That hanging sense of guilt and shame, a wondering if you’ll ever be good enough… What do you do when you can’t stop feeling ashamed?
When it comes to secrets, most of us have quite a few. We can have secrets about what we want to do with our lives. We can have secrets we know about other people that we try to keep to ourselves. We can have secrets about things that happened in our lives, things we’ve said to others. We can have secret hopes and dreams that we haven’t talked to anyone about but that burn in our hearts whenever we think about them. We can have secret instances where we’ve been offended and completely absorbed it into ourselves. Some secrets can be healthy – others can be destructive.
However, the most destructive secret that so many of us carry is that nagging sense of never being good enough. A sense of overwhelming guilt and unworthiness.
Shame is one of the most terrifying sensations anyone can ever experience. Shame destroys our relationships. It diminishes our ability to connect with others. It makes us feel like we constantly need to shrink back. When we’re in a heavier conversation or when an opportunity to be who we are called to be arises, shame tells us that we need to run away from the situation. It robs us of our future and keeps us living a small, contained, dark life.
Shame is a thief that needs to be destroyed in my life and in your life.
Christine Caine has recently been doing a series entitled #Unashamed. After seeing the response to this series, I couldn’t help but be moved by how prevalent shame really is in so many people’s lives. So if you find yourself in that situation, dear reader, don’t feel judged or belittled. This is an opportunity to explore what’s really going on, and I pray it’s an opportunity to find the freedom you’ve been yearning for.
Shame shows you’re human
I think if you’re feeling the weight of shame today, there’s some encouragement to be found in this – it shows you’re human. Shame is a universal experience. All of us at one point or another have to face feelings of guilt and shame. Whether it’s in response to what we’ve done to someone else, or in what someone else has done to us, nothing has seized you except that which is common to man.
I think one of the reasons shame is so destructive is because it lies to all of us in telling us that we’re the only one. It tells you you’re the only one going through this. The only one who could be so stupid. The only one who could’ve sunken so low. The only one who deserves exactly what’s coming to you in life.
Lift your head, friend. We’re all screwups in some regard. You are in good company.
You’d actually be surprised at the sorts of people who carry shame the most. Sometimes the happiest faces attempt to mask the deepest sadness and guilt. When you say, “Man I wish I was as free as her”, or “He seems to have it all together”, recognize that that may not be the case. What matters is how you get through it in your own life.
Shame tells you that you’re unacceptable. That you’re unworthy. That you don’t deserve anything good.
The deceit of shame is that it fails to recognize or acknowledge how loved and accepted you really are.
I think in whatever relationship you’re feeling a sense of shame in, you need to recognize whether or not what you’ve done changes whether or not you’re accepted.
With your relationship with God, Scripture encourages us that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God, and that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Before you ever did anything wrong, every act of malice or wrongdoing that you would ever commit was known in full, and yet God chose to make you anyway, signing off on your creation with full knowledge of everything you’d ever do. If you were that unacceptable to Him, He could have simply not made you. And yet He did make you. That must mean there is something so valuable about you that transcends the things that you’ve done wrong.
In our relationships with others, that can be a bit more complicated. If a child does something wrong, the action itself can never change the reality that by blood the family is still related, but depending on the people involved, it can drastically change what happens in the relationship. So I’ll separate this one into two categories.
When you have been forgiven by someone… isn’t that amazing? Blessed is the person who is forgiven. It’s an amazing thought that a person who stands nothing to gain, and in fact has made a loss, will still be willing to keep the relationship alive despite any hurtful actions. If someone has offered you the proverbial olive branch, don’t be afraid to take it. God knows someone else is going to be hurt by you in the future, and they’re going to need the same sort of acceptance from you.
PS. Forgiveness isn’t permission, or ignorance to what has been done wrong. I wrote a bit more about that here.
When you haven’t been forgiven… well, that’s harder. But even so, you’re still forgiven by God. Let that be the foundation of your healing journey in dealing with the consequences of what’s happened.
Freedom from shame comes from recognizing that you are accepted despite your actions. It is the foundational truth that drives everything that happens next.
