I recently read about a group therapy researcher who had non-patients he was training (from a variety of helping professions) gather in groups and then complete a “top-secret” assignment. It was the same task he gave patients in his groups to perform. He asked trainees to write down on a slip of paper, anonymously, the one thing about themselves they would least be willing to share with their peers. Then, he collected those slips.
Before I go on, take a moment to imagine what you would write. What would you NOT want others to know?
What he discovered surprised me (though I suppose it shouldn’t have, given how many men’s stories I’ve heard). He revealed that the secrets people have that they don’t want to share with others “proved to be startlingly similar.” Only a few major themes predominated the vast collection of human shame—true in high-functioning people-helpers as well as patients seeking treatment.
He found, “the most common secret people have is a deep conviction of basic inadequacy—a feeling that one is basically incompetent, that one bluffs one’s way through life. Next in frequency is a deep sense of interpersonal alienation—that despite appearances, one really does not, or cannot, care for or love another person. The third most request category is some variety of sexual secret.”
That’s it. That’s virtually the whole spectrum of our human shame. While the details may vary, we are all actually burdened by really only a few things, and mostly have them in common. We are more alike in what we don’t tell anyone than we are different.
Which brings to mind something I heard almost three decades ago and has stuck with me: “That which is most personal is most universal.”
The researcher was not suggesting our shame is insignificant or trivializing the pain and isolation that accompanies our inner struggles. Rather, he was pointing out that one of the most healing aspects of the group therapy he and others facilitate is what he labels “Universality.” Only by getting into community can we find out that what we think sets us apart really makes us most like those around us. We find out that what we thought was “just me” is actually “you, too!” And just that discovery by patients is a significant moment in their healing journey.
Which reminds me of two Scripture passages familiar to any man who has attended an initial Crucible Men’s weekend: James 5:16, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another” and Ephesians 4:25, “Each of you must put off false personas and self-deception; speak truthfully to your brother, for we are all members of one body and we need each other’s honesty.”
In this same vein, I recently heard a very non-scientific observation from a pastor who listens to many confessions from parishioners each week. She told an audience that in her experience, “people’s confessions are not all that shocking. Many I find rather boring. I don’t say this out loud, but I find myself thinking, I am really quite underwhelmed by your sins. I mean no insult; but if you want scare me away or freak out God, you really should go out and try harder.”
I don’t mean to make light of the pain of shame. It is crushing—I know. But the world out there doesn’t assign shame’s weight. We do. The world out there isn’t stoning us. We are beating ourselves up. We attend our one-person pity parties not because we are alone, but because we feel alone. Community—authentic, open, vulnerable sharing—heals that wound. Both God’s Word, and this researcher’s findings, dispel the myth of “if you only knew, you’d think I was weird”.
We all do know. Because we have all done … we have all thought … we have all felt the same things.
By Judson Poling
Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.