5 ways shame sneaks into our lives

Shame is a sneaky little bugger.

It renames itself. It invades your thoughts and actions. It makes you want to hide or run away. It magnifies your other emotions. It redefines your identity.

Other than that, it’s completely healthy.

I preached a sermon recently on shame. A talk, really. Then we did a Q & A on Tuesday. Both are posted on YouTube. People had a lot of good questions about shame–about what it is and how it works. I keep hearing stories about people saying, “I’m thinking about this now. I’ve identified some shame that I never knew was there. It’s been affecting me negatively, and I didn’t even know it.”

If we’re willing to be a tiny bit vulnerable, we can all admit that we feel ashamed about some things. And if we’re a little bit more vulnerable, we can admit that it changes us. At least, that’s my hope for you.

Shame is one of those huge topics that nobody wants to talk about (incidentally, that’s a hallmark of shame!). I think as a mom and woman, I am particularly susceptible to shame because I care so much about everything and how everybody feels.

As a mom, I hold my families’ secrets. I feel everyone’s heartache and pain. When I tell family stories, I leave out all the things that might embarrass my children (or me). I want to pretend like none of us have ever been ashamed of something. As if perfection were possible or believable.

Shame is a highly-researched and highly-discussed topic today in the corporate world, in religion, in education, and even in family dynamics because it affects all of us. Now, some advice I’ve picked up from the experts on how to be more aware…

I think shame sucker-punches us in 5 categories:

Shame renames itself. Shame hides behind names like embarrassment, conscience, guilt, parental pressure, religious structure, and moralistic virtues. Often, people use shame and guilt interchangeably, which is dangerous to spiritual or emotional growth because it misrepresents the role each plays in our lives. Confusing them makes us ignore wrong behavior or blame someone else for our misfortunes.

Guilt says, “I did something bad.” The cure for guilt is confession (1 John 1:9). We must own our “something bad” and confess it to God, which means changing our direction and doing the opposite of what we’ve just done that was wrong.

Shame says, “I am bad.” Shame demeans my created being into something worthless, unloving, and unimportant. The cure for shame is actually courage. Instead of hiding in hopelessness or acting out in anger or self-destruction because something terrible has happened to me (or because I’ve done something terrible), courage makes me push away from the urge to wallow in my misery. It causes a proactive choice to live a worthy life.

Shame is a focus on self… Guilt is a focus on behavior.

Brene Brown

Shame makes you want to hide. If you’ve ever fallen flat on your face in front of someone (I have, several times), you want to get away from the crowd that witnessed your faux-pas as quickly as possible. A lifestyle of shame is even worse. Psychologists say that shame changes your brain chemistry. The brain of a person living with toxic shame rewires itself to function at trauma-levels. The brain reacts to shame like it is in mortal danger or physical pain. Physiologically, your brain goes into flight, flight, or freeze mode. This blurs your natural perception of reality. You don’t know who/what is safe and who/what isn’t.

Courage starts with showing up and letting yourself be seen.

Brené Brown

Shame invades your thoughts and actions. If you believe that you are unworthy, you will behave in a way that represents your beliefs. If you react to shame by internalizing it, you will end up depressed and isolated. If you respond in anger, you will lash out at others, blame others, or even inflict self-harm. Beliefs affect thoughts. Thoughts develop emotions. Emotions determine actions. Actions reinforce beliefs.

Shame is an effective weapon against your mind. The devil will use it against you because he understands your value and potential in Christ better than you do. Making you feel ashamed makes you powerless.

Sue Schlesman

Shame magnifies your emotions. Researchers call shame “the monster emotion” because it triggers so many others: fear, insecurity, depression, anxiety, anger, etc. We always react emotionally when we feel threatened. If we live with toxic shame, our reactions will never be healthy. Toxic shame is a state of feeling unworthy, worthless, and helpless.

Embarrassment occurs in a social context (usually in front of others) and makes a funny story later. But shame occurs in within a person, in isolation; it is traumatizing rather than humorous.

American Psychological Association

Shame redefines your identity. It hijacks your identity. Ashamed, you will become a fearful person who lives in a false reality, even if shame sneaked in because of someone else’s choices and not your own. Either way, don’t allow yourself to become (or remain) a victim of shame. Any 12-step or recovery program will tell you that the way to stop being a victim is to be courageous–being the person you were created to be (which means doing the things you were created to do). Courage isn’t pretending or downplaying the trauma in your life; in contrast, by addressing your shame and trauma, courage honors shame’s potential power and takes control of it (instead of letting shame take control of you).

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Vulnerability is the act of being courageous. It is crucial to life, love, and learning. Find an area of your life that you’ve closed up, and open it just a crack. Then put your foot out and test the openness outside (i.e. share with someone you trust). Then take another step. Then another.

You’ve just been courageous. Congratulations! You are already a victor.

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