The Mess Will Set You Free!

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Photo Credit: Massdistraction (Creative Commons)

Could the “the good life” be costing us our freedom?

A missionary to Guatemala was standing in our kitchen—and two police officers were standing on our doorstep—when I decided I needed to answer that question. The question itself had been posed to me two days earlier.

By a Ukrainian immigrant standing in our driveway.

He was thumbing through the debris of our summer yard sale when I introduced myself. He told me his family had been in the U.S. for several years. I asked him if he was happy here. His answer surprised me.

He said, “My children want to return to the Ukraine, because there is no freedom here in the United States. In the Ukraine, you can have a beer and walk across a field and no one stops you, no one tells you it’s not your field. In the U.S., you can’t do that. Everything is controlled. There is no freedom.”

I think it went in one ear and out the other.

Until two days later when a visiting missionary parked on the wrong side of our street, and within minutes there were two squad cars at our curb. That doesn’t happen in Guatemala. Or the Ukraine, apparently.

Could the cost of our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness be an over-controlled land and a subtle loss of freedom? But even more important to me as a psychologist: if this is true at the local and national level, might it also be true at the individual level?

I think the answer to that question begins and ends with our shame.

FROM ONE ENSLAVEMENT TO ANOTHER

From our earliest days, we soak up messages about our flaws and brokenness.  We infant-cry too long and too loud in the dark hours of the night and a frustrated parent puts us down hard and doesn’t come back and our repulsiveness gets worked into our emotional DNA. We cry over spilled milk—not because we’re out of milk but because a parent is out of patience—and our mistakes become fused to our core. We gain our adolescent weight before we gain our adolescent height and the kids giggle as we jiggle and our value gets confused with the numbers on the scale.

Life is chaotic and every mistake and problem and hardship rings out like a gavel—another verdict cast against our worthiness. We feel fundamentally lacking at our core.

And we run from it. We bury it and we seek a safe harbor.

In the good life.

The good life is our solution to shame. It’s a place of perfection, where we try to make it impossible for anyone to shame us again. We accrue wealth and accolades and a meticulously constructed façade.

But the good life requires enormous amounts of control.

Every dollar is watched like a hawk. Our children—these little extensions of our own perfection—must be hovered over and policed. Every blade of grass cut and every shrub trimmed pristinely. Every hair must be in place. Danger and risk must be eliminated. Safety helmets are bought. Insurance policies galore. Kids aren’t allowed to walk outside alone. And dangerous emotions like anger and sadness? Buried deep. No room for them in this “brave new world.”

Is it any wonder the good life ends up feeling like a prison?

We don’t heal our shame with the good life. We get enslaved by the good life.

THE OPPOSITE OF SHAME

So, how do we heal our shame?

For centuries, cultures have considered the opposite of shame to be honor. In these days, I think we consider the opposite of shame to be perfection and pride and status.

But the opposite of shame is none of these.

The opposite of shame is mess: the mess of life and the mess of our selves embraced with a radical self-acceptance and the grace of belovedness. The healing of our shame begins when our heart stops beating to the self-loathing cadence of “I am a hideous mess,” and begins singing to the redemptive rhythm of “I am a glorious mess.”

My nine-year-old son Aidan—who we sometimes refer to as the absent-minded professor—is often so busy thinking that life gets a little messy for him. Several weeks ago, he walked out of his bedroom, ostensibly ready for school. He presented himself in the kitchen and looked down at himself. One foot was bare and the other had two socks on it. He looked up at us, a wry smile on his face, and shaking his head turned back toward the bedroom, saying, “My brain, it sure is silly sometimes.”

My heart cracked at the absolute shamelessness in his voice. A little boy, with a knowing smile, absolutely embracing his messy self. Lopsided socks and all.

FROM SLAVERY TO REVOLUTION

When we try to control, and order, and perfect everything, we may successfully hide our shame. For awhile. But we are also creating a delusion. Because real life is messy. It’s blood-sweat-and-tears messy. It’s anxiety and sadness and embarrassment messy. It’s tragic and unpredictable.

And it is absolutely beautiful.

Not despite the mess, but because of the mess.

