“What’s wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me. What’s wrong with me?” This is the voice of shame. Dr. Brené Brown, a shame researcher, defines shame as an intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. Shame tells us we are flawed, unacceptable or unlovable, not good or important enough.
Sometimes as a result of our broken world, choices we have made, or choices others made that have affected us, cause us to feel shame. But, it’s important to note that guilt is not shame. We let guilt define our actions, while we let shame define who we are. Guilt is saying, “I did something bad.” Shame is saying, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I lied.” Shame says, “I am a liar.” That being said, any outstanding guilt that comes to our conscience should be brought to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’s important for us to seek God’s mercy in confession. The shame that lingers even after the Sacrament is what we’re trying to heal.
Shame can come in different forms and as a result of different experiences. I regularly meet with young men and women who are haunted by the shame of sins from their past. Sometimes this shame comes up in the moment; sometimes it comes up years later. Spiritually, they have been forgiven through the grace of the sacraments, yet they can’t shake the shame. What is the shame you carry?
We all have heard the sayings like, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” But shame just doesn’t work that way. Shame is rooted deep within our hearts. Whether you geographically move, change schools, or try to erase memories, shame still has a way of affecting us. Oftentimes, our responses to shame can be displayed in three tainted ways: covering, hiding, and blaming.
Adam and Eve are prime examples. They ate the fruit, felt shame, realized they were naked, and covered themselves. We too have the tendency to cover up different things in our lives. Maybe it’s covering up our feelings, covering up about something we did or someone else did. What are some ways you “cover”?
The shame we feel can cause us to move away or “hide” from a particular relationship or situation. After the Fall, Adam and Eve hid from God by cowering behind a bush. Sometimes we withdraw or try to hide. In my life, this was the case with some friendships in high school. I neglected certain relationships because I had a negative experience or was afraid to tell a friend they hurt me. I chose to hide rather than to work through the conflict. What are some of the ways you “hide”?
Blaming can take place when someone shames you and you want to respond with shaming them. When God confronted Adam and asked what he had done, Adam turned and blamed it on Eve; Eve then turned and blamed it on the serpent. If your parents get upset with you for getting a bad grade, your response might be to yell back at them for being terrible parents. In this case, you feel shame because of your bad grade and, in turn, you want your parents to feel shame. What are some ways you “blame”?
Shame, shame, go away. There is hope! The opposite of shame is honor. Honor has to be given in order for shame to be defeated. Scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Romans 10:11). Recovering from shame and rebuilding honor and self-esteem takes time and patience, but it can be done. It’s time for shame to go away… and not come back.
The following are tools to help you process and walk through your shame:
Identify your triggers
What sets off your feelings of shame? A good way to uncover this would be an examination every night before bed. Go through your day — the good and the bad — and focus on where you were triggered. Did someone say something that brought up feelings of shame? Once you know some of your “shame triggers,” you can begin to manage them.
Self Care 101
When you feel shame, it’s hard to be loving toward yourself. We might be tempted to believe that being hard on ourselves can somehow help us; therefore, being self-compassionate might seem unnatural. One simple way to start is to imagine what you’d do if someone you cared about shared that they were deeply ashamed of something they’d done. What would you say to that person? How would you treat them? You should treat yourself with the same love and care.
The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very difficult to receive love from others. This could be accepting compliments, receiving affirmations, small gifts, or anything really. We are called to receive love openly and with gratitude. This takes conscious, concerted practice, but over time it will feel more natural to receive kindness and love from others.
Friendship and community
Shame melts in community. It’s import that we do not allow ourselves to remain alone in the darkness of shame. We don’t have to cover up or overcompensate for our weakness because God’s power works best in weakness. “… I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God created us to live in community with one another. In our battle against shame, we need friends to journey alongside us — friends with whom we can be vulnerable and who will speak truth in our lives to help reshape our shame story.
Christ continues to reach out to all those who feel imprisoned by shame. His healing message is the same today as it was 2,000 years ago: shame, shame, go away. Jesus wants us to give Him our shame. Nothing is too big for His infinite love. He can heal any shame in our life. The key is to invite Him in and allow Him to give you new eyes to see yourself and your situation in His merciful light.