Everyone has known someone who seemed crippled by their own sense of worthlessness. Perhaps it was the child of an overbearing, perfectionistic parent or the co-worker who is the target of a bullying supervisor. Why do they put up with this abuse? Why do they act like they deserve such treatment? At some point in their lives, they have been shamed.
Shame is a painful human emotion that says "I'm flawed . . . deficient . . . worthless . . . no good . . . hopeless. I can't do anything right." When you are intensely and consistently shamed, you conclude that you deserve to be humiliated. You feel diminished in your own eyes and the eyes of others. Such internalization of shame poses a fundamental threat to personal identity. Shame hurts so badly that it makes you feel like you have a hole in your soul.
Sources of Shame
Shame is a common social experience, rooted in exchanges between people. It may grow out of public humiliation, or from experiences within our families. Shame is communicated when there is harsh criticism, neglect, lack of affirmation, abasement, contempt or ridicule by significant others. Shame can also be fostered by experiences in the Christian community. Experiences of public exposure, judgment and rejection sometimes happen in the name of Christ.
Shame vs. Guilt
There is an important difference between healthy guilt (spiritual conviction) and "toxic" shame (false guilt). Healthy guilt recognizes that we have done something wrong. While guilt is always a painful emotion, it can be a helpful barometer, letting us know we are out of step with God. Such guilt can be the first signal in a process which leads us to repentance, emotional growth, change and recovery.
Toxic shame, however, does not open a person to the possibility of change. Instead, toxic shame is experienced as a flaw so fundamental that the person feels there is no hope for healing and recovery. Toxic shame causes you to see yourself as unlovable, alienated from yourself and others, questioning your identity, emotionally dead, thus, beyond help and healing.
It may be difficult to believe, but the Bible teaches that no matter how badly wounded you are, God sees you as valuable (Psalm 8). He loves you and He is eager to bring healing. God will never reinforce your experiences of shame. He will never humiliate or devalue you, nor will He ever hold you in contempt or agree with your self contempt, (Romans 8:1). He loves and accepts you unconditionally and greatly desires to heal all the scars left by your experiences of shame.
Recovery from Shame
Because shame wounds a person so deeply, healing and recovery are difficult and will take time. The following steps will aid you in your recovery from shame.
- Acknowledge that you are experiencing shame. You are wounded, maybe even down for the count, but you are not defeated, (Romans 8:37, I Corinthians 15:57).
- Learn how to love yourself as God does. Love is a decision. You can choose to love yourself no matter what the past has been and no matter how you feel about yourself. Unconditionally accept yourself. Realize that you don't have to earn God's, or anyone's, approval by being perfect. Adopting God's view of you as truth can counteract your negative feelings. Meditating on Scriptures such as Psalms 8 & 37 will serve to affirm your value. God says, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," (John 8:32).
- Forgive those who shamed you. This is one of the most important steps in the healing process. Your ability to forgive others and yourself follows accepting God's forgiveness through Jesus. Ephesians 4:32 says, "Forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave you."
- Learn to cope with mistakes. We are not our mistakes. As a matter of fact, mistakes can be converted into positive learning experiences and emotional growth. For those suffering from shame, mistakes can be catastrophic. Learning from them helps you to view them as natural and valuable components of life. Refuse to listen to those inner critical voices that tell you that you are a mistake or that you should never make a mistake - remember no one is perfect and we will not be perfected until we are with Christ, (Phil. 1:6).
- Form the habit of allowing your mistakes to be stepping stones for growth. Let your mistakes be your teachers rather than your undoing. Remember that God says that all of our sins: past; present; and future were nailed to the cross with Christ and that He has "canceled out the certificate of debt against us," (Colossians 2:14).
- Give yourself time and attention. You need to take time for proper rest, relax-ation, nutrition and exercise. Set aside time to just do nothing. Allow yourself solitude to get in touch with your feelings and to nourish your soul and spirit.
- Develop the habit of awareness. Commit yourself to examine the probable consequences of your actions. Weigh the consequences of your choices. After all, your choices are the fabric of your life. Keep in mind that God does forgive us when we do something that causes us to feel healthy guilt, but He does not always eradicate the consequences of our choices.
- Detach from dangerous relationships, and learn to stand on your own two feet. A healthy goal in relationships is a balance of independence and interdependence. You are a person of worth with God-given abilities and gifts. Make them work for you without being dependent upon others.
- Learn to be assertive, to say "no" and ask for what you want. This is a powerful way to heal. Assertiveness provides the vehicle for you to get your legitimate needs met. Learn to set appropriate limits in order to protect yourself.
- Get to know God better by spending quality time with Him. He states that He has not left us powerless and that we can become stronger and more capable in Him, (Phil. 4:13). If we are to heal from toxic shame, we must learn to lean on the Lord Jesus, submit to His authority, and commit to accepting His view of us.
Bradshaw, John. (1985). Home coming. NY: Bantam Books.
VanVonderan, Jeff. (1989). Tired of trying to measure up. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
Copyright 1997, El Rophe Center, Inc.