Shame, Shame, Shame [Part 1]

Shame was the topic that was addressed at our latest Frontlines: Counseling Conversations for Church Leader seminar. This blog series serves as a follow up to that event and is also an attempt to confront shame head-on. While the presentation was specifically for church leaders, there is information beneficial for all. Part 1 in this series seeks to define shame and explore its origins.

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Shame. It is something that we all have and an unpopular topic of conversation. Want to silence a room? Just ask people to start talking about shame. Shame is a scary word for a lot of people, and hearing it often results in a physical response that makes a person want to clam up, shut down, or run away. The way most people try to cope with shame is by ignoring or avoiding it.

word shame printed on white paper macro

The only people who do not experience shame are people that lack the ability to connect with others. So,, if shame is something that we all experience, why is it so difficult to address? Shame thrives on silence, isolation, secrecy, and judgment, so not confronting shame means that the shame grows and becomes even more difficult to talk about. So join me as we attempt to fight this shame bully head on!

Shame is a difficult emotion to describe and define. It ebbs and flows in research popularity, and until recently, there was not a lot of good research that addressed the topic. However, thanks to the work by Dr. Brene Brown, empirical research on shame is growing.

Brown’s definition of shame is one that I find to be helpful. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.”

A few things are important to note in this definition. First, shame is an incredibly uncomfortable, often painful, emotion to experience. Gershan Kaufman, the author of The Clinical Psychology of Shame writes, “No other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame, the self feels wounded from within.” Unlike other emotions, shame feels like an attack from the inside, so it makes sense why we want to avoid that feeling if we can.

Second, the feeling is connected to a belief that something is wrong with us—that at the core of who we are, we are flawed. We fear that if others knew about those flaws, they would disconnect from us completely. Shame is closely tied to fear about relationships. We fear that if people knew certain things about us, we would not belong or we would be judged. Relational connection is something innate to being human. Shame threatens that sense of connection and the response we have is typically fear.

Shame is often confused with guilt, but these are two distinct emotions. Guilt says, “I have done something bad” whereas shame says, “I am bad”. Though the difference in the wording is subtle, the impact is dramatic. Guilt is tied to a behavior; shame is tied to a belief about the self. If left uncorrected, shame can cause an unraveling. Out of fear of how others might respond, shame makes us isolate and remain silent, ultimately leading to disconnection and dissatisfaction.

So, where exactly does shame come from?

Journey with me back to the Garden of Eden for a moment. God created the world, and it was perfect. Adam and Eve are given dominion over the creation and live in perfect harmony, but perfection does not last long. Genesis 2 ends up, “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (v 25). If we move ahead to Genesis 3 where the story of the fall is recorded, we see shame rear its ugly head.

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord. (Genesis 3:4-8, ESV)

After eating the fruit they were commanded to not eat, Adam and Eve realize that they are naked. As an attempt to cover up, they sew together fig leaves, but covering up does not get rid of the problem or what they feel. When they hear the Lord walking in the Garden, they hide out of fear. Shame causes a person to want to hide.

While Scripture does not address a lot of emotions in the pre-fall world, I am convinced that shame is not God’s intent for how we are to feel. We are created for connection; shame causes a sense of disconnection. We are made in the image of God and therefore have intrinsic value; shame causes us to devalue ourselves and doubt our worth.

So what is a person to do with shame? The first step is recognizing it and then talking about it. To begin the process of recognition, I will leave you with some questions to ask yourself about shame:

  • When you hear the word shame, what do you think about?
  • What life experiences have left you feeling ashamed?
  • When you experience shame, how do you respond? Hide? Run?

Stay tuned for more articles focused on confronting shame head on!

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