Escaping the Secret Life
Do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself worthy for God to love you? On FamilyLife Today, hosts Dave and Ann Wilson talk with author and speaker, Sharon Hersh, about her book, "Belonging," and the life of addiction she knew needed God's healing.
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Do you ever feel like you have to prove yourself worthy for God to love you? Author and speaker Sharon Hersh talks about the life of addiction she knew needed God’s healing.
Escaping the Secret Life
Bob: One of the things that keeps us from healthy relationships in marriage, in our family, relationships with others is the secrets that we carry. Here’s author and counselor, Sharon Hersh.
Sharon: We don’t carry our secrets; they carry us. They carry us into shame, guilt, despair, feeling like a fraud, not being able to connect with other people. We don’t feel like we belong, because we’re not our true self.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 18th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What do we do with our secrets, with our shame and our guilt? How do we break the power they have over us and the impact they have on our relationships? We’re going to talk more about that today with Sharon Hersh. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You guys know Matt Chandler, the pastor in Dallas.
Bob: Matt was part of the Stepping Up® video series that we did, and he’s a well-known pastor and author.
Ann: He’s a great teacher.
Bob: He is. He said something one time that has kind of stuck with me; he said: “At our church, we tell people it’s okay not to be okay. It’s just not okay to stay there.”
I’ve always thought that’s a great perspective; and it’s a perspective I think all of us, who are a part of the faith, need to acknowledge: “It’s okay not to be okay,” because I—
Ann: Is anyone okay?
Bob: Well, that’s the point! [Laughter] That’s the point; we’re all a mess, and we’d probably all be better off if we would acknowledge the mess that we are.
Ann: —and admit.
Bob: I think what we’re going to talk about here this week is the fact that this mess that is us—if we can be honest with ourselves and honest with God about that mess, and maybe start to be bold enough to be honest with one another—
Dave: Yes; I always want to—whenever I address this topic/the brokenness of us—which is absolutely real and sometimes so despicable you can’t believe it’s in your wife; [Laughter] okay, it’s in yourself!—I’m kidding. Because we see it in everybody else, but it’s in us.
But at the other side—this is what I want to say: “There’s an image of God that’s real,”—and there’s a redemption that meets both. They’re both true simultaneously.
Bob: That’s why, when we can begin to acknowledge the brokenness and be honest about it, we’re on the path to the restoration of the glory that God implanted when he implanted His image in us.
We’re going to be talking about that with our friend, Sharon Hersh, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Sharon, welcome back.
Sharon: It’s great to be with you. FamilyLife® has always been so gracious to me; because, you know, I started out as a speaker for the FamilyLife marriage team; then my life fell apart and became very messy, like we’re talking about. I think there’s a bad rap in the Christian circle that there’s not grace for people whose lives fall apart; that is not something I have ever experienced. What I have experienced from people, like you, is that the mess can become a message.
Bob: That’s right.
Sharon: I think I identify with more people than we even realize that what’s on the surface of our lives is important, but what’s way deep down inside—that we’re afraid to talk about, because we have this myth or lie that everyone will reject us, and no one will love us, and no one will want us back—I am here today to say that is not true.
Bob: Sharon is an author. She teaches as an adjunct professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. She does counseling; she’s the mother of two adult children. Your latest book, Belonging, is probably the most—
Bob: —transparent of any of the books you’ve written. This was kind of a journey to be able to say, “Okay, I’m going to be transparent with my readers/with people,” because there is healing that comes when you open that door. As scary as that is, there’s healing on the other side; isn’t there?
Sharon: There is. You know, it took some time. I think, as my dear friend, Brennan Manning, who’s no longer with us, said—and he’s known for telling people the truth about his life—but he also said, “I tell people as much truth as I want to.” As I heard that from him, I began to think, “What’s the truth I’m not telling?”
Bob: You started—let’s go back to middle school; you were a high-performer/high-achiever—I mean, you had a public persona that you were trying to live up to, even when you knew about the junk in your own heart. You thought, “I just have to keep all of that hidden and be this person everybody expects me to be.”
