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Shame

September 14, 2015

Early in the morning, after I’ve woken up but have not yet gotten out of bed, my mind sometimes wanders to a variety of silly or foolish things I’ve done in my life, and I wince inside.  Sometimes that inner wince can be quite strong; I judge myself harshly and beat myself up–even if the memory is of something quite unimportant.  Why do I do this, I wonder?

Recently I’ve been writing down some of these painful memories and trying to identify more precisely my emotional responses.  For instance, sometimes what I am feeling is foolishness; sometimes incompetence; sometimes a fear of being found out; sometimes a desire to hide; sometimes I feel I’ve done something morally wrong that needs to be made right; sometimes I feel I’ve made a simple (perhaps even unavoidable) mistake that caused someone annoyance, and I blame myself; sometimes I feel I did the right thing but it still caused someone pain and I feel badly; sometimes I feel unworthy or worthless; sometimes I feel regret.

A few weeks ago I read Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  She suggests that these feelings can be put into categories:  guilt, shame, humiliation and embarrassment.  Guilt is the feeling that one has done something bad; shame is the feeling that one is bad; humiliation is the experience of being shamed by others, but not accepting their judgment; and embarrassment is feeling momentarily foolish but accepting that it’s what happens to all of us.  I find these categories helpful and would add at least one more: regret–wishing one had made a different choice from one which was not itself bad or morally wrong.

We often confuse guilt and shame, thinking they are the same thing.  Although often intertwined, they are somewhat different feelings, and they follow different paths for resolution.  Shame is a loss of face, a loss of self-esteem, a feeling of being unworthy.  When we have done something that made us look foolish or immoral in front of others, we often want to fall into a hole and disappear.  We cannot stand to have people looking at us.  We feel unaccepted by others.  If what we have done is not known, then we try to hide it, fearing that if it were known we would lose the respect of others.  Shame is internal disappointment and loss of self-esteem, and the fear of disappointing others and losing their respect and relationship.  This is a powerfully negative feeling.  It freezes us; it paralyzes us.  It often feels like there is no way out.  We may want to simply extinguish ourselves.

Guilt, on the other hand, is feeling badly about something one has done and wanting somehow to make it right.  We made a wrong moral choice, but that does not mean we are inherently bad or unworthy.  We have failed our own moral code (and perhaps the moral code of others too), but we can and want to fix it; we want to do better; we want to restore relationship and trust.

What truly separates guilt from shame is that guilt is resolved through receiving forgiveness and shame is resolved through receiving love.  When we feel guilt, we can often resolve it by confessing the wrong we have done, expressing regret and a desire to make amends.  The offended party, if convinced of our honesty, change of heart, and new commitment, may then choose to remove their own hostile feelings toward us, making reconnection possible.  This is forgiveness.  It is based on love but is different from love.  A person may love us–value us–but still be mad at us, demanding some sort of change in our offensive behavior.  The removal of their anger toward us is the true meaning of forgiveness.

But a person stuck in shame, in feelings of unworthiness, needs something more fundamental than (or in addition to) forgiveness; that person needs love.  That person needs to feel that they are worthy again, they are valuable, they have dignity.  That feeling comes from being loved.  Without the experience of being loved, we cannot break out of shame.  Our self-esteem is based on being loved.

Now this leads to an interesting dilemma.  Does this mean that our self-esteem is in the hands of others?  Does this mean that if the love of others toward us is conditional–dependent on certain achieved behaviors from us–that we are always at risk of losing our self-esteem?  Yes.  That is why giving others unconditional love is so important; it forms an enduring basis for their own sense of worthiness.  Although our culture claims that we can give ourselves our own dignity, our own self-esteem, I think that is a hollow claim.  We cannot love ourselves out of shame–it’ll never convince us.  We need the love of others.

There is only one alternative that I know of:  trust in the unconditional love of God.  If we are convinced that God loves us absolutely no matter what, then even a lack of love or support from our family and friends will not throw us into the paralysis and nihilism of shame.  Perhaps the most profound and helpful saying I have ever come across is this one from Francis of Assisi:  “Blessed is the servant who esteems himself no better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and despicable; for what a person is before God, that he is and nothing more.”

Our self-esteem is not in our own hands, nor should it be in the hands of others.  For our greatest wellbeing and health, it must be in the hands of God.  Only God’s love sufficiently grounds us.  If anyone needs a “proof” of God, this is it.

[Next week’s topic:  Forgiving Ourselves]

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One Comment
  1. Randall Bowman permalink

    What a wonderful description of life’s muddiness and how depending on God’s love can help to clear the waters.

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