Shame is probably one of the most potent and profound emotions we will ever experience.
Most of us will experience shame. But we don’t talk about it. We instinctively withdraw and hide.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that thrives on publicly shaming people for real and perceived failures and missteps.
Shame thrives in darkness. So, today we will step into the light and talk about shame.
We will examine the difference between guilt and shame, four tools to combat shame (faith, counseling, medication, and community), and what to do when shame becomes our identity.
What is the difference between guilt and shame?
Dr. Brene Brown says that there is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I feel bad about my behavior, and I’d like to fix the situation and behave differently in the future.” Shame says, “I am a bad person, and there’s nothing I can do about that, so I might as well continue behaving badly.” Here is a link to her TED Talk about the Power of Vulnerability.
Guilt says I did a horrible thing; my actions were terrible. Shame says my identity is defined by what I did; I am bad.
Guilt can produce a healthy behavior change. But shame is a destructive force when it becomes the basis of our identity. We are not solely defined by what we have done or have done to us.
I am not a medical doctor or a clinical psychologist. Therefore, I have not written a best-selling book that gives four quick steps to overcoming shame.
I come as a person whose identity was shaped and defined by shame—a person starting to experience grace after a lifetime of personal condemnation.
I want to share that journey with you and what I am learning. I hope you will join me on that journey and maybe gain the courage to address your areas of shame, if applicable.
Three and a half years ago, I began to experience nightmares while waiting on neck fusion surgery during the Christmas season.
I was in intense pain. At first, I thought that the medication I was taking was the cause of my nightmares.
But night after night, the same nightmare returned. Over time the dream became more and more detailed and intrusive. Finally, I woke up each night in terror.
I knew something was wrong. I rarely remember the details of my dreams. A recurring nightmare with consistent features was unusual. I wondered if this was related to an experience I had at fifteen years old.
At fifteen years old, I lost three days’ worth of memories during the Christmas season. Of course, I couldn’t tell you what happened. But I knew I was battered and bruised. I remember being at the doctor’s office with a large knot on my head.
I remember feeling deep shame without knowing why. None of my friends could or would shed light on the events of those three days. My parents did not talk about it after the doctor’s visit.
Memory loss became a lifelong source of comedy material that defined my teenage years.
Everything I achieved responded to that memory loss and a drive to fill in details or move past that event.
I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor to mask the deep sadness.
To affirm my masculinity, I went into athletics. I became a writer searching for words to express the deep ache in my heart. Instead, I engaged in self-destructive behaviors to numb myself to the brokenness I felt inside.
All of this is in response to three missing days.
4 Tools to Overcome Shame.
Faith, counseling, medication, and community are essential in dealing with shame. Combining the four is incredibly effective.
Faith and Shame.
Not knowing what happened had always bothered me. But I became a Christ-follower at 17 years old and embraced the truth that I was a new creation in Christ. That old thing had passed away, and all things had become new. So I went into the ministry, married a supporting and loving wife, and became a father.
I loved the Lord. I knew that he loved me. But I often suffered from bouts of shame-fueled depression as Christmas approached. Depression, deep sadness, and even anger outbursts were common this season.
But in all these years, I had never had nightmares like this. I begged God for the dreams to stop. Instead, they grew more persistent. Persistent enough that I had to talk to my wife about what I was going through. I spoke to my friends. Some in the ministry. Some in the medical field.
A friend of mine said something that lodged in my soul. “Jesus, counseling, and medication, sometimes it takes all three.”
I believed that to be true for most people, but not for me.
I thought I didn’t need counseling or medication. I had Jesus. That should be enough. Going to a licensed counselor and taking an anti-depressant would indicate that I did not have enough faith. That somehow Jesus was deficient for my needs,
But after several months of agony, prayer, and bible reading, I had to admit my approach was not working.
In the months ahead, I learned that I needed not three but four things to address my trauma and shame.
Jesus, Counseling, Medication, and Community.
While I was waiting for God to speak to me through prayer and reading his word, He was gently speaking through my friends, family, and faith community. They all gave the same advice. Go to counseling.
Counseling and Shame.
I didn’t think that therapy would work for me. Positive self-talk seemed like mental gymnastics and wishful thinking.
Then, I heard someone on the radio talking about therapy. The speaker said, “You say positive self-talk doesn’t work. But you prove every day that negative self-talk does.” I had to admit they were right. So, I listened and acted on the internal negative messages of shame I heard daily.
So, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in a licensed Christian counselor’s office.
The pain I was going through had removed my self-induced protections, and the memories were coming back like a flood.
I was overwhelmed with sadness and ashamed because of what had happened to me. I felt somehow responsible for being the victim of an assault. I was angry at God. I was a mess.
Through counseling, I discovered that God was with me in the assault. The attack resulted from living in a broken world with broken people. He was grieved by what happened to me. But even in my brokenness, he could make something beautiful to honor him.
But the strongest shame I felt was not over the memories. It was a shame to have to seek help. I felt ashamed that I was not strong enough to handle this alone.
Medication and Shame.
That shame increased when the counselor indicated I needed medication and EMDR to help me deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. I had a chemical imbalance. My body did not produce the same serotonin level that most people created. So I was working from a deficit. EMDR was used with soldiers to deal with painful memories.
Medication allowed me to find balance and stability in my emotional life. It allowed me to process what I was experiencing rationally. In addition, the exercise allowed my body to release endorphins that allowed me to deal with my stress.
EMDR allowed me to safely navigate my memories and bring my nightmares to an end.
But it was in a community that healing began to bear fruit.
Community and Shame.
I was in an Established group at my church as I began to walk through the counseling, medication, and land mines of my memories. Then, finally, I found support and acceptance.
The group knew I was going to a counselor. Some of them had gone and had good results. They said it took a healthy, not weak, person to ask for help.
The group reminded me that our pastor had spoken numerous times about his battle with depression. That the Old Testament prophet Elijah had suffered from depression.
The group reminded me that the God who had revealed himself supernaturally through his son had also revealed general wisdom to humanity for our benefit.
The group knew I was taking medication. They explained and affirmed the use of drugs to address the chemical imbalance.
They asked if I lacked faith when I took medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol.
They knew I was experiencing flashbacks. They believed that whatever I had experienced was real. They loved me and encouraged me to pursue the truth.
The group created a safe place for me to address my sadness, anger, and shame. Without that community, I would never have done the hard work that was to come.
I was able to rediscover my sense of self through the community.
What to do when shame becomes our identity.
My entire life had been defined by not knowing what happened those missing three days.
Now I faced the danger of being defined by what I knew.
My identity was as a survivor of a sexual assault that had taken place over forty years ago.
But through the community, I was reminded that God was not ashamed of me and that He loved me before I loved him. God would never love me any more or less than the day he created me.
Despite God’s knowledge of my shortcomings and the things I was sure to do in the future, he loved me and claimed me as his own.
I discovered in the community that I was more than just a survivor. I was not just a sinner or the sum of my destructive behaviors, coping mechanisms, and poor decisions.
I found my identity in my relationship with God, not the abuse. Neither my actions nor those taken against me define who I am. I am His child, and I find my identity in Christ.
Where I am in my journey.
I’m not here to say that everything is perfect. I wish there were a magic bullet.
Talking about this subject is painful. My wounds and scars can sometimes hurt as much today as the day they were received, and maybe even more.
I tell myself that as much as these wounds hurt, I wouldn’t go back and change them.
These wounds helped to define who I am. They remind me of my continuing need for a savior. They make me compassionate to others.
But there are days when I would not have experienced these wounds. Days when shame overwhelms and paralyzes me when I want to disappear into the shadows, withdraw from society, and forget whose child I am.
But I know that sin and shame thrive in the darkness. They wither in the light. So, I lift my eyes to Jesus for my identity.
I continue to seek counseling to deal with the hard things. I continue to take medication and exercise. I intentionally live in a community where grace without shame is received. And I step out of the shadows into his glorious light to share my heart with others.
Maybe, you can identify with what I am saying.
Maybe, you are saddened, angry, and ashamed because of something done to you. Or because of the things that you have done.
The biblical truth is that God will never love you or me anymore or less than he loved us when he created us.
We cannot earn his favor or stop his love for us due to our behavior. We are his children.
Our identity is in H
But there are some issues and wounds that require additional treatment. God works through doctors, counselors, medication, and the community.
There is no shame in us seeking additional sources of care.
- Additional resources.
- Freedom from Shame Video by Blake Bergstrom.
- The Soul of Shame, Retelling the stories we believe about ourselves, by Curt Thompson.
- Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection, by Edward T. Welch.
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My mission is to help individuals and churches become safe havens for the broken.