And you are, too.

You are the opposite of perfect. You’re a perfect mess. Quirks and failures and insecurities and triumphs and blissful moments and all. The whole glorious mess of you.

Does this mean we accept everything and never change anything about ourselves? Do we just walk through the world with two socks on one foot? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the sometimes hard and painful process of transformation can also be a joyful journey, because our lives no longer depend upon it. Because it’s all icing on the cake and we get to redeem it all with a wry smile.

The Ukrainian immigrant at my summer yard sale changed the way I think about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He helped me realize life is messy. Liberty is the freedom to embrace this fundamental reality. And happiness? Well, happiness is doing so shamelessly.

And people who have embraced the mess—shameless people—start a lot of trouble in this world. They can’t be controlled or dominated with fear and shame. So they are absolutely free to love gracefully and to live fully with a reckless abandon.

And this makes the shameless people the true revolutionaries.

How about you? Want to join the freedom of a glorious, messy revolution?

Question: Have you embraced anything messy about life or yourself? Did you feel free? You can share your comment by clicking here.

DEAR READER, Yesterday, in order to increase the functionality of the blog, I transitioned from a WordPress-hosted blog to a self-hosted WordPress blog. The transition should appear seamless to you. In other words, the perfect façade should be intact. But life is messy, right? And I’m sure there will be some flaws in the process. Let me know in the comments or by e-mail if you are having any trouble with the site.   As always, I’m grateful for your readership. It’s a gift. Blessings, Kelly

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kenj

    Your posts never fail to bless me. Thank you for sharing your expertise, your loneliness, and your shame to us who feel that same shame and loneliness and who are trying to hide behind the pursuit for tidy, unassailable perfection.

    • Elizabeth

      I second this comment! 🙂

  • Arcadio Naranjo

    It is not possible for me, ‘to live having automatic responses in life all the time, and within the conventions of the capitalism system’. I do not feel guilty in certain occasions, if my answers to others are unpredictable and spontaneous. I no longer have the need to satisfy the conventions, as I believe that a free society is that which allows a wide diversity of individuals to coexist together. Therefore, I also allow myself to live and experience the shadow aspects of my personality, with the intention of identifying my weak points. After I notice them, I am sure to be in a better position to know about the nature of the human being and eventually keep creating and constructing myself. Nobody is perfect, but practicing integrity and consciousness, eventually brings to perfection. So I believe, we are potentially perfect beings and It is a constant exercise here and now throughout life. Love is the key! (animals and plants included). It is needed tolerance as a love challenge nowadays! No shame!

  • Risé

    At first, I thought, ‘The opposite of shame is mess’?? Really?! But then I read your words, “The healing of our shame begins when our heart stops beating to the self-loathing cadence of “I am a hideous mess,” and begins singing to the redemptive rhythm of “I am a glorious mess.””

    I grew up in a home being shamed for for my attempts to be perfect in order to earn a mother’s love. For many years I blamed myself and my imperfection for my mother not being able to love me. And believe me, I tried. For years, I tried. And then one day, the blinders came off and I realized that it wasn’t me at all – my mother was incapable of loving me. In fact, her actions revealed more hatred of me than anything.

    It took me a long time (and I still struggle with it now that I’m in my forties) to accept, to truly accept that there was nothing I could do to earn her love or affection. But, the sad thing is, is because of that lack – I still sometimes strive for perfection in my life with the idea that somehow it will give me peace and calm. But it doesn’t – because like you said, ‘life is messy.’ And I loved to hear from you, that’s it’s okay. It’s okay to be messy – to embrace the messy. It’s incredibly hard for me … but praying this is something God changes in me and soon. I think I would be better able to embrace life and the joy of it more if I could let go of this notion that perfection is still the goal or that it has to be the goal.

    Tearing down the lies is not easy … and this was another lie exposed for me. Awesome post!!

