What are the words you beat yourself up with? Consider what you say to yourself when you’ve made a mistake, experienced a rejection, or been exposed in some way that was uncomfortable. Do you notice examples of shame messages inside of yourself like these:
- You’re a terrible person.
- You’re not worthy of love.
- You deserve this bad thing that’s happened.
- You’re making a fool of yourself.
- Who do you think you are?
You wouldn’t say these things to your worst enemy, but somehow, some voice in your mind has decided it’s OK to shame YOU incessantly.
Let me be clear: shame is not constructive. Shame is toxic. It’s not how God thinks of you, and it’s not how God wants you to think of yourself. That’s why it is so important to understand shame, so that you can learn how to fight it.
We are all hard on ourselves from time to time. But shame takes it to another level. There’s a difference between the feeling of sorrow when you’ve messed up vs. the feeling of shame saturating every fiber of your being. The first leads to change. Shame doesn’t. It lures you down a road toward hiding, staying small, as if the earth might as well swallow you up. Let’s take a look at examples of shame and then four strategies for fighting it.
Examples of Shame
Shame from Past Wounds
One type of shame goes after your vulnerabilities – your pain, your limitations, your insecurities, and your struggles – and parades them in front of you in cruel and ultimately unproductive ways. This type of shame has a knack for finding the areas where you’ve been wounded by others. It may be that as a child your parents neglected you, leaving a deep part of you feeling unworthy of care. Or, maybe a family member was critical, harping on your every mistake. Such criticism can leave young parts of you feeling like you’re never good enough. As an adult, you know these things aren’t true. Yet, shame finds these vulnerabilities and magnifies them at opportune moments. If you experience persistent shame as a result of childhood wounds, it’s wise to talk to a counselor. You can learn to unburden the wounded parts of yourself and experience the freedom God wants for you.
Shame from Comparison to Others
Another type of shame loves to remind you how much you fall short in comparison to others. It’s one thing to notice the successes or strengths of another; it’s another thing to shame yourself for always being “less than”. When shame enters in, you criticize yourself in comparison to others mercilessly like this:
- He never gets angry with his kids. He’s a good parent; I’m bad.
- She has so many friends. I’m not lovable like she is.
- That couple has what I’ll never have. I’m not worthy of that kind of love.
These shaming messages don’t always operate consciously, which makes them even more insidious. That’s why it’s important to find them and call them out. The exercise below will help you learn how.
Shame from Exposure
Shame from exposure can be tied to a.) taking a risk or b.) experiencing a failure or making a mistake. In the first instance of exposure, you might feel shame after speaking up for yourself or putting yourself or your work out for public critique. In this case, you haven’t done anything wrong. In fact, you’ve done something right! However, any courageous act can make you feel vulnerable. And, the discomfort that comes with vulnerability (even healthy vulnerability) can stir shame up, giving it an opportunity to strike.
In the second instance of exposure, maybe you have failed or made a mistake. Perhaps your boss let you know of an error or a friend calls you out. Maybe they even confront you in a kind, healthy way. Regardless, you feel exposed. Making a mistake is never pleasant. But, it can be a wonderful opportunity to grow. However, instead of taking failure or a mistake as an opportunity to learn, shame enters in and creates chaos inside. The shame spiral takes you out emotionally. What could have been a constructive situation becomes excruciating and even immobilizing.
The shame you feel in this case says, “Who do you think you are?” or “You’re making a fool of yourself.” Exposure is an inevitable reality of being human. It comes with healthy risk and the vulnerability of being known. Shame thwarts this process of growth. It tells you to stay small and invisible.
Shame from Rejection
Rejection occurs in big and small ways. We experience mini rejections every day. You might feel a sting when a spouse is short with you or a friend doesn’t respond to a text. Sometimes, these mini-rejections aren’t rejections at all. Our loved ones are human, after all. But, parts of you might experience the sting as rejection, and shame enters in.
Other times, rejection is real. Someone breaks up with you, or a friend walks away. The shame from this kind of rejection can feel all consuming. Instead of tending to your pain in compassionate ways, you beat yourself up and take all the blame.
Whether big or small, shame from rejection says, “You are not worthy of love” or “No one could really care about you.” Shame does not give you healthy perspective. Instead, shame tells you that you are insignificant, fundamentally flawed, or unworthy.
The bottom line is this: Shame is a liar. Instead of helping you become stronger, healthier, and more of your God-given self, shame creates chaos and makes you stay smaller. Shame needs to be introduced to the authority of Jesus and the reality of God’s unshakable mercy and love.
The next time you struggle with any one of these examples of shame, try these strategies:
1.) Get curious about shame.
Getting curious about shame helps you differentiate from it. Instead of letting it operate subtly from within, you put your attention on it. Ironically, that attention helps you gain distance from it. As you bring shaming messages out into the light, shame loses its power. To get started, ask yourself some of the following questions:
- How familiar is the voice of shame to you?
- What is a recent time when you felt shame?
- What is an early memory of feeling shame?
- How did nearby adults (if there were any) respond to you in that moment?
2.) Inventory your shaming self-talk.
Now, get more specific about how shame shows up in your day-to-day life. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How often do you experience shame?
- What does shame feel like inside your body?
- What is an image or metaphor of how shame makes you feel?
- What are the shaming things you say to yourself?
Write down what you notice. Be honest with yourself. Get it into the light. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson encourages keeping a shame inventory each day. This exercise is not to encourage you to dwell on the shame, but rather to interrupt the shaming neural pathways in your brain. As you become more aware of that shame pathway, you can consciously redirect it. Instead of going down the road to shame, you can pick a new direction.
3.) Write a holy reframe.
Picking a new direction takes conscious effort. As you notice the shaming message, you will need to create a reframe with intention. As you look over the list you made of shaming messages, practice writing a holy reframe for each one. Prayerfully write a sentence that IS true. Make sure it feels right to you. The chart to the right gives you some ideas of how to get started.
4.) Tell someone about shame.
Brené Brown emphasizes the isolating power of shame. And, she believes the antidote to shame is empathy. So, if you’re struggling with shame, identify a safe person with whom you can share your shame messages. Let them know when you are experiencing shame. As you invite a caring person into your experience of shame, they can help you bring the healing balm of empathy to it.
Working through these strategies will help prepare you for battle. When shame shows up, you will be better prepared to fight it. It may not go away immediately. But, you will have the skill to face it with courage, knowing it cannot overtake you. As you practice these strategies over time, shame will lessen its grip.
Shame keeps you stuck, isolated, and unproductive. When you separate out from it by naming it for what it is, you gain perspective. You see more clearly the whole picture of who you are. You regain your creativity and reconnect to your God-given potential. Remember: God doesn’t yell at you like an abusive parent. He comes alongside you and joins with you in loving, gentle, truth-filled ways that are always life-giving.
In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.
I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame.
For Further Reading:
Chapter 13 of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies, by Alison Cook, PhD and Kimberly Miller, MTh, LMFT