(Note: Vows are discussed more in depth during the Faithwalking series. A vow is a subconscious decision you made, likely early in life after certain experiences, about how to be safe in relationships. Your vows are obstacles that keep you from living the life God has prepared for you.)
As you prepare to deeply consider your vows and your patterns of habitual disobedience, you can hardly avoid the topic of shame. Chances are good that the original feeling that created the vow was shame. Vows support your false self and the false self is driven by shame. People often feel shame about their needs, their wounds and about their habitual disobedience that grows out of the unmet needs and the wounds. It is likely that you feel shame about the behavior that the vow created and your seeming inability to change it. If you want to see transformation in your life at these deep levels, you will have to learn to grapple with shame.
According to University of Houston researcher Brené Brown, shame is defined as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It is a fundamental emotion that often begins in the primitive parts of the brain, which are wired to signal that you are in danger—in this case, the threat of losing the acceptance and affirmation of those who care for you. This is a dangerous prospect for a vulnerable child.
It is important to notice the following:
- Shame is a feeling or an experience, not just a set of thoughts and beliefs. In fact, shame can be an intensely painful experience.
- There are two critical beliefs associated with shame: “There is something wrong with me” and “ I am unworthy of love or belonging.”
In the Bible we see this most noticeably in Genesis 3:7-10. Not only do Adam and Eve feel the need to clothe themselves, but when God comes around they hide. They feel unworthy to be connected to God. In the New Testament, you see this when people encounter Jesus. For instance, it is on clear display in John 4 where the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is recorded.
Although shame is primarily a feeling, attached to the feeling are thoughts. These thoughts are usually repetitive and predictable, often laced with profanity and accusations. Here are some common thoughts that accompany the feeling of shame:
- “I’m never good enough.” “I’m worthless.”
- “What’s wrong with you? Try harder.”
- “Who do you think you are?”
- “Stupid, stupid, stupid” or other name-calling
- “If you really knew me (or knew this secret about me), you would reject me.”
Shame is not the same thing as guilt, regret, or embarrassment, which are also normal human experiences.
- Guilt is a normal, healthy emotion that lets you know when you have violated your sense of right and wrong. Given to us by God, guilt prompts you to clean up your messes and seek forgiveness. When you have done that, the feeling of guilt lessens. Although you may still have feelings of sincere regret, the guilt loses its power over time.
- When you are embarrassed, you tend to understand that you are experiencing something that happens to everyone and you tend not to think that you are personally defective or unworthy. Although you may want to run and hide at first, you are also likely to want to tell someone what happened to you, maybe as a funny story. Like guilt, when handled in a healthy way, embarrassment diminishes over time.
- Shame, on the other hand, grows in intensity if it goes unaddressed. It flourishes in secret and makes you feel compelled to hide from others, either literally or figuratively. Shame is also closely linked to perfectionism. You do not have to be perfectionists to have high standards. However, all of us fall short of those standards. People who are not perfectionists can say, “Oh, I fell short of my standard. How can I learn to do better next time?” Perfectionists, on the other hand, judge themselves harshly, believing that even the slightest failure means that they are inadequate and unworthy. That is the connection between perfectionism and shame.
Living in shame denies the possibilities of grace. Although we all sin and fall short of the glory of God, that is not the shame that most of us feel. We are not talking about the experience of our common human fallenness. When we are in shame, we feel that we are uniquely flawed and unworthy of love and belonging, from God, from others, and from ourselves. Shame does not say, “There is something wrong with us.” Instead it says, “There is something wrong with me.”
While guilt prompts you to ask for and receive forgiveness, shame prompts you to hide from God and others, and it refuses to be forgiven. You cling to your unworthiness and reject the message of the gospel, that in Christ there is no condemnation, that we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
Shame keeps you stuck in patterns of habitual disobedience by creating and reinforcing your vows. Your vows were created when your legitimate needs were not met, when you were hurt or wounded, when you experienced rejection or humiliation. All of these things are intrinsically related to shame. You may feel shame about having needs in the first place. You feel shame about being rejected or hurt. When you were wounded as a child, you likely made the meaning: “There is something wrong with me. This would not have happened if I were more worthy, more deserving, more loved.” People recoil from that feeling of shame and attach a vow:
- “So that I won’t feel unworthy, undeserving, or unloved, I will . . .” or “I will never . . .”
- So that others will not see how I am a failure, a reject, or a worthless person, I will . . .or I will never.
Because shame is helping to create and reinforce your vows, shame also helps to create your patterns of disobedience. When you are “in shame,” you have a way of being. According to Karen Horney, we learn in childhood and adolescence to do some combination of the following:
- We may “move toward”—developing patterns of compliance and seeking approval, even at the expense of our sense of self
- We may “move away” by distancing, avoiding, and hiding.
- We may “move against” and act out patterns of conflict, persuasion, or trying to change others, even with the best of intentions.
These ways of dealing with shame become entrenched patterns in your life, learned in childhood or adolescence. Whatever you do, you do unconsciously, as part of your “default” way of being. You may even be unaware that there might be other possible ways of responding. When you see these behaviors in yourself, it’s time to look for the possibility that you are dealing with shame.
As if that weren’t bad enough, shame is also activated when you begin to deal with your vows in healthy ways. This shame is activated in two ways:
- As you acknowledge areas of disobedience, woundedness, or needAshamed of your woundedness and your fear, you want to act as if you have it all together. You are ashamed of our habitual disobedience and your ineffective efforts to change. You resist bringing your hurts and your fears out into the open. The last thing you want is to share what you are seeing in a small group or on a coaching call or in a transformation conversation. You may not even want to acknowledge it to yourself.
