Shame is a word that comes up a lot in counselling sessions. It is an emotion like all the other emotions that we find ourselves feeling, however, it is one emotion that can wreak havoc like no other. The topic of shame is one I tend to gravitate towards, in desire to learn and understand it better.
I remember reading about the difference between guilt and shame in Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly.” She explained that guilt is “I have done something bad”, whereas shame would be “I am bad.” When we have guilt it is easy to focus on the behaviour or the “thing” that we did, and work to change it. But when we have shame, it has moved to being the thing that defines us, and it becomes our identity. This is when it can be debilitating.
If “I am bad”, where do I begin to work on fighting against the toxic shame cycle I find myself in? If I can’t find a starting point to climb out of the shame cycle, I will feel stuck and become immobilized because I don’t know what to do or how to begin to move forward.
I have also been reading a book by John Bradshaw called “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” In it he talks about shame in two different contexts. Healthy shame and toxic shame. If shame is an emotion like all the other emotions, how do we keep it in a healthy range and not allow it to move to being toxic? John Bradshaw states that:
“…healthy shame is an emotion which signals us about our limits. It is the yellow light warning us that we are essentially limited. It is the emotional energy which signals that we are not God that we have made and will make mistakes, that we need help. Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.”
When I read this definition of healthy shame, it breathes in me a sign of relief. Shame as an emotion connects us to our humanness, our limitations… It is OK to make mistakes and fall short. What I believe is important then, is what do we do with that shame that reminds us of our limitations. Do we sit in that shame and focus on our limitations and our mistakes? And let the shame breed more shame that moves us to a place where we find ourselves defined by our limitations and mistakes?
I will be honest, there are times when I have found myself falling into this toxic shame cycle, believing the lies that can keep me entrapped in the web that shame weaves. This is when healthy shame moves to toxic shame and we find ourselves immobilized by the belief that “I am bad, not good enough, undeserving”, etc.
What would it look like if we were able to work through the emotion of shame in a healthy space? I believe that shame is an emotion like all the rest used to help us navigate our world. God created us with emotions…we are emotional beings. There are many records in the Bible that speak to when Jesus was here on earth and the emotions that He felt.
Mark 10:14 speaks of Jesus being indignant (or angry) when the disciples rebuked the people for bringing the children to him. John 11:35 tells us that “Jesus wept” – There are many references that speak to Jesus weeping bitterly. He felt and expressed emotion strongly, but his focus remained the same. He allowed his emotion to fuel and guide His purpose, passion, and path.
Now, I don’t believe that Jesus ever felt shame because He was perfect and without sin. But we as human beings experience shame because we are not perfect, we have limitations, and we will make mistakes. However, I don’t believe that God would want us to focus on our mistakes, but instead to let that emotion of healthy shame (the reminder of our limitations as human beings) move us towards Him. When we move towards Him and focus on the truths we have in Him, we acknowledge our limitations and that we will make mistakes because we are human. But, we need to focus on and claim the truths of who He is in our lives. Some of these truths are:
Trust in the Lord and lean not on your own understanding and I will make your path straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).
I am the vine and you are the branches, remain in me and you will bear much fruit. Abide in me and apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I will fear no evil for you are with me (Psalms 23).
I will never leave you nor forsake you. The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid (Hebrews 13: 5-6).
When sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, it created limitations for us as humans. Shame entered the emotional wheel but it is OK because God made a way. He sent His Son to earth to die for our sins, making it possible for us to be in right relationship with Him. This does not mean we don’t experience or feel shame, but what it can do is point us towards Him and be a reminder to us that we need Him and that with Him we have everything we need. That we should not rely on our own strength, wisdom, or understanding, but instead trust Him and what He desires to do through our humanness.
This is in essence experiencing shame in a healthy way. When we find ourselves bound by shame, we are stuck in the belief that we are bad, wrong, not good enough… I don’t believe God designed it this way. He loves us and we are blameless in His sight. He does not see the bad, the wrong, the not good enough. He sees His beloved children and desires that we would take the step to trust Him and allow Him to do His good work in our lives.
So when you experience the feeling of shame, a helpful application can be to turn your eyes from your limitations and mistakes toward the truth He has for you.
He loves you just as you are. He created you for His purposes. We will fall down and we will make mistakes because we are human. But we have the eternal hope that we don’t walk this life here on earth alone; we have His love, forgiveness, strength, compassion, grace, and His power to continue to guide us along our journey. Rather than let shame be the truth you hear, focus instead on His words and His truth about who you are in Him when you experience healthy shame.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.
Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.