I am bad.
I am dirty.
I am unlovable.
I am not enough the way I am.
Something is wrong with me.
Shame — it is a feeling that is part of the human condition, but inherent to the experience of it is the way it makes us avoid talking about it or facing it.
I know shame has crept into my own life and hurt me. I felt ashamed when a family member made insensitive comments about my eating habits and physical appearance. Shame hit me like a ton of bricks when I was sexually assaulted on a school bus in high school. Shame whispered at my heart when I made poor choices with a boyfriend, or when I compared myself to the standards of other women.
I hate this feeling. It is dark and scary, like I am bad or dirty or a lesser person because of something I did or something that was done to me.
Shame is a powerful, destructive force that can twist the way we see ourselves, our place in the world, and our worth and value before God. Whereas guilt says I did something wrong, shame tells us that we are bad, that there is something wrong with us.
Shame has made an impressive comeback in culture, psychology, and popular media. Work by well-known researchers such as Brené Brown are helping men and women name and face the role that shame plays in our individual stories. People are starting to talk about something every human across the globe wrestles with.
But how do we start?
What is shame?
Over the summer I came across and read a book that really shattered my paradigm on shame and helped me see it in a new light. In The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves, Dr. Curt Thompson says that shame impacts us in two ways: it corrupts our relationships with God and one another; and it impedes our sense of vocation and purpose by darkening our vision to see the ways our gifts can be used creatively.
This means that shame holds us back in more ways than one. Shame can make us withdraw from relationships and it can actually be a barrier that prevents God from using us in the world.
Shame gets tangled up in our individual story when it causes us to hide. We want to avoid that emotion and the trauma that is associated with it. This leads us to hide from ourselves and from other people. When we experience shame, we tend to turn away from other people because the potential of being seen or known carries the possibility of shame being triggered or intensified. When we pull away from others in isolation or fear, it only reinforces the very shame we are attempting to avoid.
This is how a deadly shame cycle begins and continues: we feel shame, and then feel shame for feeling shame. From there it quickly spirals out of control.
Shame can be a helpful indicator if we are acting against our values, but it can easily derail us. One way to make sure that shame doesn’t take over the driver’s seat is to look for familiar lies that hide behind that feeling — lies such as the idea that we are inherently bad; that God cannot be trusted; that we are unworthy of love; that God is not on our side.
So how do we begin to unravel this toxic dynamic and root ourselves in truth?
To confront shame, we must risk feeling it in order to heal from it. My therapist often has to remind me, “Feelings are just feelings. They are not bad or good, they are what they are. And they are an important indicator that something deeper is going on inside of us.”
Honestly facing our shame cycles can feel terrifying. I am not trying to tell you it is easy. It is hard, messy work sometimes.
But honest vulnerability is the key to both healing shame and preventing it from taking deeper root in ourselves, relationships, and culture. Vulnerability breaks through the isolation and leads us out of loneliness. Dr. Thompson writes, “Vulnerability is the state we must pass through in order to deepen our connection with God and others. There is no other way.”
Those pieces of our hearts where we feel most broken and that we keep most hidden are the parts that most desperately need to be known by God. We can only love God, love ourselves, and love others to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.
Did you know we are created to be vulnerable? Adam and Eve show us this truth — they were fully and completely vulnerable with each other, but also with God. Genesis tells us that they walked in the cool of the Garden each day with God.
To get back to that place of openness, we have to name shame for what it is — we have to acknowledge the places in our stories where shame has crept in. Finding people with whom you can safely share your heart in vulnerable ways is critical. Taking the time and effort to go to counseling is one of the best ways to help you positively navigate and break through the shame in your story.
Just because there are spaces in our heart where shame has lived does not mean it has to stay in the dark there forever. Bring it to the light and discover deeper wholeness and freedom. This is the very reason God sent His Son, Jesus, into the world — to reveal to us that despite the lies of the serpent, despite our own shame, despite our insufficiencies and weakness, He still loves us. It’s a revelation that proclaims that shame and darkness does not have the final word — love does.