- As you step into new vows of obedienceAs you begin to live into new vows of obedience, your actions may provide the most intense feelings of shame. Why? This happens because your old vows “worked” for you. They kept you safe. As you live into new vows of obedience, you may feel insecure and unsafe. You may feel particularly susceptible to feeling re-wounded. For instance if you have a vow that says “I will not be vulnerable” and you make an effort to live into a vow of obedience where you are vulnerable with others, you are leaving yourself open to being re-wounded. If something negative happens, this may bring on intense feelings of shame that remind us that we are unlovable, worthless and “not enough.” You may feel ashamed that you broke the old vow you made to yourself. Intense feelings of shame will make it hard for you to stay the course toward obedience. You can also become particularly ashamed about your ineffective efforts to change. Living into a new way of being is challenging and it will not happen quickly. If you are not careful, shame will creep in and cut off the transformation process.
But don’t despair—just as shame teaches you a “way of being,” you can learn to be different in the face of shame. Those who study shame tell us that there are three very effective ways to dramatically lessen its power in our lives. The good news is they line up well with the truths of the gospel and the values of Faithwalking. The bad news is that they go against everything you instinctively want to do when you are in shame.
The antidotes to shame are courage, compassion, and connection.
You neutralize shame when you are brave enough to bring your shame into the light and say it out loud (“speak your shame”) to yourself, to God, and to others. Because shame loves secrecy, darkness, isolation and judgment, you fight it by being authentic about your experience, even being willing to say, “I’m feeling shame right now.”
As you are reminded in 1 John 1:5-7, God is light and the enemy loves darkness. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
You need the courage to put things in the light and watch them lose their power. It is likely that you will need to grow your courage muscles. In other words, you don’t wait until you are no longer scared. You actually have to learn to do it scared. Doing it scared will loosen the power that shame currently has over your way of being.
Courage comes from the French word for “heart.” To have the courage to see and speak your shame means to put your heart out there. This actually encourages (gives courage—or “heart”—to) others and gives them the power to also come into the light and neutralize their own shame. It is a gift you give yourself and others at the same time.
It takes courage to share the God-given dream you have for living a missional live of love and to share the gifts God has given you to use to make a difference in the world. You may fear that others will judge you, that they will say, “Who do you think you are?” It takes courage to shine! Be brave! In the words of Jesus, “Let your light shine!”
Compassion is the human, caring response to suffering—for others and for self. Commonly, when we see the shame of others, we feel compassion and want to help. However, when we are the ones in shame, we are unlikely to show compassion to ourselves. When you lack compassion, you judge or try to fix others or yourself. Having compassion means being willing to see and feel the pain—to “suffer with” a person, including yourself.
Compassion is at the core of Christ’s way of being. For instance,
- Matthew 9:36: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
- Matthew 14:14: When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
- Matthew 20:34: Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Showing yourself compassion often means changing the internal dialogue—that “little voice.” You likely say things to yourself that you would never say to another person, especially not someone you care about. You have to learn to discipline yourself to speak kindly to yourself and to hear the kindness of God, rather than berating yourself with accusations and name- calling. You can rely heavily on the truths of Scripture about our worth and God’s grace to re- train our internal dialogue. This takes time and practice, but it will be well worth the effort it takes.
You are hardwired biologically for deep connection. (See Genesis 2—we were never meant to be alone.) Shame steals that from you and makes you either try to hide or to fake it. Because shame depends on secrecy and hiding, it loses power when you reach out, share your stories, and realize that we’re all in this together. When you are in shame, you must learn to reach out. When others are in shame, it helps to build a bridge of connection toward them.
Shame makes it hard to reach out for the help and solidarity you need. Many people act like there are two kinds of people: those who give help and those who need help. Actually, we are both kinds of people all the time. It can be difficult to ask for help from a coach or a friend. When you are in shame, the last thing you want to do is engage in a coaching call.
Consider the possibility that, even though you may experience some fear, you can talk about the feelings of shame with your coach and your coaching partner and get the understanding and compassion you need. Pause for a minute and imagine doing that and imagine your coach and coaching partner expressing words of compassion and understanding to you.
To make progress, you will need to increase your tolerance for pain. It will require the very best of you to do this work.
Shame: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
Notice the following:
- Shame is a feeling or an experience, not just a set of thoughts or beliefs. Shame can be intensely painful.
- There are two critical beliefs associated with shame: “There is something wrong with me” and “I am unworthy of love and belonging.”
- Shame does not have a moral value. It is not right or wrong, good or bad. It just “is.” In fact, shame is “normal” in the sense that everybody has some level of it. But, if it is left unaddressed, it can become extremely unhealthy.
- Learning to observe whether you move toward, move away, or move against in the face of shame is an important part of learning to take off the old self and put on the new self.
- Courage, compassion, and connection are three clear antidotes to shame that when practiced over time can significantly reduce the power that shame has in your life.
Additional Resources on Shame:
- Surrender to Love by David Benner
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
- Brené Brown’s TED Talk(s) on “Vulnerability” and “Shame.” https://www.ted.com/speakers/brene_brown
- “Brené Brown Returns to Church (and Finds Jesus Weeping)” – http://www.mbird.com/2013/07/brene-brown-reflects-on-how-jesus-wept