Shame: What is it?

It has been said,

“There is nothing to be learned from shame and no growth is opened by the experience because it only confirms one’s negative feelings about oneself”.

Think about this for a second?
What does this mean to you?
Do you agree?

Shame is clearly something that does not feel good. It reminds us of our emptiness, that we are lacking something. It can leave us with a knot in our stomach, with wanting to shy away from people, or even becoming so outgoing in hopes that no one realizes just how bad we really feel about ourselves. We can struggle with depression, anger, anxieties or even addictions because of how we are responding to the shame in our lives. And this is a key point: How we respond to the way we feel will affect the way we live and express ourselves. You see, we live in an age where we are encouraged to follow our feelings; in doing so, we often choose to do all we can to get rid of the bad feelings and live our lives in ways that highlight the good feelings. So much of what we do and the choices we make are designed to get rid of shame- because shame hurts!

But we need to see that there are two types of shame. There is debilitating shame which holds us back from being all that God intends for us to be. This shame hurts us when:

  • Our faults are exaggerated.
  • It is chronic.
  • It is put on us by others.
  • It pervades our whole being. It influences everything we do - how we study, how we parent, how we work , how we relate.
  • We are condemned by our memories, either things we have done or things done to us.
  • When it distances us from God.

There is also a healthy shame that reminds us of our incompleteness and our lack. It is a shame that is meant to drive us to God. This shame keeps us in a proper relationship with God. It is this shame that:

  • Shows us our true selves. It protects us from our falseness and reminds us of our limitations and of our need for God.
  • May be a warning sign that something is wrong. We need to find out what it is and seek healing.
  • Gives us a chance to understand ourselves and helps us keep the right perspective on God and how God sees us.

To paraphrase Thomas Merton: To be healthy and whole is no substitute for being penitent and forgiven. Forgiveness makes the difference in our shame.

Shame is about who I am. It is how I feel about myself and what my identity is.

Shame is also

  • Fear of being exposed for who I really am.
    The first thing that Adam and Eve felt after they bit into the apple was shame. They were exposed and in the exposure they questioned their value outside of a perfect relationship with God. We now live outside that perfect relationship with God and therefore face our exposure daily.
  • A reflection of our incompleteness.
    We are created to need God. Shame becomes chronic when we see our incompleteness as something that makes us worthless. Yes, we are not worthy in ourselves of God’s attention, but because He gives us attention, we have value and worth.
  • Being uneasy with evaluation by other people.
    This is especially evident if we are exposed and then devalued.
  • Simply remembering or anticipating exposure and evaluation.
    When we remind ourselves of past failures, we often regret what we have said or done to hurt someone or ourselves (“I can’t believe I said that, did that, etc). How we talk to ourselves about these regrets will either deepen the shame or allow us to keep a balanced perspective on ourselves.

Shame is usually seen in the ways we express ourselves. Our symptoms often reveal that shame is a struggle for us. Here are a few ideas:

  • High performance covering over the effects of an unaffirming or abusive parent.
  • Little social interaction.
  • Talking down about other people.
  • Addictions, like drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, and more.
  • Avoiding responsibility - low grades, not meeting ability, poor job performance.
  • How we talk about ourselves, the things we allow ourselves to enjoy.

You will be able to think of other symptoms of shame.

Learn more about healing from shame.