Messages that Hurt

“Every hour that we are awake, we are told twenty-two times that we are not rich, thin, young, beautiful, ripped, or stylish enough.”

When I first came across this quote in the book Healing Spiritual Wounds, I had one of those Wait! What? moments. There was something altogether unbelievable about what I had just read. The idea that we are riddled with advertising and messages in an attempt to get us to buy another product wasn’t new - if anything, twenty-two messages seemed a little low. My pause for reflection was about what those messages say to us about us.

You’re not good enough.
You’re worthless.
You don’t matter.

How overwhelming!
How discouraging!
How damaging!

Even if this number is remotely true, it’s no wonder that so many people struggle with shame and unhealthy ideas about themselves. We are constantly being told that we are not enough. Maybe we resist for a while but for many of us a sense of learned helplessness can set in. It can feel futile to resist. Worse still, the incessant repetition of these messages means that these harmful ideas have a way of wedging themselves into the deep-down circuitry of our brain – the place where assumptions come from. A place that can be incredibly difficult to change.

Once these messages lay down their deep, spindly roots, they begin to reproduce. Negative notions of ourselves have a way of coloring the way that we interact with our partners or loved ones. If our own childhood was blanketed by an ever-present shame, our default may be to replicate that shame in the lives of our own children. What is meant as a simple complaint from our spouse about something we do at home, can devolve into an all-out war triggered by deeply-rooted messages from some other time in our lives. Though they’re often the loudest and boldest, it would clearly be unfair to ascribe all of the blame for these ideas to advertisers and their ulterior motives.

One of the sources of shaming messages that I often see in my practice is a person’s faith community. It doesn’t much matter if that faith community is an active part of an individual’s life or if it is represented by internalized messages from the past. A structure that insists that there is a god who demands that people comply with strict codes of belief or behavior or face eternal punishment is often the birthplace of many damaging messages. Do right or be punished. You’re only accepted if you believe or do as we say. Women are second-class citizens and have to be sure never to cause a man to stumble by wearing too much makeup or clothes that are overly revealing. Sexuality is sinful and shouldn’t be thought about.

For so many of us, the faith community is the place where we find a sense of identity. We share our lives with those who believe like us and approach life as we do ourselves. It is important, though, to know that this identity is not always healthy. Complicating things is that we’re taught that faith communities are good and have our best interests in mind. Often, the belief is that God called these communities into existence to do some sort of sacred work on earth. But what happens when we hear these messages over and over?

God loves you when you do good.
You do not deserve God’s love.
You are weak, but God is strong.

These messages are just like any other negative message that we might hear. When they settle in and we rehearse them over and over, they become our truth. Along with doctrines of the universe and eternity,  we can adopt the tangential beliefs that we are frail, dependent, not-good-enoughs. Despite our communities’ best efforts, we can come to accept devastating ideas about ourselves and our value as human beings.

As a therapist, I am constantly listening for the messages about ourselves and others that have become deeply embedded in our brains. What are the ideas about what it means to be you that you carry with you every single day? I am weak. I am not worthy. I am not a good person. My value is conditional. These are not messages that are helpful or healthy. These are messages that are limiting, controlling, and worthless.

What is is like to recite these ideas about yourself?

I am valuable.
I am loved just as I am.
I am enough.

What surfaces for you as you say these words? Do they resonate? Even if it feels awkward, is there some part of you that wants these things to be true? Do you feel a sense of warmth or a sense of emptiness?

How you experience these questions will say something about what you believe about yourself. If you’re able, make rehearsing these phrases a part of your daily routine. The only way to extract the negativity permanently is to replace it is positive, healthy messages. If you’re not able to say these things about yourself – if it feels untrue or inauthentic – maybe it’s time to find a trusted confidant, a friend, or a therapist to begin processing the difficulties and working towards fostering a deeper sense of self-compassion.

If the beliefs about yourself and others were reinforced by a spiritual community, maybe it’s time to reconstruct your ideas about God. As the author of Healing Spiritual Wounds asked, “What’s the point of religion if it doesn’t bring you hope?” Questions like these may be disruptive but, when they’re processed in a place of safety, they can open up new ways of seeing the world, others, and ourselves that can help us believe in ourselves again.