Shame. We’ve all experienced it. It is, after all, a natural human emotion. Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. Shame is indeed painful. It can serve as our teacher or our master.
Shame alerts us when we’ve done something wrong, said something we regret, or hurt someone we love. You can probably think back to your earliest memories and recall an experience of shame. It occurred when someone laughed at you or your parents scolded you.
Maybe you hit your brother or sister, or another little child at school. Likely, your teachers and parents punished you in some way. The punishment indicated that you made a choice that could hurt others or yourself.
We have to learn the essential difference between right and wrong in our daily living and interactions with others. And hopefully, for you, experiences of shame were used as teaching moments as opposed to shaping your identity as a “good” or “bad” person.
Shame is a part of the human existence. It is wired into us, not to be our master but our teacher. Shame makes us keep our behavior in check. Nobody wants to be embarrassed. They don’t want to be seen as making foolish mistakes, or errantly doing something that would bring unwanted attention. Shame, then, is healthy…if our caregivers helped us to understand shame as a teacher, not a master.
Shame as Teacher
Shame is a teacher, mainly of the young. It brings attention to our mistakes, wrong-doings, and threats to self-protection by activating the part of our nervous system that spikes our heart rate and leaves us with our hearts pounding in our chest. You look around and wonder, “Did anyone just see me do that?” You may want to go hide or disappear. But then, your mom or dad comes alongside and soothes you, literally inviting you to learn from this mistake, not to feel guilt.
With external soothing, yet another part of the nervous system kicks into gear and slows your heart rate, allowing you to think more clearly and use the embarrassing moment as a learning experience. It comes in the form of reassurance from parents and caregivers after you’ve made a choice that has negative consequences. Shame becomes a teacher when a parent whispers encouragement and not condemnation.
Shame and its sister guilt deftly warn us that certain behaviors may lead to rejection by those closest to us – our families, friends, and people in general. Our brains are alerted to the possible threat of exclusion when others become upset with us for something we’ve done.
That’s why the nervous system is alerted. There’s a threat. And shame, when we relegate it to its role of teacher, can talk to us and help us understand the reasons our choices matter. And that happens only if we have caregivers and adults who can help us navigate the process; to, quite literally, learn from our mistakes.
Shame, then, can go back to its place until it is again needed to course correct. But what happens when the influential caregivers in our lives don’t understand that process? What if they, themselves, never experienced healthy correction? Shame cannot then serve as a teacher. Rather, it begins to serve as a master of our identities.
Shame as Master
Have you ever had the thought, “I’m just not a good person?” That is a sign that shame has become a master in your life. Perhaps it was drilled into you as a child by a parent or teacher whom you loved who said things like, “You’re such a bad girl,” or “You’re naughty,” or “That’s not what good boys do.” Unwittingly you’ve been told that your actions and choices are sealed in stone, that they are part of you.
Correcting mistakes is doable, but recreating ourselves and our identities, however, seems an impossibility. Rather than experiencing the feeling of shame, you begin to feel ashamed. You begin to adopt an identity of shame.
Frequent thoughts of guilt, even over the most inconsequential things, will begin to plague you. You may start to feel alone, to believe that something is inherently wrong with you, or that you’ll “never get it right.”
This is toxic shame, and it is not a teacher. It is a cruel master. This is not your fault. Shame has a way of debilitating us and making us want to disappear. It makes us compare ourselves to one another.
Toxic shame makes us believe we have no control, that this is who we are and who we will always be. It does the opposite of teaching. It keeps you in bondage and prevents you from even believing in, much less embarking upon, a path toward healing. Marilyn J. Sorensen said, “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong.” Toxic shame literally poisons our view of ourselves and others.
Perhaps the most devastating outcome of toxic shame is that no matter the level of guilt or shame we experience, we are likely to keep making those same mistakes because toxic shame has resulted in us believing that we are not good and will, therefore, never be. When we believe we are unalterably flawed, experiences of shame lose their influence to teach us anything that will produce lasting and meaningful change.
Addiction, of any kind, is the tragic progeny of toxic shame. The addicted (and afflicted) person feels an unbearable daily weight of shame for not being able to change and not being able to make different choices.
In the morning when they awake, they promise themselves, “Today will be different.” Yet, deep down in their subconscious minds, they believe they are flawed. They believe they are no good. Toxic shame continues to whisper their inherent badness. And today ends up being much like yesterday.
Stepping into Healing and Out of Toxic Shame
Make no mistake. Toxic shame changes the brain. It alters our ability (much like being under the influence of alcohol or drugs) to learn from our mistakes, to accept that mistakes are part of every person’s life, and it convinces us we are incapable of change.
God created our brains to be flexible. It’s called neuroplasticity. It means you can stretch and learn new ways of thinking and believing because God would never leave you stuck in a place where you believe anything other than you are His beloved and valued child. You were created in God’s image. That fact alone means you have infinite value to a good God.
Counseling is a powerful platform for you to understand how toxic shame developed in your life. Talking with a professional, particularly a Christian counselor, will shift your perspective on yourself. Even though you may not believe you are a worthwhile person, you will come to understand that such a belief is a possibility.
That there is a path forward. That there can be a different way of thinking. And that is the key to unlocking the door to your journey of healing from shame: to simply believe it is possible to understand and regard yourself in a new way, a God-designed way.
Research repeatedly shows us that when we believe something is possible we are more likely to challenge ourselves to achieve it. Is it possible you are valuable? Is it possible you are lovable? Is it possible that you are worthwhile?
In a trusted counseling relationship, you will be able to answer these questions with a resounding “Yes”, even if you don’t know how. The how will come with time. For now, focus on the possibility that you were designed by a creator who makes no mistakes. And you are no exception.
Note: Childhood trauma (physical, sexual, psychological) are often root causes of toxic shame. If you have experienced any of these identity-forming traumas you will want to search for a trauma-informed counselor or therapist. Trauma must be processed in a thoughtful and safe environment. Be sure to establish a relationship with a counselor who specializes in trauma-informed treatment.
“Mountain Sunrise”, Courtesy of Casey Horner, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Shame”, Courtesy of Akshar Dave, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Standing on the Ridge”, Courtesy of Julian Santa Ana, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting on the Mountaintop”, Courtesy of Larisa Birta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License