In my personal life, and career as a Life Consultant, many men who have experienced childhood sexual trauma have crossed my path.
Behind business suits, boxing gloves, and hard hats, there exists a dark hidden room inside many men.
Here in this room, shrouded in shame, is a lonely child confused and scared, desperate to make sense of what happened to his innocence. The door to escape all the pain he feels remains locked and ignored. He is refused visitors and food is withheld as punishment for his decisions. Like a grizzly crime scene, caution tape hugs the door as a blockade to protect the child and others from any further harm. For years this child stays hidden under the taxing weight of self-judgment and shame. Starved and frail, desperately hungry, he’s willing to settle for crumbs, even if they only subside the aches and groaning within for a moment. Day after day, week after week, year after year, he learns to settle for just enough. Because more than enough might mean that the door must be opened and light must be shed on the long forgotten prisoner who’s appearance and experiences might cause others to gasp in shock, maybe even cause them to run away and never return.
Somewhere between the ages of 7-9, from the best of my recollection, I found myself in a full blown sexual relationship with another little boy my age. The shock of this statement, for many, is nothing more than a zap at best in culture today, but as a child of the 80’s it seemed much less of a commonality, or at least was perceived as much less of a commonality. For a young boy who didn’t know who to talk to, or even what to talk about, I carried the shame of this experience all to myself for many years.
As I crossed the threshold from being a child, into a teenager, I was met by a tenacious youth pastor from my family’s church who would almost obnoxiously refuse to relent as he showed up to my home every Wednesday for weeks on end, inviting me to youth group. Wearing down my will and exhausting my no, he eventually acquired my yes. Much of my avoidance was rooted in fear and the idea that no one could really care about me, especially not this random person. If the people around me only knew, they wouldn’t be so apt to want me around.
Through a string of events I ended up at my first church camp and this was where I encountered the unconditionally loving creator that had been hunting me down in my jungle of self-loathing. In an experience that lacks adequate description through the English language, I found myself free for the first time from a debilitating shame and worthy of some sort of love.
What I have to share with you is not about my faith, it’s not even about my sexual experience, but rather, it’s about my hiddenness. In my personal life, and career as a Life Consultant, many men that have experienced sexual childhood trauma have crossed my path. For the majority of them, this is a terrifying area of their hearts that they would rather remain hidden all together.
I would define this hiddenness as anything that we judge in our lives as deserving of others rejecting us, condemning us, degrading, and or making fun of us. Wrapped in this hiddenness is the idea that we are unacceptable, unlovable and deserving of punishment. A telltale sign that something is in the hiddenness is that we avoid thinking about it at all costs. If we do park on the thought of the issue for any amount of time we wince and run away from it immediately thinking thoughts similar to, “If they only knew”.
If I were to whittle the word hiddenness down I would simply call it shame, but for many the word shame is very undefined in their minds. I tell people all the time that they have shame over an area and it completely baffles them. They usually disagree. Their response seems almost one of denial, but almost always, it’s simply a lack of understanding of the word.
Years ago I had a close friend; we’ll call him Mark. (name has been changed) One day when Mark and I were hanging out joking about life, I had a gut premonition. Out of nowhere I heard an inner voice say that Mark had a sexual relationship with another little boy as a child. Almost abrasively I looked Mark in the eyes and what was surely out of left field, as we were clowning around about nothing to do with the thought in my head, I said, “You had sex with another little boy when you were a child and you’ve been hiding it ever since.” Mark is a young black man, but his face clearly turned white, as a lump of terror filled his throat that he struggled frantically to swallow.
In shock, Mark stood staring at me silently. I chimed again. “It’s okay Mark, you don’t have to hide anymore. The same thing happened to me as a kid. I’m not going to judge you.” I didn’t tip toe around any of my past. I was honest with all the details and boldly built a landing strip for Mark to safely land as his eyes filled with tears and he shared his story. Holding him in my arms I suffocated the shame that bound his tongue for so many years. My understanding and acceptance was the validation that he needed to feel loved for the first time in this secret space. Unfortunately, for most of Mark’s life, this cloud of hiddenness and self-judgment kept Mark feeling trapped, alone, unlovable, and unknown.
