The Bible Belt taught me a lot about shame. It also taught me a lot about the importance of hard work, kind words, and the value of family, however imperfect. But shame, for me, was its specialty.
I’m not talking about the kind of shame you experience when you have four-too-many jello shots at a work karaoke party and sing “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” with a little too much vigor (shout out to last Friday night). That’s the kind of shame that keeps you from doing things you’re (mostly) not proud of.
I’m also not talking about shame that comes from anyone externally. I’m talking about the shame that comes from agreements I didn’t choose for myself.
A few months ago, I read a book called The Four Agreements. The agreements go something like this:
- Be Impeccable With Your Word — Avoid using your word against yourself. Instead, use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
- Don’t Take Anything Personally — Nothing others do is because of you.
- Don’t Make Assumptions — Find the courage to ask questions and express what you really want.
- Always Do Your Best — Simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
The idea is that if you master these four agreements, you’ll break your bad habits and welcome love and happiness into your life. For some of you, this might sound a lot like Biblical teaching. That’s great! For me, it was kind of the opposite.
You see, before you even get to the first agreement, the author tells you a secret. You’ve already made agreements. You’ve been making them since you were born. Some of them you chose, and maybe you still choose to follow them today. Some of them, you didn’t choose, and maybe you don’t want to follow them anymore. Those agreements — the ones you’ve believed the longest, but didn’t choose for yourself — those are the hardest to break.
When your parents taught you that it was responsible to have a summer job and make your own money, that’s an agreement you probably still buy into today. It’s likely you didn’t choose to spend your summers rolling posters of US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Chesty Puller in a hot warehouse (wait, was that just me?). But your parents told you it was right, so you did it. And that probably ended up being a good thing.
On the other hand, maybe you went to a Christian high school and had your 11th grade Bible teacher spend a class explaining the “science” and “value” behind ex-gay therapy. At the time, you might have believed him because you were a child and he was an authority figure. But now you realize that what he was speaking wasn’t truth, it was bigotry and fear. You might want to change that agreement for yourself. Let’s be honest, for me, the latter agreement wasn’t a hard one to break, but you get the idea.
For me, breaking agreements I didn’t choose for myself has shown up in years of confusion and guilt. Not because of the people who helped me form those agreements, but because I’ve grown to believe many of them as such unwavering truth. Such foundational truth that I felt an incredible amount of shame when I pushed back against them.
Shame that I had sex before marriage. Shame for launching into my thirties without children. Shame for having lived with my husband before we were married. Shame for not feeling comfortable in church years before I stopped going. Shame for not putting down roots in my hometown. Shame that there have been times when JD and I have had to fight for our relationship, when so much of what I was taught was that “when it’s right, it’s easy.” *cough*bullshit*cough*
The fact is that while I felt many years of shame for these things, I never felt that any of them were wrong. My shame wasn’t anyone’s fault. It came from not knowing that it was alright to believe differently. To live differently. As JD likes to point out, I am my own shaming nun. And shamed myself I have, for a long time.
The agreements we never chose for ourselves are the hardest to break. So I’m working on breaking a few of mine. You see, a few of the agreements I mentioned above might be agreements that you’ve chosen for yourself. I think that’s great. This blog is not about your right looking the same as mine. It’s about finding your right and the courage it takes to live it boldly. Without shame.
Which agreements didn’t you choose?