There’s an epidemic sweeping our country, including the church.
It’s not a disease like ebola. Unlike the most popular searches in Google, I’m not talking today about loneliness, obesity, violence or passable movies. (Although those are all major problems minus the passable movies.)
I’m talking about shame. Shame is paralyzing millions of us with a feeling of unworthiness. We feel unworthy of love, belonging, and compassion. Due to this feeling, we struggle to accept the connection others offer us. Shame prevents us from flourishing relationally.
The Dunk of Shame
I remember one of my first moments of shame. Our family had a chandelier which hung over the dining room table. It was a brass chandelier with five opaque glass globes covering the lights and a brass link chain connecting it to the ceiling.
At that time, I was obsessed with Michael Jordan and dreamed of playing basketball one day. I should’ve known this was a pipe dream with a 5’10” dad and 5’2″ mom but I was young and naive. I jumped around constantly, attempting to touch every high point and show off my vertical prowess.
One evening, I jumped up towards the chandelier, pretending to be “Air Jordan” by dunking my soft mini-basketball over the chandelier. For some unknown reason, which still escapes me today, I grabbed the chandelier at the peak of my vertical and pulled down. Not knowing my own adolescent strength, I was shocked when I yanked the chandelier down violently, cracking and shattering two of the glass globes.
Hearing the crash, my mom came rushing into the dining room. I knew I was in deep trouble. The feeling of guilt became shame when we realized the manufacturer stopped making those glass globes. My dad purchased two similar ones but they were obviously different from the other three original globes.
Every time I looked at the chandelier, I was reminded of my stupidity and its impact on others. If I had known then what I do now, I would have said, “I feel shame.” My parents did not hold the “dunk” over my head, but as a first-born achiever and perfectionist, I didn’t need their help beating myself up for it.
What is Shame?
You may not have shattered a chandelier, but you probably have some video reel in your memory banks which reminds you of your worst moments, biggest gaffes, and unwise decisions.
Shame often begins at a young age, long before we have a word to label our feelings. When addressing shame, best-selling author Dr. Margaret Paul writes,
“At some early point in our lives, most of us absorbed this false belief that causes the feeling of shame. As a result of not feeling seen, loved, valued and understood, we developed the belief that we were not being loved because there was something wrong with us. “
While shame has been spreading as an epidemic in our culture, I credit Dr. Brené Brown for giving us a word to describe this feeling. Through her uber-popular TED talks and New York Times best-selling books, Brown has expressed the feelings of millions of people who feel they don’t measure up to an outside standard.
Brown defines shame this way. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Brown also contrasts guilt (“I did something bad”) with shame (“I am bad.”)
But, Isn’t Shame Something We Should Feel?
As a pastor, a follower of Jesus, and someone who spends his life exploring and teaching the Scriptures, I believe humanity is deeply flawed. In church terms, we talk about this “deeply flawed state” as sin, depravity or brokenness. The first thirty-nine books of the Bible describe the consequences of this sin and depravity setting the table for the redemption of mankind through Jesus.
While the second half of Brown’s definition says our flaws make us unworthy of love and belonging, we know from the most famous verse in the Bible that it was love which moved God to send Jesus into this world in order to save and redeem humanity.
Despite our tremendous flaws and sins, God sought to reconcile humanity to Himself through the death of Jesus. This is why His birth (which we celebrate at Christmas), His death (which we celebrate on Good Friday), and His resurrection from the dead (which we celebrate at Easter) are so significant for followers of Jesus. We believe Jesus came to free us from sin, guilt, and shame.
I know many readers on this site are not followers of Jesus or people who would consider themselves “not religious.” As I mentioned above, I’m a pastor and it is impossible for me to separate my personal belief system from my approach to any topic explored on this site. I strive to speak about those who don’t share my beliefs with tremendous respect, empathy and compassion because that’s how friends treat one another. So, if the previous paragraphs present a perspective different from yours, thanks for continuing to read. This site is not a theology blog, but occasionally we will bump into posts where my theology provides the context for what I write. I see no need to hedge what I believe and wanted to be up front with you before we go any further.
Shame is a universal human experience
Regardless of what you believe about Jesus and the Bible, we all know what shame feels like. We’ve made mistakes and felt those momentary miscues transforming us into “permanent failures.” We felt unworthy of love and belonging, so we began to disguise ourselves, embracing masks to conceal and hide our true selves.
Shame not only leads to us hide ourselves, but it often leads us to hurt ourselves too. While self-injury is another real and tragic epidemic in our world today, the “hurt” I’m referring to here is the emotional beating we give ourselves for a momentary mistake.
Shame beats us up. While guilt wakes us up, shame beats us up. We abuse ourselves emotionally and spiritually when we think our imperfections and struggles make us unworthy of love and belonging to and from others.
How does shame harm our relationships?
As part of this new series on relationships, we’re exploring several barriers to thriving relationships. Shame is one of those barriers; it not only harms us but it harms the bonds we have with others.
Here’s a short list of the harm shame does to our relationships…
- Because of shame, we feel unworthy of love and belonging.
If we’re unworthy, we settle for superficial connections and relationships where we’re not truly known (which likely means we not truly loved).
- We rebuff others’ attempts at connection.
Because of shame, we feel we don’t deserve connection, despite people who say otherwise.
- We continue to beat ourselves up for mistakes others have forgotten or forgiven.
While we let others forgive us and even say we receive God’s forgiveness, we’re still not letting ourselves off the hook of self-punishment. We’re harder on ourselves than anyone else.
