By the time I was 10 years old, I knew there was something wrong with me. I had no idea what it was exactly, but it was there.
Perhaps because I felt defective, I had a strong inclination to hide, cover up, and use deliberate caution in any situation.
Even though I liked to be hugged, I pretended I didn’t. I was embarrassed to take my shirt off to go swimming. I couldn’t say “I love you,” even to my parents. I craved affirmation from those in authority because their acceptance was the only thing that distracted me from feeling not quite right.
I was an extremely well-behaved and compliant child. I remember what happened on my 10th birthday so vividly because, even by that time, I rarely let my guard down. I was with my sister and four cousins at Timber Lanes Bowling Alley in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on a Saturday afternoon.
Around them, I felt safer than anywhere else. We made each other laugh.
That particular day, we were really cracking each other up. It was the kind of laughter that makes tears fly out of your eyes—when you’re actually bent over holding your stomach and gasping for breath—when “throwing your head back and laughing” happens in real life.
Laughter has a way of lowering your defenses. In those moments, I felt great. Exuberantly, I flung the heavy black ball down the alley, flapping my hands and arms in excitement and wiggling my body and hips to will the ball to hit the pins.
In these moments of joy and freedom and vulnerability, I forgot there were other people around us, watching us.
Specifically, there were 3 or 4 boys a little bit older than us in the next lane. How could I not have noticed this?
I can’t remember what made me see him. But I remember exactly what he said and how he said it. With a look of disgust, he said contemptuously: “Are you a boy or a girl?” His friends around him laughed.
It was like someone had thrown a water balloon right in my face: a shocking *SLAP* that left me stunned and ice cold. I tried to cover and said, lamely, “What do you think?” And he said something like: “I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking!” More laughter.
I tried to ignore him and recapture the momentum of the fun we were having. But it was gone. I was shamed back into hiding.
I was careful before, but this clinched it for me: I vowed to keep my shameful exuberance in check. I never wanted to feel that way again.
Earlier this month was Gay Pride weekend in Portland. During the early years when I struggled to integrate my sexuality, identity, and spirituality, I was uncomfortable with that word: pride. When you are raised as an evangelical Christian, pride is a sin—one of the seven deadly ones, in fact.
Also, I wasn’t really proud that I was gay. In those days, I sincerely wished I wasn’t. Life would be so much easier. Even so, I had learned to accept it. If anything, I wanted to march in a Gay Indifferent parade:
“We’re here! We’re queer! And we don’t feel that strongly about it one way or the other!”
As time went on, I learned not only to accept my sexuality, but to embrace it as a gift. This gift has given me a pathway of spiritual growth, as well as opportunities to develop empathy. It has given me numerous friends I never would have known if I had not been forced on a journey to find something better than a faith based in fear and shame.
This year at Pride, it finally dawned on me: Gay Pride is the opposite of Gay Shame.
“Pride” in this sense does not describe superiority, blindness to others, lack of humility, or obnoxious arrogance. Instead, “pride” is the state where we can laugh, flap our arms, sing, and express joy without paralyzing caution. Being “Pride-ful” is being whole, more fully human, yourself.
Overall, my relationship with the LGBTQ community has been positive; I’ve received support, love, and wisdom from friends and from the community at large. But I often find myself encountering tension, resentment and social anxiety, even within this supportive community.
The Shadow, a Jungian concept introduced to me by my therapist, helps explains some of these negative feelings, which continue to plague me in my adult life. The Shadow is a true part of ourselves that we hide in response to something that shames us, usually in childhood.
Of course, not all of the “shaming” activities that form this Shadow are unhealthy. It is normal and expected for parents to, for example, shush screaming children in public. The child learns that this is bad behavior and compensates accordingly. That “bad behavior” in a sense becomes a part of the child’s Shadow.
As a young child, I learned quickly that the kind of exuberance and self-confidence I displayed at the bowling alley led to social shaming.
To this day, meeting others who are confident and exuberant in the ways I am unable to be exposes the Shadow of my own shame. I can hear my Shadow protest: “You’re not supposed to act that way! If you do, bad things will happen, like getting shamed at a Bowling Party!”
There is incredibly power in naming something that oppresses us. As I started to recognize my own Shadow, I began, in a sense, to integrate the Shadow back into my own life and consciousness.
Though I still struggle with feelings of guilt and shame and feelings of jealousy and envy that can grow into hatred, understanding and recognizing my own Shadow has helped me overcome these complexes and live life more authentically, and with more meaning.
With this greater understanding of my own anxieties, I hope to honor and integrate these feelings as I seek to become more whole, more fully human, and more myself.
These realizations have came through years of discussion with my therapist, reading, and recognizing these feelings as they happen (note: this is much harder than it sounds). Through these struggles, I have gained a different understanding of the verse: “the heart is wicked above all things, who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
The heart is unknowable because of the shame and guilt that even normal, everyday life can bring. We compensate and we hide, and our true selves are twisted and bruised. We become guarded as we develop fear and use various techniques to quell this fear. Shame, also, has us hiding, not wanting us to show anyone what’s behind the armor. With all this fear and shame, we are kept from true connection with others.
With fear and shame, love cannot live—true connection is not possible. Becoming fully authentic is vital in order to have connection with others.
As I step my toe back into Christianity, I am learning how to come to God, and to others, just as I am.
The journey out of shame is long and arduous. But I feel incredibly grateful to have found joy (even exuberance!) as a result of taking this journey.
Photo via flickr user Brian Talbot