What if our mistakes, flaws, imperfections and mess aren’t our biggest problem? What if our biggest problem is the story we tell ourselves about them? And what if there was a place where we could go, to hear a different story?

shame

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The to-do list when you’re launching a therapy practice is a mile long.

For many months, I’ve shared that list with my friend and co-founder of Artisan Clinical, David Clinton. Together, doggedly and determinedly, we’ve been whittling it down. Several weeks ago, on a Monday night, I had one thing left on my list.

Program the thermostat in the new office.

I tried and failed, over and over again. So, impulsively, I went out, bought a new thermostat, opened it, and was promptly reminded to turn off power to the furnace before installation. I don’t have access to the fuse box in our rented suite. There would be no quick start for this thermostat. So I gave up. Then, a week later, on another Monday night, a client suggested I simply download the instructions for the old thermostat.

Oh. Yeah.

Wisdom goes both ways in a therapeutic relationship.

Later that evening, it took about ten minutes to download the owner’s manual and to program the old thermostat. The temperature in our new office was now officially under control.

But something inside of me wasn’t.

I felt embarrassed I hadn’t come up with the solution on my own. I felt guilty I’d wasted money on a new thermostat we didn’t need. That I’m-not-good-enough feeling can visit upon us in many guises and, this time, it had returned in the shape of an unnecessary thermostat. So, this is what I texted David:

“I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Okay, the good news. I found a manual on-line and figured out how to program the thermostat. It was every bit as asinine as it seemed to be. The bad news is, I wasted $20 on a thermostat (I already opened the package like a dummy).”

I called it a night and went to bed.

But I wasn’t alone. My shame was there with me.

Shame can take many forms.

It’s the rush of color to our face after a joke made at our expense. It’s the rush of adrenaline when asked to speak up, to reveal a bit of our imperfect inner space. It’s the subtle exaggeration of our successes and the subtle masking of our mistakes. It’s a dark depression, telling us to stay in bed, because we don’t add anything of value to the world. It’s a sweeping panic, convincing us no one and nothing is safe enough to trust with who we are. It’s a deep loneliness that takes us by the shoulders, looks us in the eye, and tells us we’re alone because we’re not interesting enough, not successful enough, not attractive enough, not funny enough, not smart enough, not strong enough, and quite simply, not good enough.

But more than anything, shame is a voice.

And it is constantly murmuring at the edges of our mind. Telling us a story about who we are. Shame is a creative author. A fiction writer. It uses lies and half-truths to weave a tale about our insufficiency, about the importance of other peoples’ opinions, and about a world in which love is scarce and belonging is an endangered species.

The night of the thermostat, I went to sleep with my shame. It was telling me I’m not handy enough and not manly enough. Not wise enough and not flawless enough.

Fortunately, in the morning, I awoke to another voice.

David had responded with this:

“The bad news: you are in danger of wasting precious life feeling bad about a cheap piece of plastic. The good news: there is a dumpster in the parking lot. Once the cheap plastic thing is inside of said dumpster, you are free to never think about it again.”

He didn’t try to convince me I hadn’t made a mistake. That would just be more shame, subtly implying I have to be perfect to be okay. He also didn’t tell me my mistake didn’t matter. Again, that would come with an unspoken implication: your mess is okay as long as it doesn’t impact me. No, he bypassed my error altogether.

By telling me I could let go of it.

David’s a great friend, and he’s also a great therapist. Because he helps everyone tell a different story—a better story—with their lives. That’s what therapy is all about. Most of the time, our biggest problem in life isn’t the mistakes we’ve made; it’s the story we tell ourselves about them.

We need new voices, reminding us there are other stories we can tell ourselves about our brokenness, flaws, imperfection, and mess.

We need a fresh voice, reminding us we are enough, just the way we are.

We need a voice like love, telling us we aren’t wasting our one precious life with mistakes; we’re wasting our life rehearsing them, over and over again.

We need a voice of grace, pointing us toward the dumpster, reminding us we can toss out the old, crummy narratives our shame has been repeating for most of our lives.

We need a new story, but we have to throw out the old one first.

Therapy reminds us that we can.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan

Dr. Kelly Flanagan

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist, practicing at Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives at DrKellyFlanagan.com. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan
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