Shame: The First Great Barrier to Healing

Shame and Guilt

What is shame? Shame is the disowning of one’s personhood. It demands a cover-up, so the disowned part can hide for protection in secrecy and darkness. Shame can also be seen as intense self-hatred, the ultimate product of parental abuse and neglect. We learn to be ashamed of, and separate from, parts of us we judge to be rejectable when we are humiliated, ridiculed, or violated as children. Shame has been called “the mother of all emotions” because it is used to conceal all the rest.

Shame and guilt can be contrasted in their message to the person. Guilt says, “I made a mistake,” while shame delivers the message, “I am a mistake.” When we experience the feeling of guilt, we blame our behavior, saying to ourselves, “How can I have done that? What can I do to make amends for what I have done?”

Shame, on the other hand, says, “What a stupid fool I am! I am worthless and no one will ever like me.” In a healthy upbringing, parents teach children that shame and guilt are not the same. To the extent the early environment was unhealthy, the two feelings of shame and guilt are knit together.

All emotions have specific uses and propel us toward action. Shame is linked to the need for protecting the vulnerable child. In a young person suffering parental abuse, there can be no safety outside himself, because he is dependent on others who are victimizing caregivers for his very life. Therefore, since rejection of the parents is not an option, the abused or neglected child internalizes his anger and hurt, negating part of his own consciousness. Then the denied self is hidden in the heart, and false fronts are adopted to deal with day-to-day existence. These false fronts serve to protect the “buried” defenseless child.

Sometimes inner shamed parts abuse each other. Thus even self-injuring behavior can serve the distorted function of maintaining a semblance of protection and control for the fragmented “children inside”, who feel vulnerable and defenseless in a hostile environment.

Shame and True Humility

Shame must be distinguished from true humility, sometimes called healthy shame. True humility comes from an inner knowledge of our own sin nature and shows us our need for God’s help (Romans 7: 15). It generates a kind of self-forgetfulness that makes boldness possible.

Shame Means Disconnection

When shame is dominant, one feels alienation from self and isolation from others. Personal desires and needs are experienced as bad and must be hidden. Living becomes a mechanistic exercise; the person objectifies himself, as if watching his actions from the outside in. Every detail of behavior is carefully monitored for fear that the true hated heart may be unwittingly exposed.

Shame lends an air of unreality and rigidity to daily life. Projection of severed parts of the self onto outside relationships can cause anxiety, confusion, and hostility toward others. Ongoing grief over the loss of one’s true identity pervades the personality. The self-created false identity may be “more” or “less” than human, leaning toward perfectionism on the one side or compulsive failure on the other.

When we act in a “more-than-human” way, we try to control everyone and everything around us, obsessively seeking power. We are patronizing, critical, blaming, and morally judgmental to others. Driven to overachieve, we may attempt to appear perfectly righteous.

On the “less-than-human” side, we take on an identity of failure, allowing ourselves continually to feel and appear overwhelmed. We act powerless and weak as a way to maintain a sense of control, using false stupidity to get others to do what we are afraid to do for ourselves. We choose behaviors that are degrading, continually criticizing and blaming ourselves. Refusing to use our known abilities, we chronically underachieve to make ourselves appear inferior.

Sometimes, as in Dissociative Identity Disorder, individuals may be at war within, as parts on the “more-than-human” side act abusively toward parts on the “less-than-human” side, causing extreme chaos and danger to the individual, mirroring what has occurred in their childhood. For such unfortunate people, “being at home” in their own bodies can be terribly tormenting and life threatening.

In contrast, the individual with “healthy shame” or true humility gives herself permission to be human, less than God, because she clearly acknowledges the boundary between who she is and God. She knows her limits and can use her energy creatively and effectively. Her mom and dad have nurtured true humility by modeling God’s dual character of unconditional love and perfect justice. Because of this, her heart can experience God’s grace and acceptance. Unlike the shame-based individual, she understands and accepts appropriate emotions, like embarrassment or blushing in reaction to unexpected exposure. This person is vulnerable and healthily reticent in the presence of the “un-family-ar”, yet confident and willing to express her ideas when called upon.

