things, and some more than others. I certainly can’t fault him for standing firm in who he is, something I’ve personally struggled with in my own life. Rather, it is the sense that he can only take so much of me that it gives, the implication that if I want someone who can give me more of his time and attention, I should look elsewhere, that is hard to cope with. It echoes my feelings of being unlovable. Did I really expect more? I want to hold on to his assurance that my caring for him is reciprocated. Isn’t it better for part of me to be loved than none of me? I’m not sure what the answer is.

I want to be loved so much. I want someone to look at me and see only me, not my faults or past or children or mistakes or tears. I want someone to love all of me. I’m just not sure it’s possible.

There is no moral to this post. I’m not writing tonight to say I’ve learned anything or grown or overcome or won my battle against shame today. I still feel unlovable. I imagine I might forever. But I’ll still get up tomorrow morning, and I’ll still try to find someone who could possibly love someone with my history and flaws and challenges, and I’ll still fall in love, over and over again, even if it means I’m likely to get hurt. So if I’m nothing else, I am at least brave.