- We won’t accept God’s forgiveness
While I think it’s a healthy thing to admit our brokenness, sin, and depravity without the forgiveness of God, refusing to accept God’s forgiveness because we’re not worthy of it perpetuates shame.
- We hurt other people unintentionally because we’re in so much pain ourselves.
There’s an old cliché about “hurt people hurting people.” I see some truth there. When I’m overwhelmed with pain and sorrow, I’m often lacking the self-awareness to see how I’m passing that pain on to others. When I’ve battled bitterness and unforgiveness towards myself or others, I’ve punished other people who weren’t even involved. Have you done this too?
The Love We Think We Deserve
In the film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie, a confused high school student, asks his teacher why nice people choose the wrong people to date. Mr. Anderson replies, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Charlie responds, “Can we change their mind?” To which, Mr. Anderson replies, “We can try.”
Shame convinces us we’re worthy of a love, which really isn’t love. It’s often unhealthy and toxic, but we don’t know any better. If nothing else, this post is my attempt to show you there’s another way and you’re worth so much more!
Shame is messy and complicated and I haven’t met anyone who has found quick fixes. I’ve been helped in my battle with shame by reading Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
The following four steps have been tremendously helpful for me in overcoming the power of shame.
1. Get to know God’s voice, so you can discern accusing voices.
My friend Leeana Tankersley calls these “soul bullies.” In the Old Testament, we’re first introduced to the enemy of God and humanity, Satan. In Hebrew, Satan means “the accuser.” This is Satan’s primary role – to accuse those who have found the mercy and grace of Jesus of that which they have already been forgiven and freed.
As we get to know God’s voice and the love, acceptance, and grace we find in Jesus, we can discern all the other voices. We can begin to tell the difference between Satan’s accusations and God’s affirmations.
Last year, I created a card which has helped me determine the difference. It sits on my desk. If you’d like a copy, enter your email below and I’ll send you the PDF immediately.
2. Continually return to the truth of who God says you are.
Our world is constantly distracting us by sharing who others say we’re supposed to be. And our memory often distracts us by showing us the old reels of who we used to be. We must remind ourselves of who God says we are.
I’ve told this story on several occasions when teaching on identity and shame because I’m moved by the power of one man’s boldness in this area.
My wife had a professor in law school – a male professor. He shared with the class one day about his struggles with his body image and identity (a struggle our culture limits to women only). He shared a daily habit he used to fight this battle. Every day, he stood in front of his full-length mirror at home, buck-naked.
Now, he wasn’t checking himself out, admiring his abs or his biceps. Remember, he was someone who had struggled with body image and insecurity for years. He spent time every day looking at his reflection, stating something to the effect of “I am lovable. I am worthy. God made me and called me very good.” It became a spiritual discipline of sorts of him.
We don’t all need to stand in front of the mirror naked, but we do need this kind of commitment to reminding ourselves of the truth.
I recently created a list of affirmations rooted in the Scripture which remind me of my identity in Christ. Enter your email below to get a copy!
3. Call shame out as you experience it.
Shame thrives in silence and secrecy. In Alcoholics Anonymous, members have a saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” When we call out shame, it loses its powerful grip on us.
In the same way, you might yell “spider spider SPIDER!!!!!” if you have arachnophobia, call out shame when you see it. Say “Shame shame SHAME!!!” This may not be a good idea when you’re walking alone through a crowded area by yourself…but then again, maybe you gotta do that to beat shame!
In your head, you could say, “Hey, this is shame. This isn’t true, this is shame deceiving me. Shame shame shame.” We’ve all heard this phrase (shame shame shame) used to actually shame people, so what if we redeemed it as a tool for freedom instead of more hurt?
4. Share your struggle.
Going back to the “you’re only sick as your secrets” idea, we do our best to project the best versions of ourselves to other people. Before social media, we did this at the grocery store, church, work, and community events. Now, we do it on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
Since moving to a new town last year, I’ve been asked by friends from the city I used to live in, “So, how are things going? Looks pretty awesome from what I see on Facebook.” Yes, things are going well and I’m happy about that. But there have been some very hard days and I hate that all people are seeing is the shiny moments. I wasn’t trying to only show one side, but it’s hard to let suckiness show too.
When we are honest with those we love and trust, they can (at worst) understand us better with this new context or (at best) love and support us as we battle shame. As you share honestly about your struggle with shame, I promise you others will say “me too.”
Now, it won’t be everyone and it might take you some time to find some fellow strugglers. But they’re out there…by the millions.
You might even want to sit down with a counselor or therapist who can help you unravel some of this struggle and share some words of wisdom with you. Getting help from a trusted friend or a trained professional is not a sign of weakness; it’s an indication of strength.
We’ll never find solidarity as long as we struggle in silence. True connection is on the other side of a fearful conversation where we’re honest and real.
A Blessing for The “Love Month”
Throughout grocery stores and crafty places, we cannot avoid the hearts, chocolate, overpriced flowers, and cheesy greeting cards. While we all have different feelings about Valentine’s Day and the commercialism surrounding it, we’re reminded this month of the power of love and connection. As we look for ways to overcome barriers like shame, I wanted to share a blessing with you. Please share this article on social media so other people can benefit from it. And if someone came to mind while reading it, forward it their way too!
May you name the shame which has been overpowering your heart
May you discover the ways unworthiness has kept you from the belonging you deserve
May you recognize the voice of God echoing towards your heart
May you embrace the value you have in the eyes of your Creator today
May you share your struggle that you and others may know you are not alone