True humility also helps us understand our need for others, and enables us to forgive as we are forgiven. It keeps us curious and involved in life’s challenges, and enhances our innovative thinking. We have no need to prove we are right, because we look at mistakes as opportunities to learn from experience. True humility points to our need for God, and enables us to access Him, because we are transparent, open, “un-a-shame-d”.

Origins of Shame

Adam and Eve tried to conceal their shame with fig leaves, because they saw themselves exposed, without the covering of God’s presence. We have more to learn from this act than the origins of modesty, for it symbolizes man’s tendency to construct elaborate coverings for his shame.

In the New Testament, Jesus caused a fig tree on the road to Jerusalem to wither and die, because He was hungry and the tree had leaves but no fruit. The barren fig tree, with its nice fa├žade but damaged roots, is like an individual controlled by shame, unable to be productive or fulfill his life’s purpose (Matthew 21: 18-20).

After Jesus cursed the fig tree, Scripture says it died from the roots up. In the same way, God wants to deal with the foundation of shame, which blocks us from our heart. This shame base may be at the root of strategies to make a show of bearing fruit, as an attempt to seem worthwhile for others and God. In contrast, good genuine fruit proceeds from heart relationship with Jesus, when He spontaneously lives His life through us. Like John the Baptist said regarding the coming Kingdom of God, “…the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3: 9).

Shame enters the heart early in the developmental stages of a child’s life, when the real self becomes too painful to live with, and the false self begins to form. Children think magically; that is, they absolutely believe themselves to be the center of their world. Thus, they see themselves as responsible for all that goes on around them. Because of that, children always think it is their fault when something bad happens. They take blame for any abuse perpetrated on them or any evil they are forced to observe or participate in. This internalization of blame locks shame in the abused child’s identity over time.

Though the cross and resurrection of Christ have set us free from the curse of the fall of man, which includes shame and all its consequent fig leaves, wounding is still passed on from person to person, often along generational lines. Broken and abusive individuals, parents and other authority figures as well as peers, may add their inflicted pains to the heritage of shame we carry from Adam and Eve. Actually, perpetrators may be hiding from their own shame, acting out pain to avoid feeling it.

Behavioral Signals of Shame

Shame shows its face in many self-destructive and otherwise dysfunctional behaviors. For example, personality conditions such as narcissistic, paranoid, and sociopathic disorders are often shame-based at their roots. Dissociative disorders, including Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID or MPD), can be understood as complex shame adaptations.

Codependency can be seen as a shame-based pattern of dependence on another to provide a sense of safety, identity, and worth. The individual, lacking the inner sense of “I am-ness” typically imparted to an infant by a cherishing mother, desperately needs validation and approval from her environment.

Performance-oriented, “human-doing” behavior which objectifies self and others is often the result of deep shame, as is numbness to feelings and personal boundaries, or obviously unrealistic expectations for self and others. Ultimately shame brings a sense of spiritual bankruptcy, because the individual is unable to tap into her true identity and accept herself as a unique child of God, a product of God’s purpose and plan (“The Kingdom of God is within you” -Luke 17: 21).

Once a foundation of shame is laid, it becomes a filter through which all life events are interpreted. This causes a snowball effect that continually reinforces internal negative beliefs. The person living with pervasive shame almost always comes from an unhealthy family that promotes denial of feelings and requires the building of a false self. Parents cannot lead in sanctification to true humility through surrender to Christ when they are driven to avoid their own shame.