Ann: Well, I thought it was interesting, Sharon, because you start your book by stating: “I don’t know how my life became all about me, but it did.” That’s what you’re referring to, Bob. Back in your early years, that’s what you were referring to; what do you mean by that?
Sharon: I love that both of you have started at the beginning, because our stories do tell us who we are. That’s why, as a therapist, I’m very interested in people’s stories.
I learned—and I’m not placing the blame for this for anyone—but I learned, early on, that looking good made things better. I mean, if you have middle schoolers out there, you know that! Looking good is what it’s all about. Sometimes looking good in the church is what it’s all about. But we don’t need to blame the church, because that is our world.
I felt, in this conflict/like from the very beginning, that—as Romans, Chapters 6 and 7 says—“The things I want to do I can’t figure out a way to do them; and the things that I don’t want to do, that’s what I find myself doing.” So the message, from early on, was: “Try harder,” “Do better,” and “Look good.” When you are caught in that terrible trap of—“I need to be more,” “I need to do better, but I can’t,”—
Ann: What did that look like, specifically, as you were growing up?
Sharon: I think I questioned my faith in middle school. I remember a story of being at a Josh McDowell conference—which those who are listening, who are old like me, remember that [Laughter]—and thinking, “I don’t belong here.” It is the sense of: “Where do I belong? I don’t belong in the church; because I question things; and I do things that, if anyone knew, they’d kick me out.”
Yet, this feeling that, “I want to belong to something that is more than me,” which we have certainly seen in our culture in these days. People want to belong to a cause, an idea, a movement that is more than just ourselves. Being caught in that conflict left me feeling like: “I’m not enough,” “I can’t do it right,” “No matter how hard I try, I’m going to fail.” So—and this is the deadly part of my story—and I wonder if people out there could identify with this.
Dave: Is that where the title, Belonging—I mean, that is a word, when you hear it, it’s emotional—is that where it came from?
Sharon: It is. The belief that, to belong, I have to keep things secret.
As I say in the book, it didn’t take me too long into my early adult life to figure out: “We don’t carry our secrets; they carry us.”
Dave: Oh, talk about that. What do you mean?
Sharon: Well, I think that we believe: “If I don’t tell anyone about this…” “If I don’t express this doubt…” “If no one knows about this behavior…”—and certainly part of my story that I am very open to talk about is being an alcoholic and being in recovery: two steps forward; three steps back for 30 years—that the parts we keep secret carry us into shame, guilt, despair, feeling like a fraud, not being able to connect with other people. We don’t feel like we belong, because we’re not our true self.
Ann: You know, I went on vacation, as a seven-year-old, with my family; it was one of those great trips that I can remember. But as you were talking, this flashback in my mind, Sharon, that I can remember having had some sexual abuse happen before this trip; but on this trip, we had vacationed with families that we had never been with. That same abuse happened with an older teenage boy. I never forgot that trip; because it was after that time that it started in my head, this thought, “Something must be wrong with me.”
Before, I thought, “Maybe this is just they’re messed up.” But that was the day it solidified in my mind: “It’s me; something’s wrong with me.” I had that sense that I didn’t belong/that there must be something wrong with me; and I’m over here by myself, when all the world is right, but I’m not.
There’s a tragedy in that—for so many of us that have that sense—“I don’t belong.”
Bob: You had that as a child; you share about it in your book.
Sharon: I do. There are many stories in this book that I have never told until this book; because, as you’re saying, Ann—as children especially—when we have tragedy or betrayal happen in our lives, we believe, “It’s my fault.”
Ann: And we tuck it away.
Sharon: So as we begin to tell the truth about our lives—now, I don’t want to make this all rainbows and happiness—because telling the truth about our lives is scary. We will be judged by some people.
Bob: You’ll lose friends.
Bob: You’ve lost friends.