I have discovered that universally, as humans, our greatest desire is to feel seen and heard, or ultimately, “known”. When a part of us is lost in hiddenness, then we can never be fully known, and without being known, we can’t feel fully loved. It’s when we bravely step out of the darkness where we’ve been trapped by self-judgment that we pave a way for love to get in and defeat the lies that keep us feeling separated from God, life, family, etc.
For Mark one of his main anchors of hiddenness was his sexual experiences as a child, as was mine. For some it’s one form or another of sex addiction. For other’s it could be homosexual desires/lifestyle, lying, being deceitful, abusing someone, being abused, a violent past, drug and alcohol addictions, gambling addictions, raping someone, fears that seem unreasonable, stealing, eating disorders, masturbating, a food addiction, the social/financial class we came from, simply having dark socially unacceptable thoughts. These are just a few in a mighty list of reasons that we cloak our hearts in shame and shut off the outside world to the truth of our experience.
Am I saying that our most hidden secrets need to suddenly be painted across the billboard of social media? No. But for those that are part of our inner circle of friends, we should always be pushing the bounds of what is known about us. We should have the capacity to forgive ourselves in such a way that the shackles of hiddenness crumble away and no longer have the power to bind us.
You might be thinking, “The people around me aren’t trustworthy. They will use it to hurt, judge, condemn, and/or further shame me.” If this is ACTUALLY true and based on a proven history of those closest to you, not an assumption rooted in fear, then in your low self-worth you have chosen the love that you believe you deserve. Relationships don’t “just happen”. They are a choice. The love that you believe you deserve is made manifest in the choosing of those that you have placed in your personal sphere of influence. Unsafe, destructive friendships are a warning sign that you need to immediately reevaluate your beliefs about yourself, what you are deserving of, and make a strong course correction on your relationships.
If after evaluating your relationships you discover that there is no real evidence for your apprehension, then you can safely assume that fear is keeping you trapped in your hiddenness and it is time to face some chicken lines by vulnerably opening up to someone in this inner sphere about what has kept you so trapped.
When it comes to my clients, one of the foundational responsibilities I hold them to is building good community. In short, I would define community as relationships with people that we are deliberately seeking to build healthy, honest, open friendship where there is an ever-increasing mutual level of vulnerability developing. If that doesn’t exist I have them write down and define what a healthy ideal friend would look like emotionally. If you can’t define what you want, then you’re bound to seemingly being tossed around by life and relationships repeating the poor decisions of your past.
In the beginning of this writing I described a child locked in a room who, if he was a “real” human being, would easily be declared abused by social services if they ever found him in that condition. This child is our heart. The pieces of him that we lock away in hiddenness are a declaration to the child that he is unlovable. The food that nourishes this child is acceptance. Without self-acceptance the child starves and never fully develops, because he doesn’t have the nutrients to do so.
For years I carried within me areas of my heart that were locked away much like Mark’s. I lived steeped in a sense of torment from the feelings of rejection, abandonment, and self-hatred. I made decisions in life trying to prove that there was something worthwhile about me. I was bitter, resentful, and hateful towards others. I was terrorized by fear; fear of failure, rejection, pain, and being misunderstood, just to name a few. My future dreams and current life decisions were all stunted and limited all because of hiddenness and the fear that it bred within.
One of the highest truths that I have discovered is that fear is the gateway between us and the destiny of who we are created to be. The fullness of our personality, creativity, and desires exist beyond this gateway of fear. The foundation of this door is built on the self-judgment that shrouds us in hiddenness. No matter how much I am loved or hated by those outside of me, I am the gatekeeper that peddles unlovable lies or deals lovable truth to this child within and keeps him trapped through my judgment or sets him free through my acceptance.
If we are ever going to reach the potential of who we are created to be as husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, creators, and leaders, we must begin by facing this daunting gateway, tearing it open, and shedding light on this hidden child. We must embrace him, forgive him, and love him, even in the places that seem underserving. Only then will we truly have the freedom to live victoriously and authentically as we were created to be.