Once upon a time there was a little girl who stole some candy from the grocery store. When she got out to the car, her mother noticed the candy bulging in the girl’s pants pocket. The mother insisted that the girl return to the store, give back the candy and apologize to the manager.
Upon their return home, the mother told the girl’s father what their daughter had done. Both the parents told the girl: You are a bad girl. You are sinful. We cannot touch you. Get away from us. You have shamed us. They repeated these words all through the evening and the next day and the day after.
This was the parents typical way of dealing with their daughter’s childhood mishaps and mistakes. There was no resolution, no absolution, no forgiveness. Just a total rejection of her person. Shame.
During Lent, I have been thinking about the role of guilt and shame in my life. What good does guilt do? What good does shame do?
Though we often use the words guilt and shame together, they are quite different. Guilt happens when your conscience is bothered by something you’ve done. We feel guilty when we are responsible for doing something we regret.
Shame, on the other hand, is when are disappointed by something inside us. The two have been contrasted this way: We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.
Guilt is constructive. It can lead to a healthy sorrow and change. Shame is damaging. It becomes our core identity and makes us feel like failures. It reminds us over and over again of our mistakes and transgressions.
In the Psalms, David often prayed, "Let me not be put to shame." "Shame on you" is a curse. The girl in the opening story has still not escaped it.
Shame may also be directed outward. To avoid the painful feelings of shame, it focuses on the mistakes and transgressions of others. It is always finding fault, always casting blame. It is a cover-up.
A shame-based personality leads to many harmful attitudes and behaviors, according to Patricia Hulsey, author of “Shattering the Shackles of Shame.” To name a few:
Self-punishment. This is one I am intimately familiar with. Throughout my life, I’ve engaged in behaviors that hurt me, such as smoking cigarettes, being disorganized and leaving projects unfinished. This is mild compared to the self-mutilation that some people engage in.
Defensiveness. Defensive people are extremely sensitive to criticism or the suggestion of personal blame. They are argumentative and always must be right. Shame-based people interpret criticism of what they do into a judgment of who they are.
Scapegoating. This is when all the blame is projected on someone else. It is a cover-up for shame by passing the blame onto others.
Perfectionism. Shame portrays a person as inferior, so perfectionism is a constant attempt to prove their worth. It is a driving, controlling force that sets impossible standards. The constant sense of failure leads to more shame, as well as judging, moralizing, and criticizing others who fall short of their arbitrary standards.
Control. A shame-based person attempts to control other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions to insure that no one can ever shame him again.
Addictions. Psychologist John Bradshaw views shame as the core and fuel for all addictive behavior. He comments: "The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying, or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship...Each addictive acting out creates life-damaging consequences which create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction."
Arrogant self-righteousness. Enough said.
“Our shame defenses keep us from showing ourselves to anyone else,” writes psychologist John Bradshaw. “More tragically, these defenses keep us from looking at ourselves.”
So, if your conscience is tinged or saturated with shame, is there any way to get rid of it? Well, yes. But it’s not instant.
For me, it is an ongoing process. The process began when I realized that God loves me with an unfailing love. No matter what I do. No matter what mistakes I make. No matter how misunderstood or overlooked I am by others. But this does not let me off the hook.
Jesus willingly took our sins and failures with him to the cross. They died there with him. They no longer belong to us. That is not denial. Denial does not even recognize that we have failed or sinned. It minimizes our shortcomings.
But when we acknowledge that yes, I too have the same problems and failures as everyone else, then we can hold it all up to God.
Brennan Manning, an author and speaker, says that in all his years of praying, Bible reading, meditation and ministry, he’s convinced that, on Judgement Day, Jesus will ask us only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you?”
The most destructive aspect of shame is that it blocks us from God’s love for us. We can only be free of shame as we shape our lives in response to God’s love. One day at a time.