The Harpies were monsters in Greek mythology, having the form of a bird and a human face. They carried evildoers to be punished by the Erinyes. Their name means “snatchers” or “swift robbers”.
I think we all have Harpies. They might be internal voices, ones that whisper we’re not good enough, we’ll never succeed. Voices that taunt us for past mistakes. They may be external: voices of (ahem) friends or family. And they can be swift: a quick dive in from a Harpy’s talons can lay waste to all positivity.
I awoke earlier this week with my least favourite brand of Harpy in my brain: the Shame Harpy. One of the contemporary scholars of shame, Gershen Kaufman says this, “Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.”
When you’re wounded from within, you can feel like you never get away from it. It is always with you. With shame, it’s not an action, I’m not writing about anyone actually doing anything wrong. It’s the feeling – the thoughts that we are somehow wrong, defective, inadequate, not good enough, or not strong enough.
Shame is, as Brene Brown writes, the swampland of the soul. Shame is different from guilt. If someone did something to upset me, they would (I hope) be able to say sorry.
Guilt is: “I did something bad, I’m sorry I made a mistake.”
Shame is: “I am bad. I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
I don’t know why the Shame Harpies took up roost. We’ve been dealing with plenty of emotional stresses as a family. Unpacking past traumas. Plus, when running a business doesn’t go as well as expected, you also have days of doubt.
So there’s never one thing. Nothing to easily explain why this insidious whispering was JUST THERE as I opened my eyes from sleep. However, I have a history that sowed such seeds. And some days they explode without warning, looming large like triffids, and the Shame Harpies can land in their branches and begin.
The first trick is in recognising them and the damage they do as they flap and squawk in my brain. Recovery from trauma is rarely linear and some days can feel more swampland than solid ground. I wanted to stay in bed and pull the covers over my head. The darkness feels more attractive than the harsh light of day. In the dark, no-one can find me and inadvertently scratch my too-raw emotional skin.
But me, myself, and a choir of Shame Harpies alone in the dark do not a great combination make. Brown writes if you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.
So trick number 2: get out in the light, stop being silent, secretive and passing judgment on myself. For years I treated myself with my personal brand of the impatient warrior: harsh, unkind and frustrated with such weakness. It was a poor healing protocol.
Yet, Brown’s research also shows that if you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. So, instead, I try to be gentle and empathetic towards myself. For that gift, I can only thank the Jesus fella.
You might wonder how serving myself up some Son of God helps. After all, supreme perfection is a difficult yardstick when you’re trying to throttle a Shame Harpie. But it is Jesus, the Son of God in his humanity, in the flesh, who has the ability to understand and share my feelings the best. He who experienced tiredness, pain, and abandonment is the one who pours out empathy.
One of my most treasured people in the Bible, whom I can’t wait to meet in heaven, is the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well.
For her, Jesus is different from all the other men she has come across. Men who might have slept with, used and discarded her. He is different from those who had left her feeling inadequate and shamed. Jesus is different from the townspeople who judge her. He offers her time, pays her attention and speaks to her gently. He offers her what her heart is thirsting for: empathy.
But when he declares to her, “I am he” he goes one better. In that, Jesus moves from empathy, the empathy of his humanity that douses our shame, to something FAR bigger.
Restoration. I am He. The Christ. The Messiah. “Know who I am,” promises Jesus, “and I will restore you to what you are supposed to be. Spotless, perfect, a wonderful child of God, created to be in relationship with our heavenly Father.”
Jesus, as fully human, douses my shame, just as he douses the shame of the Samarian woman, everyone’s shame with empathy. But as fully God, as the Messiah, he sees into our hearts, sees past our veneers, our hurts. And He goes beyond an empathetic fix-up, as wonderful and tender as that is. He doesn’t simply fix-up. He restores.
So if I am restored, why do those damn Shame Harpies come back to roost? Well, I guess because I live between two points: the cross and eternity. The saving grace of Jesus and the work his Holy Spirit is doing in me each day to make me a little more like him is a process – just like recovery. Some days I forget and get in the way, which is often the biggest problem.
But when I draw closer to Jesus, the shame harpies get quieter. It’s simple to write, so often hard to practice. But I know now how he works. You see, in shame we condemn ourselves. But Jesus doesn’t. He came to heal and restore, as I am reminded by Romans 8:
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ because through Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free.