Fight or flight – our fear of facing difficult situations
I think one of the saddest things for me in life has been the way that shame has literally destroyed the lives of people who’ve been close to me. No longer feeling like they’re able to spend time with everyone, join the group, make an appearance, pursue their dreams and calling, start or continue that relationship, remain in their family… just so many things that a feeling of shame can destroy. And I think the main reason is we don’t really know how to deal with the pressure that shame applies.
From our position of acceptance, which is the most important thing in finding freedom from shame, we next need to move on to dealing with what happens when that feeling may return. Because it can. And when it comes, we may feel the urgency to run away and hide again. To avoid. To not go there again.
I think the best description of how to overcome this fear, this need to run away, comes from the first mention of fear in Scripture. When the first humans, Adam and Eve, committed their first sin, shame was instantly present. As a result of shame, they set the pattern we have been following ever since, and ran away. When God confronted them and asked where they were, Adam shows us how healing from shame comes. He tells God, “I ate from the tree, I felt naked, so I hid.” This is the action that got me here. This is the feeling that made me run. And this is what I did – I ran.
In our relationship with God or our relationship with others, let that be the same pattern we follow. Owning up – facing what actions took place to make us feel like this. Discussing the feeling – spell it out to the other person, don’t keep it hidden. Acknowledge the followup – if you’ve run, if you’ve been an avoider, if you haven’t known how to face it, say it. Shame loses its power when exposed, and when reconciliation can take place.
“Can I really be that honest?”
I really hope you do. In fact, I don’t think complete victory over shame is possible until you open your mouth and expose what it’s been doing in your life, in this relationship, with your purpose.
Inspiration to set things right
There is one good thing to take away when the feelings of guilt and shame come, and that’s in understanding the difference between condemnation and conviction. Condemnation lies to us and tells us we don’t belong. We’ve already established what we need to do about that. However, conviction, which can sometimes feel similar, reminds us we are accepted, but that our behaviour isn’t acceptable. Sadly, too many of us avoid the voice of conviction, even though it is trying to get us to do what needs to be done.
And that is to set things right.
Especially when another life, or multiple lives, have been involved, we have to make the right choices to set things right. I was listening to a pastor speak about an old Jewish law which told people that if they had taken something from someone, or destroyed something, they were to restore it back to them in full, with an extra 20% on top. The truth is that even though forgiveness has taken place, the destruction of an action or incident can have life-long consequences for someone else. If you’ve shut someone down publicly, they may struggle for years when it comes to public settings. If you’ve cheated someone or stolen from them, their trust may be shattered. If you’ve abused or misused someone’s heart or attention, they may carry it into all their future relationships. If a child has been belittled because you had a bad day, they may not ever forget that conversation.
Knowing all that, and knowing that you’re always accepted, allow conviction to move you towards an action that sets it right. Remorse can produce in us a change in life direction, and if you let it, it will make you a better person, more aware of yourself and others, and lead you on a path that doesn’t just bring healing to your own life and shame, but also to the lives of those your actions may have affected. Repentance is literally a change in direction. It’s saying sorry, and meaning it. That conviction and stinging feeling can be a catalyst towards setting us on the right course.
Don’t waste your pain.
So just some thoughts on dealing with shame in your life. My prayer is that wherever you are, you’d find the freedom from shame you’ve been searching for, and that in all your interactions with God and with others, you can stop feeling ashamed.
You don’t have to run away from the place that you belong any longer.
Over to you guys – what are some ways you’ve found helpful dealing with shame?
When I was a teenager I did some things, out of necessity, that my parents shamed me for even though their mistreatment of me indirectly caused my actions. I carried that shame for years. And my father reminded me of my actions many times. It seems almost impossible to let it go. I feel I must carry the burden of shame all my life. It does affect my relationships because I feel I need to hide that short but disgraceful time in my young life like nobody would forgive me. My father sure hasn’t. My mother took down all photos of me. She wrote my sibling’s phone numbers in a book I gave them but didn’t include mine. Nobody has defended me. Nobody said ‘Hey, you can’t treat her that way’. That adds to the shame. I just feel so isolated even though the people shaming me are toxic themselves. It’s easy for people who grew up in loving families who valued them to recover because they had that protection from their families to comfort them. But what if everyone, even your family, abuses you? I guess you must turn to God and perhaps faceless people on the internet.