Sharon: I have; and yet, at the same time, I know there is something about telling the truth about my life. The book, Belonging, begins with telling about a DUI I got 15 years ago, and something I still feel shame about as I talk about it today. Yet, what I know is that those people, who judge me, maybe have not had experience with the situation; or maybe they’re scared of something in their own lives.
Ann: Sharon, take us back to that; like what happened?
Sharon: You know—whether you’re seven and you carry a secret for a long time—I was carrying this secret that I was addicted to alcohol. As a Christian—and I was a Christian; I loved God, and I wanted to serve Him—but that did not negate this biological reality that was going on in my life.
Bob: Did that start in high school for you?
Sharon: No, it started in my early 20s.
Ann: Let me be the therapist for a second, please! You have a secret that’s alcoholism; but in any kind of addiction, we’re escaping something else. Had you dealt with what you were escaping from?
Sharon: No; such a great question! Because we are tempted, when someone in our lives is doing selfish, unthinkable behavior—and that’s what alcoholism is—our temptation is to say: “What are you doing?!” “How can you do this?!”
Sharon: Yes! Instead of asking, as you just did, Ann, “What’s the pain behind that?”
Bob: What was the pain that opened the door to alcohol for you?
Sharon: It was anxiety. That anxiety is fueled—there can be chemical realities—but for me, I think it was fueled by this performance energy that: “I have to look good,” “I have to do more,” “I have got to rise above the questions, doubts, pain in my life.”
As a 21-year-old, I discovered alcohol, which numbed the pain, took away the questions, made me feel—
Ann: —gave you courage.
Sharon: —at home in my own skin.
It wasn’t a problem until it became a problem. As I have said often: “Alcohol makes everything better, until it makes everything worse.”
Sharon: At that time of my life, when I got a DUI, my marriage was falling apart. All of my strategies to prove that I was a good Christian—which, if you just hear that sentence, it negates the gospel—but it’s what I believed. All my strategies were falling apart.
At that time, the liquor stores were closed in Colorado on Sundays. I went to a restaurant and started to order drinks to numb me to [myself]. My life had become all about me, and that’s hard to admit; because we see in our culture, people—who are celebrities or political figures—who we can easily say, “Oh, their life are all about them.” But most of us think about: “What makes me look better?” “What makes me look successful?” “What do I want?” “What makes me feel good?”
As I was driving home from that restaurant, the most terrible thing I could imagine happened. I saw the flashing lights of the police car behind me. I thought, “Okay; the gig is up. I cannot outperform the pain, and doubt, and questions in my life.” Certainly, that came home to me when they took me to a detox facility and said, “Okay, you can leave; call someone.”
I thought, “Who would I call? Who could I tell the truth about me to anyone?” That opened the door to a journey that I did not expect. I mean, I was not 20 years old.
Sharon: I was 40 years old.
Ann: And you had kids that were in your house still.
Sharon: —that were teenagers.
To begin to rethink what it looks like to live a life of faith—not in me but in Someone who is far more than me—it sounds good, but it’s not easy.
Dave: So was that the worst night of your life, or do you look back and say it actually was a turning point?
Sharon: It was a turning point. It was not the worst night of my life; I thought it was at that point, Dave.
Sharon: It really opened the door for me to think, “Do I believe I am loved by God, not for what I do or don’t do, but because of who God is?”
Ann: It reminds me of a quote—it’s a friend of mine who said this—“All of our hatred or lack of self-esteem is denying everything that God wanted you to be and choosing to see yourself as the enemy wants you to be seen. This is actually a form of pride; in that, pride is not necessarily thinking a lot of yourself, but it’s thinking of yourself a lot. You’re believing yourself more than you’re believing God.” Does that resonate with what you’re saying?
Sharon: It does resonate; and yet, for most of us, it’s counterintuitive. We think the life of faith is proving ourselves; I certainly believed it was protecting myself.
