Four Ways Shame Changes Us

Shame is a powerful emotional experience. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hasn’t been impacted in some fashion by shame. Most of us would rather not even talk about the times we’ve experienced some kind of shame. It is amazing to me that I went through an entire graduate level program in counseling psychology and not one time did the professors addressing the power of shame in my training and classwork. The first time I remember it being addressed was in the literature related to addictions and recovery.

When I refer to shame, I am talking about the experience of being “exposed” in some way. The subsequent result of this “exposure” is feeling one or more of a myriad of descriptive terms. A few of these terms are: dirty, stained, broken, inadequate, incomplete, ugly, stupid, empty, robbed or undesirable in some way. It’s the idea that something has occurred that has changed me from being desirable to others to now being undesirable. Since we are relational beings, we have a deep seated need to be found desirable by others that are important to us. You can be “exposed” physically (ever had a nightmare of running naked through the halls at school? Me neither.), socially (don’t belong in some way), intellectually (don’t know the right answer, heck, don’t even know the right question), financially (can’t afford that which you want or can’t afford what you believe everyone around you has), or spiritually (on the outside of God’s acceptance and approval). So, you see, shame is pretty common. It is not a rare strange experience that only a few of us encounter.

I find that shame usually impacts us in one of four or more ways. The first is that I have done something so bad that I can never feel good about myself again. Everyone has a list of things that either we have done or if we were to do those things we could never forgive ourselves or feel good about ourselves again. Maybe it was a horrible mistake. Maybe it was an incredibly foolish choice or maybe it was a sin we committed during a time of great moral confusion or immaturity. Whatever the circumstances, we think that we have been changed forever by this event and our desirability is beyond restoration. We have a stain that won’t come out.

Another way shame impacts us is not that we did something so bad but that we did it for so long. The idea here is that I have done something for so long that it makes me a certain kind of a person. We say, “Ive always been lousy at math. I can’t imagine myself any other way.” Or you have been rejected so many times that you have concluded that is your value (apart from any contrary evidence).

Another way shame impacts us is the idea of since when. This is the concept that a certain amount of time needs to pass after your foul-up (see so bad or so long) before you can reset your “feel ok about yourself” meter. Most of us attach time values to our failures, incompetency’s, sins, etc. If we fail a test in school or work we feel bad for a certain time. If we hurt the feelings of a close friend, we feel bad a certain amount of time that we think is reasonable. If we really mess up and cause great danger, harm, trauma or worse, then we might set the timer on that one for a lifetime. How would you counsel a young man who accidentally backed up his truck over his toddler and now believes he should punish himself the remainder of his life? Shame got him with so badand since when.

If that’s not enough there’s another way shame gets us. It’s not that I did something so bad, for so long or since when but I was the victim of something so bad, or for so long, or it only recently happened to me. I recall one time when my car was stolen from a high school parking lot. I was there to see a high school kid in my youth group sing in his Christmas choir recital. I was his youth pastor (so many dynamics to this which played a part in the experience) there doing my job, being a minister, working for the Lord, blablabla. Anyway, when we came out the car was gone, stolen, nowhere to be seen. I reported it and later that night the Houston Police Department called me to say it had been found stripped clean of the radio, seats, and Christmas presents in the trunk (a big bird sleeping bag among others). They told me where I could go and reclaim it from a holding yard. So I go there to see my car. From a distance it looked unaffected but as I walked closer I could see how someone had forced their way into my locked car. They had ignored a boundary I had established and were quite violent to get in my car. I began to feel anger rise inside of me. They took everything from my console which included pictures of my daughters. More anger. I looked in my trunk which they forced open. They had taken my golf clubs. I laughed because those clubs never worked anyway. Each club would hit the ball to the right of where I aimed it so they got nothing there. By the time I had assessed the damage I was so angry that I had become the victim of someone else’s damaging choices that I slammed the door of my car and kicked the side of the door hard enough to dent it a little.

Later I reflected how interesting it was that even though it was my car that was damaged I was now making the same car the object of my anger.We do that you know. When our life has been impacted by shame, the perceived value of our life is reduced and we then begin to act according to the new, much lower value we have assigned ourselves. We are all about congruency. We treat ourselves according to the value we believe we have established. Did you ever realize that shame or the fear of shame was so common? It’s everywhere and in almost every interaction we have.

Here’s a new set of questions to ponder:

What if my assessment of my own worth and value is misguided or misinformed and has been inappropriately effected by my experiences of shame?

What if the effects of my shame in and on me could be reversed or restored?

What if God doesn’t honor my list of things that are so bad? Or things I’ve done for so long?

Or what if God doesn’t have a time value attached to my failures?

What if the way I deal with shame in my life is not healthy at all and there might be a healthier way?

I have come to the conclusion that the reason I never heard about shame while in graduate school was that the predominance of teaching in secular education had very little solutions to offer our culture for dealing with shame. At best, we’re taught that in a community of acceptance and love we can find healing. I agree, but what if our community is made up of folks that also say the emperor has pretty clothes on. In thirty years of being behind the closed door of confidentiality I have never seen anything as powerful as the good news found in the New Testament account of Jesus Christ to be more powerful in healing the shame that binds us. Shame is a bigger problem than we ever dreamed and grace and mercy are a bigger solution than we ever dreamed. I have found nothing to be more cleansing of the stain, more restorative of the brokenness, more filling of the emptiness, than the good news of Jesus’ incredible love given freely to us. This message never gets old and it always requires us finding new ways to communicate it to each generation. So little space, so little time, so much more to say.

See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame." Romans 9:33 NIV.

Have a great day. I welcome your comments. God bless, Matt.


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