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  • Humility Does Not Equal Shame

    Twenty-one years ago, I failed my bar exam. I failed by two points. Given how much I had prepared and prayed to pass, I was shocked and devastated when I didn’t. I was even more devastated that hundreds of people knew I had failed. Person after person wanted an explanation for this unexpected outcome. “You’re one of the smartest people I know. I don’t understand why you didn’t pass.” I responded, “I don’t know why, but it sure is teaching me humility.” Judy, a church member said, “But you’re one of the most humble people I know.” “Perhaps,” I reflected, “I need more humility for whatever God is calling me to do.” Spiritually I understood the truth of those words, but emotionally I felt humiliated – that is, publicly shamed.

    Until the bar exam experience, I was not consciously aware of how often I felt ashamed because feelings of shame were so common for me. Shame is based in a belief that something I said or did was wrong or unacceptable, and as a result, I am not deserving of love and respect. What I didn’t ask myself was what shaped my belief. Was my belief truthful and did my belief support me in being whole and happy? I realized that my shame was often based in narratives – stories I treated as fact – stories that were not truth. I recognized my narratives were based in fear-based notions of what I needed to look like to others in order for me to be safe, loved, and feel like I belonged.

    Why release shame and how to do that? Shame distorts how you perceive yourself. Shame tells you that you are not good enough, unworthy of love and respect and sets the stage for you to accept abuse from others. You release shame by separating what you did (or perceived you did) from who you are. You are a unique manifestation of Spirit and in God you are safe, loved, and you belong. What often looks like humility is low self-worth. When I graduated from law school, I planned to have one party to celebrate both my graduation and my swearing in as an officer of the court. I could not conceive of inviting people to celebrate with me two times within several months. I thought this decision was an expression of my humility, but it was really a narrative that I was not important enough to be celebrated.

    What I was taught by my parents, brothers, pastors and others was that in order to be truly humble, I should not value myself and not recognize my own worth. By asking the questions: was my belief really truth and did my belief support me in being whole and happy, I knew I needed to rewrite this narrative. Here are three strategies to transform low self-worth to self-valuing. One, remind yourself – sometimes out loud – “I am a unique manifestation of God.” The very breath in your body is a reflection of Divine presence within you. Two, when you are about to make choices in your personal and professional life, ask how does your choice support self-value and wholeness. As Maya Angelou said, “We teach people how to treat us.” How you value yourself sets the standard for how others will treat you. Three, invite those closest to you (including ancestors) to help you recognize when you are acting from old default patterns.

    As I was writing this blog, the idea came to me to have a party celebrating my graduation from law school. While I am planning my party, I hope you will plan some way to celebrate something about yourself. Letting go of shame is critical to being able to celebrate yourself, even 21 years later.