Bob: I talked about this subject in one of the chapters in the book, Love Like You Mean It, because 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Love rejoices in the truth.” In marriage, I think we all have this tendency to want to only show to one another—in marriage, where we’re supposed to be naked and unashamed, where we’re supposed to be transparent/be one with one another—it’s still kind of like, “If you really knew this about me, you would run. You would not want to be here; you would say, ‘I’ve made a mistake’; you’d look for an out as quickly as you could.” So we keep a manicured performance.
Dave: —even in our own home.
Ann: It’s sad; isn’t it?—because it’s the place where, hopefully, we are received with all of our flaws, and all of our frailty, and all of our failures.
Bob: I think part of the reason we are afraid to be honest is because we’ve seen other people be honest, and we’ve seen them be punished for their honesty. We’ve seen them bear the reproach of others, who have said, “Oh, that’s you?” —and they’ve been shunned; they’ve been outcast—we go, “Well, I’m not doing that.”
Dave: Well, I mean, I’m thinking, Sharon, if you walked into church a day or two after you got pulled over for a DUI: “What are people going to think?” It should be the place, where they go, “We’re here to help”; but it’s the place, often, of judgment.
Ann: I think, too, Sharon, what you said is: “Who would I call?”
I think we all have to decide that: “Do I have someone that I can let them see all of me?” I think that’s a really important question—whether you’re married/whether you’re single—that we all have to have someone besides God; because God’s the first One to be honest with, I would say; but also someone else, to say: “This is who I am,” and “I’m really struggling.” Do we have that person?
Dave: “Do I belong?”
Bob: Here’s I think the other thing I ‘ve recognized in all of this—because some of us can be pretty good performers—and we can go, “I can hold it together. I don’t know what happened to Sharon. She got sided, but I can hold it all together.” What that breeds is self-righteousness and judgmental-ism. You become one of these people: “Why can’t you hold it all together? Why can’t you be good like me?”
Either one—you go back to Luke 15, the story of the prodigal son?—there are two messed-up people in that parable.
Dave: They both missed the gospel.
Bob: That’s right! There’s the prodigal, who lived out in the world; and there’s the self-righteous older brother, who said, “Why can’t you be perfect like me?” Both of them needed forgiveness, and hope, and restoration. That’s why the father comes to the self-righteous older brother and says, “Aren’t you coming to the party?” He [older brother] said, “How come I don’t get a party? I’ve been perfect!” The father says, “You’re welcome in if you’ll…”—“Blessed are the poor in spirit; they’re the ones who see God.”
This is really where you take us in your book, Belonging, which we have available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. The subtitle is Finding the Way Back to One Another. I just think about the marriages, where transparency needs to be a part of the relationship—all of our relationships—being more open and honest with one another. This is at the heart of Sharon’s book. Again, you can order the book from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get a copy of Sharon Hersh’s book, Belonging. The website, again: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order: 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I also want to say, “Thank you,” to those of you who are regular listeners to FamilyLife Today, and those of you who, from time to time, will get in touch with us and say: “We are grateful for how God is using this ministry in our life, in our community, in our world. Thank you for the ongoing work of FamilyLife Today. We want to support what you’re doing with a donation.” Those donations are the lifeblood of this ministry. You make it possible for us to be here every day for us to reach more people, more often, all around the world. There are hundreds of thousands of people being impacted today by a conversation like this because of investments, listeners like you, have made in this ministry.
If you’re able to help today with a donation in support of this ministry, we’d love to send you, as a thank-you gift, a copy of a book we talked about earlier this week/a book called Toxic Sons- and Daughters-in-Law by Doyle Roth. That book looks at how we should interact with our sons- or daughters-in-law if there has been some kind of disruption in our family unity as a result of them being grafted in. Again, the book is our thank-you gift to you when you donate to support this ministry. You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk more with Sharon Hersh about the courage to be honest about who we really are and what we do when that honesty invites scorn or ridicule. How do we handle that? We’ll have that conversation tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some special help from Bruce Goff; and of course, our entire broadcast production team was a part of shaping this program. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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