    • jlanewell

      I read your post and I could feel your hurt and pain. I can only offer to say that parents are human and therefore they can fall short of our expectations or even come up lacking. But I have found great comfort in knowing that I have a Heavenly Father that will never let me down and will alway love me just the way I am whether I am trying to be some form of perfection or a complete utter mess. I would encourage you to let go of the expectations that you have for your mother to love you the way you want her too. It has taken me years but I have had to let go of that myself and I find I have a much more fullfilling life. It hurts more than anything but in the end letting go of that will allow you to be much happier. Her inability to love you is not about whether or not you are loveable or not. It is much more about her and her life and her choices. Instead if we continue to love our parents inspite of their failing, it will say more about the kind of person you and I want to be. When I am struggling the most I find comfort in Psalms 121.

      • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

        Hi Jennifer, Thanks for your comments and encouragement. I suppose I should note that the experiences and pain described in the post are not all mine. I know some of my shame is intermingled in there, but in many of my descriptions in this post I’m reflecting in general terms on the hardships I have witnessed as a therapist. So allow me this: Mom, if you’re reading, I love ya! 🙂

        Having said that, I couldn’t agree with you more about letting go of our expectations. I find that much of our pain is due to childhood needs that will never be met. We must find a way to let them go and embrace the blessings we have now.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      Thanks, Rise. When I read your Facebook comment, I had a feeling this post might resonate with you. I notice something interesting as a therapist: we assume it’s the “bad kids” who end up in therapy as adults, but I think it’s more common that the kids who kept it all together for the family often carry an even heavier burden and need some counseling to work through it. I pray your healing continues!

  • Evelyn

    Just this morning, my two-yr-old toddler spilled a bowl of soup at the coffee shop table. And I was angry inside but I didn’t want to show to the crowds around. And I realise I was worried, about her wild personality that would get her into trouble in future, and her pickiness about food that contribute to her bad eating habits leading to malnutrition, and her poor immunity that would make her constantly sick. Felt like I had a whole truckload of things to worry about, instead of simply cherishing the life in her, and having a simple love-filled family breakfast. Instead of embracing the mess. Thanks for the apt reminder and inspiration!

  • jlanewell

    When I first started to read this I thought no way the United States is a free country. But then I had to stop and remember that even Home Owner Associations can police you to keep your lawn a certain way and tell you what colors to paint your house, so I had to agree with you after all.
    In the course of my life I have spent many years in the good life. So what is the big deal with a little bit of control. Okay, I guess it is not too good to be the helicopter parent all the time. I would say there is nothing wrong with being prepared and having insurance. I also think it is okay to protect our kids from all the dangers that are out there. The world is not the same world I grew up in. But I don’t think what you meant was that having some of these things in our lives is bad. It is more when we go to the extreme that we are trying to control everything to the point that we stop doing things we enjoy or we have so many limitations our lives are less full.
    Then I move on to the messy life. My mom has always had a need to have a perfectly clean house. When I grew up and got married and had my own children, I decided that everything did not need to be perfect and I would rather play with my kids. So the toys would not get picked up until the end of the night or sometimes the dishes were not always done and we all went to bed. I was willing to take on the mess in order to emotionally be there for my kids. My kids can still tell you the times we played Star wars or Little Mermaid, to me those are priceless memories. Although the example is a physical messiness, it is really an example of how you can enjoy each day with your kids and accept the craziness. I loved the years I was a stay at home mom and the slower pace of our lives.
    My life changed yet again when I went back to work full-time. I found I needed to make things perfect and to control everything in my life simply because I had less time to get things done. All while I started spending more and more time working, at work and at home. I never really thought about it until this post. Being a workaholic is like being in a prison. You don’t realize it at first because it happens slowly and gradually. You spend all your time trying to keep up with the things at home, the kid’s school work, church activities, kids sporting events, and music lessons. All at the same time, trying to do your best at your job, traveling for work and working like crazy to meet overly aggressive deadlines. Little by little the joy gets sucked out of your life and in turn you become a tad bit more than a little control freak. You find yourself not being able to enjoy the present because you are too worried about the past or what was is the next thing right around the corner.
    In recent months, as I began my recovery from being a workaholic. I have started to understand the crazy messiness of life. I have strived to enjoy the journey, the little moments of a given day. I find I am able to stop myself from working too long or getting too stressed about work. Instead I do my job, come home at the end of a normal day. It is a freeing experience. I find my life is more open to experience my children, my husband, and our friends. I think understanding that life has many twists and turns is key. At moments our lives we are in a great place and then things change. Each life stage and age, we embrace the next set of challenges. Sometime we have to revisit the same issues we thought we already dealt with. It is just this time it is a little bit different. So the ability to embrace the messiness might be done a little bit at a time. We can recognize it is a process, as we work through the layers, slowly admitting the need for accepting the beautiful mess of our life. As long as we are willing to navigate through the process and not beat ourselves up if we find ourselves gravitate back and forth between controlling things and embracing the mess. In time we will learn how to truly enjoy the little things, and the moments in time.