Shame-Based Families

What are some of the characteristics of shame-based families? Shame-based families do not reflect the truth (admonition) and nurture (love) of God.. When shame is used to control behavior, awareness of bearing the image of God is not built into the child developmentally. To the extent this is true, she reaps the results, which are feelings about self that are related to fear and torment. (“There is no fear in love. but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” -1 John 4: 18.) Invariably there is authoritarian, dictatorial control by the abusive parent, with secrets and lies demanded of the victim to cover offenses.

In shame-based families when the child is arbitrarily and inconsistently punished for childish mistakes, he may seek protection by attempting never to misbehave. Relationships themselves are confusing and unpredictable; the perpetrator often equates abuse with love to the child. There is a no-talk rule: only certain non-threatening subjects can be discussed, and direct confrontation with truth is NEVER allowed.

To summarize, five basic personal freedoms are denied to everyone except the victimizer in shame-based systems. These freedoms are: the freedom to perceive, to think and interpret, to feel, to want and choose, and to imagine. Family defenses in these shame-full families include: identification with and bonding to the abuser; denial; repression and dissociation; depersonalization of self and others; rage, arrogance, and criticism; compulsive caretaking; enabling; rescuing; and people pleasing.

Addictions, Shame, and Idolatry

Addiction can be defined as any process or habit used to avoid, medicate, or override emotions and memories perceived to be intolerable. Addictions attempt to conceal the ache of shame by offering a life-damaging, mood-altering, pain-relieving pathological relationship to a substance or behavior. All addictions are forms of dissociation, and are rooted in idolatry.

If we participate in obsessive thought patterns, emotional feedback loops, or compulsive behaviors, we are in effect using something or someone to make us feel better instead of turning to God. We may not literally be bowing down to graven images, but we are substituting our addiction for intimacy with Christ. We will never find lasting gratification by running to addictions rather than to the Holy Spirit, who would lead us through reality into His truth.

The idols of addiction enable us to avoid facing our lives. Sometimes we may be terrified to confront reality because knowing the truth always risks feeling pain. Before truth can set us free we often must experience the anger or sadness it brings. Addictions are substitutes for legitimate suffering and grief, allowing us to focus on something else that will keep us anesthetized.

When an alcoholic stops drinking and is no longer in a chemically altered state, he is faced with stark realities. When a workaholic stops striving and becomes still, he is flooded with feelings of emptiness. When the television is turned off, the silence screams to a desperate soul. When not stuffing herself with food, the binge eater feels lonely and terrified. The codependent caregiver must be needed or she feels despondent and suicidal. Addictions seem to provide the perfect escape from an inner vacuum, but addictive behavior must be halted before we can find solitude and intimacy with God.

Here are some examples of addictive habits:

1. Ingestive addictions-alcoholism, drug addiction;, obesity, anorexia, bulimia

2. Activity addictions-workaholism; excessive exercising; “shopaholic” behavior; constant reading; too much television or Internet surfing; compulsive attachment to dog-mushing

3. Religious addictions-drivenness for the purpose of achieving feelings of self-righteousness; guilt-based works-orientation; religiosity; obsessive involvement in church activities

4. Thought addictions-mental obsessions, over-intellectualism, excessive introspection, detailing

5. Feeling addictions-rage addiction, compulsive crisis creation, “drama queen” behavior, risky behavior to induce fear, other adrenaline-stimulating habits

6. Relationship addictions-prostitution, compulsive masturbation or homosexual acting-out, pornography, codependency

Because all addictions are rooted in idolatry, healing can’t come until denial is broken and the individual admits he has substituted self-soothing behavior for trust in God. However, this usually doesn’t take place until the person is far along in the heart-healing process. At that time, the sufferer will be ready and willing to see the habit as an idol he put before relationship with Christ. Prior to reaching this stage in healing, he will tend to stay stuck in remorse over his actions, unable to come to true repentance (2 Corinthians 7: 10). Although behavior modification and 12-step type teachings are valuable to replace destructive thinking habits, long-term results may be limited until the shame-based heart roots of addiction are healed (Luke 12: 2-3).