Shame is something we have all have felt at one time or another. For some of us, unfortunately, shame is a constant companion. The toxic voice on our shoulder, forever compelling us to adopt defensive strategies to combat shame’s depleting and isolating effects. Shame traps us, exhausts us, reduces us, and can overwhelm us.
What is shame?
Shame is easier to define than some emotions. It is deep humiliation, and importantly, a feeling of being less than or not enough. It is NOT the same as guilt, the feeling of having DONE something wrong. Shame is the feeling of BEING something wrong. While guilt can be beneficial because it can bring us to repentance, shame is destructive at our very core – our identity. Think about the story of David and Bathsheba – when he was finally confronted, David confessed his sin – for he was guilty – but he was still dearly loved by God – his identity – a beloved son of God, had not changed.
Here are some dictionary definitions:
painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety
a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute
an uncomfortable feeling of guilt or of being ashamed because of your own or someone else’s bad behavior
Notice some things that are unique about shame (as opposed to guilt):
It is a strong feeling, not a weak one
Often seen through the perceived eyes of others – we think others think badly of us – we’ll come back to this one later
We usually see it as related to our being as opposed to our doing
The effects of shame:
Shame affects us in some interesting and destructive ways. That’s because we relate it to who we are and not just what we felt, thought, or did. It eats away at self-image, gradually destroying a healthy sense of identity. Intellectually, we know our identity is secure in Christ, but emotionally, we can see ourselves as uniquely and unforgivably flawed. Dr. Wardle often refers to this phenomenon as believing more in what is real for us (our experience of shame and self-loathing) versus what is true for us – God’s immutable love for us, and Christ’s once-and-for-all act of redemption for us – giving us eternal security.
Jan Johnson and Ron Short, as part of their work on emotional intelligence describe some of the effects of shame as follows:
First off, there is a gift that shame brings – that of humility – the acceptance that we are all perfectly imperfect
Shame tends to show up most when we are challenged or during stressful human interactions
Shame is characterized by not being “good enough”, not doing enough; perfectionism, over-responsibility, strong values and high expectations of self, giving oneself very little margin for error
People who have high access to shame (meaning they tend to experience that feeling more than the average person) are often hyper-vigilant (more on this below). They are focused on looking good to others both performance-wise and morals-wise. They put great weight on what they perceive others think of them.
These “high access to shame” individuals will often:
Be highly self-critical
Blame self and others
Easily become defensive
Quickly personalize a situation, assuming others are thinking badly of them
Have a strong sense of what an ideal person should be like and a strong commitment to live that way
Have a strong moral sense and be judgmental of self and others
Have difficulty ever meeting their own standards
Get wounded easily in relationships
See themselves as flawed or not good enough
Be anxious about what others think of them
Feel either really good or really bad about themselves, with not a lot of time spent in-between
Be intense in relationships
Shame is the most emotionally depleting of all the challenging emotions (the others being anger, anxiety, fear and sadness)
It is the one emotion that is self-perpetuating – in that we are ashamed of our shame
In fact, Johnson and Short refer to shame as the “master emotion” – trumping the others
A common word shame-bound people will use is “should” – which gets to the idea that there is a way a person ought to be
Shame can cause us to become hyper-vigilant – to look ahead and anticipate things that might happen that would cause shame, and then create an action plan that will ensure those things don’t happen. Here’s an example – let’s say you are the Father of a soon-to-be bride, and you, who never really learned how to dance, know that you will want to honor your daughter in the father-daughter dance. So, you enroll in a series of six dance lessons well in advance of the wedding, and then continue to practice. As you can imagine, with all the things that go on in a typical life in the 21st century, this kind of hyper-vigilance is exhausting. The self-protection comes at a steep price – the anxiety about future shame, the extra work, and perhaps worst of all, the self-recrimination and shame that comes when the extra preparation doesn’t produce the desired results – proving once again that we are not enough.
Shame, then, is harmful at the center of our being. It challenges our identity, it drives us to perform, to strive, to be impossibly perfect and to take on more responsibility than we should. It depletes us. And, it is pernicious – self-perpetuating – we set the bar high, then when we cannot meet it, we are reminded of not being good enough.
How did we get this way?
In my coaching work, I will often administer an EQ assessment tool (a tool which measures our access to a range of emotions, our ability to self-regulate, ability to use a variety of relationship management strategies and to be empathetic to others). When I run across folks with high access to shame (they feel it regularly, and it is easily triggered), I will typically ask them about their family of origin. There are three patterns that frequently emerge. First, the person may have grown up in a household where they learned that if they behaved well, things went well for the family. This can develop a feeling of responsibility for how things go and thus, when things, don’t go well, the person can feel like they failed (and the responsibility was on them) – and shame happens. Second, a person may have grown up in a family where shame was used as a form of behavior modification – such as “you should be ashamed”, or “that’s shameful”, or “shame on you”, or “you’re a bad girl/boy”. Third, a person may have experienced one or more extremely shaming events (traumatically shaming), such as a very public humiliation.
Having said all that, how we are wired emotionally is complex, with multiple factors contributing, so finding ways to cope with shame and its specific (to the individual) underlying causes is more useful than generalizing.
How do we cope with shame?
As with any situation in which we are trying to make a change, the starting point is awareness. Am I aware that there is something I want to be different? Am I aware of the impact (cost) that thing has on me and on others? And finally, am I aware that the “thing” is happening – in this case, that shame has been triggered and that I am going into “shame response mode”? The first awareness gives me a reason to change, the second gives me motivation to change, and the third gives me opportunity to change – one event at a time, in the moment. If I am going to be successful in changing, I eventually need all 3 types of awareness. Let’s fast-forward for a minute and assume that a person has in the moment awareness that they are feeling ashamed and that a shame response is inevitable unless they make a different choice in that moment.
At that point, this person can ask him/herself what story they are telling themselves about what happened. Then they can ask if other stories might just as well explain what happened. If (and this is usually the case) the answer is yes, then they can use curiosity to find out more. Finally, if they really did play a role in whatever went wrong (if, in fact something really did go wrong), they can own their part of it. And, they can remind themselves that the fact that they made a mistake does not mean they ARE a mistake.
The biggest and best thing a person can do, however, is to use our Healing Care modality. That is, to use the structures of healing to understand the lies and wounds that sit behind the emotion of shame, and to invite the Lord to minister to them in those places through formational prayer – preferably with a skilled and empathic caregiver. When Jesus communicates his perfect love for us, and His scandalous forgiveness, we can begin to live out of a more secure identity in Him, and shame’s dark shadow can fade over time.
If you want to read more about shame, I recommend Brene Brown’s book “The Gifts of Imperfection”. She also has written other books on the topic, and she has recorded videos you can watch.
After spending over 30 years in the corporate world in various executive roles, Doug began a new career as an executive coach and consultant. He was introduced to Healing Care Ministries in 2008, and is now on a lifetime healing journey. His current role as the COO allows him to share the amazing transforming power of Christ with others. He lives in Westerville with his wife of 41 years (Sally). They have 2 children and 2 grandchildren. He loves to travel with Sally, and spend time with the grandkids.