Mae’s Story: Shame, Failure, and Identity in Christ

“I have been really devastated this week, like the man who built his house on the sinking sand, this trial with my son has wiped me out, and I realize that my foundation with the Lord is not as strong as it needs to be. I’ve sunken into a kind of a depression, but I’m reaching out to the Lord, and that has been a good direction, even though I’ve been such a mess,” says my new friend, Mae, a single mother learning how to care for her adult son who struggles with mental health issues.

“I’ve been living at my friend’s house for two and a half months because my son was really struggling, so to give him some space I housesat for a  friend who is gone a lot, but then she got Covid-19 last week, and I had to come home to my son. It’s been hard, and I’ve felt so fragile.

“One thing I’ve recognized recently is that when things come my way that I don’t feel I’m capable of handling, I freeze in fear and hide away. When I have to face the harsh reality in a situation, and I don’t feel I can handle it, I retreat. I just identified this about myself in the last year and a half—all these years frozen in anxiety and I didn’t even realize it! That is how lost I’ve been, and totally blind to it! But I’ve gradually come to see that part of the reason I’ve been so frozen in fear is that I’ve believed my whole life that I’m incompetent and incapable. Guilt, shame, and failure described my thinking and beliefs about who I am.

“I’ve only begun realizing how those messages about who I am were subtly reinforced in me from the time I was very young, so that when I got older, I started looking for someone to take care of me because I felt I couldn’t go to school or get a job to take care of myself. I was terrified of my own incompetence, so I married someone I thought would take care of me and provide for me. I chose to work in a childcare situation in poverty because I couldn’t do any better than that, or live a healthy lifestyle, or raise my kids properly. All these things became evidence of what I believed about myself–I’m a failure. The thing I feared—failure—was confirmed, again and againfailed marriage, failed manager, failed parent—and the successes I did have, I minimized them. All of them. I had to, in order to believe I was a total failure.

“But, in spite of my failure, one good thing I thought I had was my relationship with my mom. My mom and I became super close after we both went through a divorce; we went thrift store shopping together and she helped me raise my kids. We talked for hours, sharing our faith, hopes, and goals in life. I felt known by her, but there was always something in the relationship that was off, and I could never put my finger on it. Every time we had a conflict, I felt like it was all my fault because she never admitted any wrong on her part, and, for the most part, I believed her.

“But then she would hurt me again, and I would get up the courage to talk to her about it, but our conversations were like being on a merry-go-round. It was so confusing because she was present, there was dialogue, she seemed to want to be in this relationship with me and resolve our issues, but there was never any resolution. The hard part was that while I was so confused, she seemed so confident, so sure that I was the problem, and that she never did anything wrong. Anything I felt she did wrong, she said was simply a misunderstanding or she swept it under the rug. But over time, the mound under that rug grew and grew.

“Then I started listening to some Christian counselors–Patrick Doyle, Cloud and Townsend—and they talked about relationships like the one I had with my mother—where you felt unheard and devalued, but could never really explain why. They suggested documenting all your interactions with this person, keeping track of the subtle messages they communicated.

“Finally, with the pattern written out in front of me, I had some clarity—I couldn’t deny that the subtle message present in my interactions with my mom was that my voice should be suppressed, that I wasn’t allowed to be me if I didn’t look like her.

“I saw that anytime I tried to help my mom in small ways such as point out a car backing up in the parking lot so she shouldn’t get hit, or tell her I thought something she said about me or someone else was a bit harsh, she would turn around and treat me like her enemy.  Rather than address her own actions or feelings, she attacked me, and in her words, tone of voice, and attitude communicated that I was wrong and should be ashamed of myself. Over time, that pattern of communication—me helping or correcting my mom and getting shamed for it—reinforced my faulty belief that I was incompetent—a failure.

“I was so grateful that I was able to identify this pattern—to see that she was one voice among many who had reinforced the lies I believed about myself.

“I also realized that I’d thought love always overlooked the bad and was simply ‘nice,’ but now I realize that I’m called to say no to evil. God helped me see that I need to bring things to light that are evil and guard my heart (Ephesians 5: 9-11) from messages that are wrong. The verse Proverbs 4:23, ‘Guard your heart above all else because it determines the course of our life’ (NLT) showed me how important it is to address the subtle messages in your life because they ultimately affect where your life goes. I also wanted to protect my mother for her own’s soul sake and love her by making her aware of the subtle messages she was communicating.

“So, I did what the counselors in those books and videos advised—I wrote my mother a letter. It took me three months to begin putting it together and a whole month to write. I told her I would always be committed to our relationship, through thick and thin, and that I loved her. Then I listed out specific instances where she refused to listen to my thoughts and feelings, shamed me as an incompetent failure, and through subtle ridicule and twisting my words around, tried to condemn me for not treating her rightly whenever I expressed hurt or concern for how she treated me.

“At the end of the letter, I affirmed my love for her and asked her to respond to me in writing to the issues I addressed, but she has avoided addressing those issues, so I have begun putting up boundaries to guard my heart and hers. Sadly, over time, we have grown distant. Losing my relationship with my mom—the time, friendship, and support, the hopes of what our relationship could be—has been very painful, but I accept where she is at and I continue to pray for God’s will to be done in our relationship.

“In the midst of the pain of losing my relationship with my mother, God is showing me what love looks like in relationship and that what I thought was love, in many ways really wasn’t. He’s showing me that I can and need to cultivate safe relationships within the body of Christ where I am seen and heard for who I am as God’s beloved child—pursued and chosen, clothed in strength. He’s also showing me how to live in the reality of how things really are vs. how I wish that they were. He’s showing me how to depend on him because He’s my Provider. One huge step I’ve made is getting a job that pays more and another is learning to reach out and be a friend to others—each little step of trusting God challenges the lie that I’m a failure. John 8: 31-32 says, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” and He is setting me free as I walk in faith and trust.

“But it’s a slow journey, and having other healthy believers along the way is slim pickings in my world, and I realize that not everyone will understand why my relationship with my mother is distant now—that all the little hurts added up to a life-long pattern of devaluing me as a human being, and that her voice in my life became louder than God’s voice.

“But I’m on this journey of grieving my losses, hopes, and wishes, of coming out of hiding and learning to live according to who I truly am—God’s beautiful child, worthy to be seen and known because I am His.”

 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding,

but in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3: 5-6


Advent Reflection

  1. Do you know someone struggling with the pain of a broken family relationship? How might you draw near to simply understand, to sit with the person and empathize from the heart without judgment?
  2. Or, perhaps you are struggling with the pain of a hurtful relationship and feel confused and uncertain about how to love this person well. Have you spoken these things to the Lord? Poured out both your pain and your desire for clarity and healing? Speak these things to him now, in words or writing, or in the simple prayer, “Help me, Lord!” trusting that he will draw near to you in your pain and confusion and give Hope.
  3. How might the truths that Mae shared—the fact that in Christ you are pursued, chosen, and clothed in strength—change how you view yourself? How might those truths change how you relate to others in your life this Christmas?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s