  • Debbie

    Perfect! I always love your blogs, but this one hit me right in my soul. Especially this week, when I was down right embarrassed by a serious mistake at work, and a serious mistake in a personal relationship. I have been beating myself up all week, and feeling down-right worthless. This is exactly what I needed to hear. I totally agree. Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves and others to be perfect? You are so right, we are trapping ourselves into a box that we will be stuck in forever. The box of perfection! I love that you have given me permission to be a mess. And yes, I am a glorious mess.

  • Kim

    Oh, Kelly…Thank you for giving my heart and soul a place to just rest this morning. I have *experienced* the truth that joy and freedom and grace live right in the middle of the mess…but it’s so hard for me to really stay there in that place. Perfectionism and self-doubt and shame and who-do-you-think-you-are start creeping in and joy starts slipping away. I need this reminder – often – that everything I’m looking for is right here in the mess. I know I’ll have a better Saturday for having read this 🙂 Thank you.

    • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

      This is another post that I was moved to write during the Story conference a couple of weeks ago. It was so refreshing to be with a bunch of creatives who do a better job than most of us of embracing messiness. I’m so glad that I was able to pass that experience on to all of you who have expressed a sense of relief at it! Kim, Debbie, Elizabeth, Evelyn, Arcadio, Kenj…I wish I had time to respond to each and every one of your comments! Unfortunately, I have to dedicate some of that time to fixing the comment system itself! Some feedback that people couldn’t leave a comment when they wanted to. Life is messy, indeed, isn’t it? Blessings to all of you as you enjoy a messy weekend!

      • jlanewell

        Kelly, It took me 3 times to finally get my comments to post. I guess it is good I write them in word first and then cut and paste them in to the blog. I found when I made the font smaller it seemed to finally let me upload my comments.

        • Dr. Kelly Flanagan

          Thanks for letting me know! I have officially switched the commenting platform to Disqus. That should solve most of the problems and past comments should reappear again within 24 hours.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Jennifer, It looks like we’re officially transferred over to Disqus. I expect commenting to be much easier now. Let me know how it goes!

  • Nadia

    You know I only just finished writing up a Facebook status in a similar vain just before I read this, it read *clears throat*…..”‘It is what it is’…..who else out there has a hard time saying these five words in a row? Hahaha, lately I am laughing at the mess, it doesn’t feel funny when you’re immersed in it, but when you elevate yourself from it (a CONSCIOUS choice) it all looks like a bunch of crabs in a bucket! Not to make light of life….or am I? I think that when we can reach a stage where it really does look kinda funny and we can see the humor in our follies (I’ve been literally rolling on the floor laughing at it lately) we can be pretty sure we’re on the path to liberation. What do you think?

    • drkellyflanagan

      I couldn’t agree more, Nadia. Sometimes laughter is the best medicine! I think you’ll find that theme in tomorrow’s Tuesday Tip. 🙂

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  • Iryna Arute

    I really resonate with this post, Kelly! I had to chuckle at your mention of Ukrainian immigrants and their comments as I am Ukrainian myself who has had many and many moments like parking in front of a fire hydrant (or on the wrong side of the street for that matter) without realizing that the safety of humanity was threatened by my actions and that the police in Wheaton has nothing better to do than give people tickets for stuff like that. I appreciate your thoughts on how enslaving the “good” and “free” like can actually be and what you said about “perfect mess”.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ha! So glad to hear we aren’t the only ones making that observation. Glad the post resonated with you in such a person way. 🙂

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