Shame is probably the hardest emotion to talk about. It is almost certainly the main culprit for the holes in our emotional well-being.Shame can steal our joy and our dreams, and hollow out our relationships.
I recently re-read two excellent books on shame: Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me and Ed Welch’s Shame Interrupted. Brown writes from a humanistic perspective and aims to empower women to develop “shame resilience” in our shame-based culture. Ed Welch approaches the topic from a Biblical perspective and examines the scriptures pertaining to shame, while folding in powerful insights on redemption, sin, and the transformation available in Christ.
This article is the first in a two-part series on shame, and describes shame and its effects. The following article will discuss how Christian counseling can help us to deal with shame.
There is Something Wrong with Me
Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Shame is an emotion, a conviction, and a fear: “There is something wrong about me, and I am afraid others will see it.”
Embarrassment, Humiliation, and Guilt
Emotions closely related to shame are embarrassment, humiliation, and guilt. Embarrassment is generally considered a less serious emotion than shame. It is related to accidental events that can happen to anyone, and its effects rarely last long. Tripping on the stairs, blurting out something inappropriate, or spilling your tea can all be embarrassing. We can usually laugh or manage a wry smile when we recall doing one of these things.
Humiliation occurs when unfair things are said about one or done to one, with the words or action being undeserved. The person humiliated does not believe it is fair or true to be treated this way. Just as important, those around the humiliated person know that it is unfair and untrue for the person to be treated this way.
While people often say, “I feel so guilty,” what they really mean is that they feel bad because they recognize that they have gone against their own morality or that of God. They may be guilty, or they may be mistaken about their own guilt (as in thinking that something they did caused their own rape, for example). The feelings associated with being guilty run the gamut of emotions and include chagrin, embarrassment, sadness, and, usually, shame.
Shame Kills Hope for Change
An important distinction that we need to make is between saying “I have done something wrong” and “I am wrong (or bad or evil).” The first suggests guilt, while the second causes shame. Believing that one is guilty can be useful as it can motivate a person to change. But shame is debilitating and kills hope for change. Shame causes isolation from others. Precisely because we do not talk about it – or cannot talk about it – an overall sense of shame cuts us off from others, from God, and from hope.
Brené Brown describes a comment that propelled her to research shame. The director of the treatment facility for children where she worked stated in a meeting that, “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behavior.” She was struck by the comment and kept returning to it. She discovered in her work that that the director was correct. Shame does erase motivation for change, while true guilt is a “cleaner” experience. A person can change themselves and make up for the wrong they have done, whether by apology, restitution, or reconciliation.
Shame can be placed onto a person by others, and can include avoiding someone because they are unpopular or it can be expressed in the stigma associated with having been molested as a young child. One can also adopt shame as a basic self-assessment, as in “I am used goods; no one will want me.” Shame is all about fear – the fear of being disconnected, left out, exposed, and alone. Shame steals hope and joy, and keeps a person self-focused.
Christian Counseling Offers the Solution to Shame
The Christian counselor brings true hope for a client struggling with shame. Christ’s death and resurrection offer not only the antidote to sin, but also the solution to shame. To those who self-identify as shameful, Christ offers a new heart, a new sense of self, and true change. Knowing that Christ took our shame as well as our sins to the cross, we can leave both burdens there. He provides a new identity for those covered in shame.
If you struggle with the feelings and effect of shame in your life, consider Christian counseling.
Brown, Brené. I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey From “What Will People Think” to “I Am Enough.” 2007, Gotham Press.
Welch, Ed. Shame, Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection. 2012. New Growth Press, Greensboro, NC.
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