Overcompensating is the only way we know how to effectively re-enter life – by creating a façade of what we believe to be acceptable, in hopes of safeguarding our inner brokenness. In constructing the façade, however, the shame messages within us cause us to go overboard, thinking we can will ourselves to be whole – or at least appear to be. Chronic overcompensation predictably morphs into compulsivity and the need for control. As shame-based people, we have a tendency to exert control over any outcome we fear. If this paradigm is threatened or jeopardized or compromised, the worst aspects of our character may unwittingly become exposed.
Bradshaw claims that “shame is transmitted within family systems and is the root cause of all addictive and compulsive behaviors.” It’s not merely the behavior or habit or tendency that is problematic. The root issue is that we can’t not do it, despite our firm resolve to the contrary. Any concern about what our compulsivity might cost us is far outweighed by our fear that our secret shame may be laid bare.
What Is Compulsivity?
The online resource Wikipedia defines compulsive behavior as: “Performing an action persistently, repetitively, and excessively without it necessarily leading to the ‘promised’ outcome or pleasure.”
So, if our compulsiveness hasn’t already manifested itself in the midst of our preferred form of acting out our shame, it will most certainly rear its head as a desperate, compulsive attempt to overcompensate externally for our shame and brokenness on the inside. We become experts at creating and maintaining an “acceptable” façade to protect our pain.
- A woman experienced shaming by her parents after becoming pregnant while still in high school. Now as a mother, she compulsively controls every action and decision her teenage daughter makes.
- A man who, as a child, was teased day after day by his family for being chubby, now compulsively runs several miles every single day and refuses to ever miss a day. He believes that if he doesn’t run every day, he’ll become fat and unacceptable.
- A person who was raised in a home where life felt out of control, is now compulsively perfectionistic in an effort to create a controlled, perfect, and predictable environment around themselves.
- A woman experienced deep emotional woundedness from her father while she was a child and adolescent. As a result she has unknowingly become “over-sexualized,” subconsciously hoping her need for male affirmation and affection will be satisfied through provocativeness and sex.
The nature of our acting-out behavior and the nature of our compulsivity often have little resemblance to one another. Our compulsiveness is merely our way of distracting ourselves from the reality of the pain inside us, while projecting an image around ourselves that portrays the image that we want others to see. Although we may not consciously realize it, all of this compulsive effort serves as our well-constructed strategy to protect our shame, brokenness, and humanness from ever being seen by others.
The longer I continued in my pattern of pornography and lust, the more compulsively “perfect” I presented myself to others. I needed them to see how “good” I was so they would never suspect anything dark and secret going on in my private life. Somehow people had become convinced they needed to apologize to me if they said a cuss word in my presence. Co-workers wouldn’t invite me to social get-togethers because they knew I “didn’t drink.” Any time there was a gathering of family or friends, I was always the person they asked to pray before the meal, because I was the “most religious.” Others perceived me as a godly man, husband, father, and citizen. All the while, I was protecting my secret at all cost. The opposite of toxic shame is not wholeness. It is pretentiousness.
But I thank God every day that wasn’t the end of my story. In fact, it’s where my real story actually began. And God is still writing it today!
Through that long season of inward brokenness and outward pretentiousness, God in His mercy saw fit, over twenty years ago, to allow me to crash and burn, losing almost everything that meant anything to me – fired from my job, publicly humiliated, lived on unemployment, filed bankruptcy, and eventually divorced my wife of twenty-one years.
Then, from the ground up, God began growing within me a new life filled with grace, hope, authenticity, and purpose. He took all of my broken pieces and made them into a masterpiece!
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