By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Bellevue Christian Counseling
References “Healing the Shame that Binds You” by John Bradshaw
All emotions serve a purpose. In his book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You,” John Bradshaw discusses healthy and unhealthy shame. Shame is good for us when it leads to remorse or humility. It becomes toxic when it lodges itself in our hearts and becomes self-loathing.
We first encounter shame in scripture when Adam and Eve eat the fruit. Their nudity makes them feel exposed. They become uncomfortable. It is neither here nor there whether their shame is healthy. Some would argue natural modesty is God-honoring, while others would counter that people should not be ashamed of their bodies. What we ought to take from this is that shame is a part of human nature. It reflects our sense of self-worth, and how we choose to present ourselves to others.
The Importance of Humility
Healthy shame drives us toward righteousness. Bradshaw draws on the experience of the “blush.” “It may come as a moment of embarrassment over one’s normal human failures or as timidity and shyness in the presence of strangers. This sense of shame is crucial and necessary as a balance and limit for one’s new found autonomy. Healthy shame signals us that we are not omnipotent.” (6)
Temporary embarrassment keeps us humble. Scripture tells us over and over how important the virtue of humility is. It keeps us from sinful pride that would tell us we are as virtuous, or accomplished, as we need to be. It also helps us keep relationships with others. A healthy sense of humility reminds us “we all need somebody to lean on.” It also ensures that others will want relationships with us. No one likes being around arrogant people, or people who flaunt their accomplishments. You toot your own horn too much, and everyone else covers their ears and leaves.
How Shame Hurts Us
While shame can be helpful, too much will poison you. “Toxic shame is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that signals our limits, it is a state of being, a core identity. Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being.” (10)
This poisonous type of shame fuels addiction. People use the subject of their addiction to medicate this shame, but then the shame induced by bingeing or using produces more shame, which starts the cycle all over again.
Bradshaw says this internalized shame makes you an object to yourself. Rather than accepting you have many parts, some of which you are less proud of than others, all you can really see when you look at yourself is what shames you. You allow them to crowd the lens through which you see yourself. (13)
“Addicts can’t love themselves. They are an object of scorn to themselves. This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc. The shame turns one into what Kellogg has termed a ‘human doing’ rather than a human being.” (15)
Christian Counseling for Dealing with Shame
Toxic shame pushes us toward fleeting sources of validation. It leaves us “spiritually bankrupt” as Bradshaw says. If you seek to build self-worth on your accomplishments or the praise of others, it will tumble as the slightest criticism. This is why scripture encourages us to establish our character in Christ; who is unchanging and eternal. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” (Deut. 32:4 NIV)
Your addiction cannot heal your shame. It cannot only temporarily relieve it; then make it worse. Shame has to do with how you see yourself as a person, and this perspective is not easily altered. If you struggle with self-loathing or addiction, consider getting in touch with a professional Christian counselor. While humility is a helpful emotion that spurs us toward self-improvement and interdependence, self-loathing is a toxin that only invites more self-destruction. A professional Christian counselor can help you discover the source of your shame. They will use therapeutic techniques and the hope of the Gospel to rid you of toxic shame.
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