An Elephant’s Mindset?
I was thinking recently about how much I get held back from becoming all that God would have me to be and from all that I would like to become. I got to thinking about the insecurities that get in my way, and the fears that cripple me, and certain habits that drag me down.
As I thought about it, I realized how I tend to react to life often with the mindset of a trained elephant. I once read about a circus elephant that had a rope tied around one of its legs, but the rope was not attached to anything. Someone asked the elephant handler why the elephant did not run away since the rope was not tied to anything except the elephant’s leg. The handler explained that while the elephant was growing up, the rope was attached to a spike in the ground, and the elephant would try with all of its strength to pull against the spike but could not gain its freedom. After a while the elephant got used to the containment of the rope and stopped trying to get away. After that, the handler was able to remove the rope from the spike. It was enough just to have the rope tied around the leg of the elephant.
I realized that in growing up I experienced something like the elephant. There were some things that tied me down or that shrunk my world. In certain ways I felt belittled, put down, and/or shamed. Certain things caused me to feel that I would never amount to very much, or that people were not interested in me, or that I was simply in the way, or that it was better for people when I was not around. Each time I experienced those things, it was like the rope on the chain got yanked. Whenever that happened, I would say to myself, “Whoops, I can’t go very far in that direction. That’s as much as I can make of myself in that regard.”
I am beginning to realize that what often holds me back from becoming all that I can be and experiencing life more fully is the mindset of a chained elephant.
To put it differently, what often holds me back from becoming all that I can be and from experiencing life more fully is a lingering sense of shame.
In an article on “Shame,” Jan Luckingham Fable points out, “Excessive shame is a prison. It keeps a person caged in feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, and even despair.”
Some of the other things she says about shame that I can identify with deeply are these:
“Shamed people fear that if others really knew them, they’d be disgusted or hate them. People who have been shamed also dread being caught in a mistake or any kind.”
“The basic nature of chronic, or excessive, shame is that the shamed person believes, at some level, that she—or he—should not exist, that she is a worthless, defective and empty human being.”
“Paralysis—the ability to do or say anything—is a result of excessive shame and also intensifies it. Another result is diminished energy: shame leaves us feeling smaller, weaker, and less potent. Shamed people build defenses to protect themselves from feeling completely overwhelmed all the time. One defense is escape, a pattern of seeking out private secure places where one can be alone and unseen. Withdrawal is another defense which includes actually running away as well as emotional withdrawal by developing elaborate masks—like smiling, always pleasing others, trying to appear self-confident and comfortable—that cover the real self. The shamed person sometimes thinks there will be nothing to feel ashamed about if he never makes a mistake, and so defends against shame by becoming a perfectionist who can’t allow himself to fall short in anything.”
I don’t want to remain held back by shame or by the mindset of a chained elephant. So what does it take to move away from such a mindset? Jan Fable comments, “Healing the shame requires patience and the courage to uncover and explore those shaming events which created that core concept. It’s also necessary to identify the defenses you have put in place in order to avoid shame…. Healing from shame involves dealing with the wounds of childhood, grief work, giving voice to one’s inner child, and, in Bradshaw’s words, ‘the integration of your disowned parts’…. Finally, the most important thing you can do is to choose to love yourself.”
I would add that the most important thing I can do is to keep taking to heart God’s love, claiming it for myself, and sharing it with others.