The Power of Shame

Who among us doesn’t have something in our lives that we prefer to keep secret.  It may be a life event, a behavior, some feeling, or characteristics that we hide.

Perhaps it’s that secret might be about a family member that no one talks about, it might be that DWI that has been diligently kept private, it might be something sexually inappropriate that happened one time and is over, it might be something that happened to us as children that we want to forget, it might be a secret addiction that regardless of how many resolutions that have been made… still controls our lives. 

All of the emotion that may arise out of personal secrets and feelings of needing to be someone we aren’t share a common attribute… shame. The feeling of shame might come from someone in the form of a subtle glance of disapproval, or as bold as a humorous joke focused on something about us. What we know for sure is that we feel that something is wrong with us. That’s what shame does… it invalidates who we are as a person. 

In the book “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson, describes shame as having an impact on all our social systems. He says of shame that “this is not merely a felt emotion that eventually morphs into words such as “I am bad”… This phenomenon is the primary tool that evil leverages… As such, it is actively, intentionally, at work both within and between individuals. Its goal is to disintegrate any and every system it targets, be one’s personal story, a family, marriage, friendship, church, community, business, or political system. Its power lies in its subtlety and its silence.”

Thompson sees shame as a tool that is used by “evil”, and I think he is right. In the Bible, the Apostle John describes a battle in heaven in which Satan and his angels are cast from heaven. John describes Satan as “the accuser of our brothers…who accuses them day and night before our God” (Revelation 12:10). Since the activity of Satan in heaven was to accuse the people of God, we shouldn’t be surprised that he would use the tool of shame to attack and accuse us.

I appreciate the way Thompson develops the concept of shame. He describes four aspects of how shame works in our lives.

The first concept that the author developed is that shame is more than a feeling. It is a sense within us that communicates that we are not enough and we don’t have what it takes. We can have a great theology of who we are “in Christ” and a biblical understanding that strength for living is found in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, yet this sense can strike us when we least expect it. It shows itself it the student who takes an exam and scores a 92, yet makes excuses for the other 8%. It’s there as a feeling we can’t explain when, as a professional, we diligently prepare and make a presentation and few people say something positive. It’s there when the stay-at-home mom is with her friends who are sharing their professional experiences, and finds herself questioning her choices in life.

The second aspect of shame is how it is wrapped up in judgment. Thompson describes it as a “spirit of condemnation or condescension with which we analyze or critique something, whether ourselves or someone or something else.” This “spirit of condemnation or condescension” is often directed not only to ourselves but to others also. I was challenged by the idea that many of the things that I criticize in others can grow out of those things I secretly struggle with myself.

The third aspect of shame is that it is great at hiding. The author describes shame as a sense that “leads us to cloak ourselves with invisibility to prevent further intensification of the emotion.” Regardless of who we are or what we have accomplished in life, we will go to extreme lengths to keep the information that shames us hidden away. This sense of privacy that grows out of shame is a challenge in Christian community. In our busy lives we often find that we don’t take the time to build a circle of friends who we grow to trust and who love us that we can honestly share the shame that we carry.

The last aspect of shame is that shame creates a loop in which shame begets shame. It creates is self-supporting cycle of isolation and disconnection. When we experience something that creates shame in us, we turn away from other people in our life as we avoid the reminder of the shame. This very turning away from others reinforces the sense of shame we experience. Thompson observes that, “this dance between hiding and feeling shame itself becomes a tightening of the noose. We feel shame, and then feel shame for feeling shame.”

If you are anything like me, you can identify with each of these four aspects of shame. Regardless of how old we are, we can remember that feeling when we were one of the last ones chosen to be on a team. As parents we can remember times when we were judgmental to our children, and pushed them to do things differently, so they could avoid what we experienced. And which one of us, when we are encouraged to “confess our faults one to another” is the first to speak up? How many times have we been hurt, and experienced shame, we make a vow that we won’t be hurt again.

Shame has had a crippling effect on our lives, and in the next post we will look at how shame can be addressed in a healthy and biblical way in our lives.