The other day I was exercising in the park and ended up diving headfirst into a deep conversation with a guy I met there. He’s a student at DU, basically in the same tailspin I was several years ago, trying to figure out which way is north, how to look cool, et al.
We began talking about confidence and shame, and as I began referencing shame, I quickly realized he had no clue what I was talking about. Shame is not a topic normally breached in our day-to-day conversations. Everyone has some sense of what the term means, but often our understanding of it, and perhaps our experience of it, are skewed because of a lack of clarity on the subject.
So here is, to the best of my understanding, an introduction to shame.
Shame is not simply feeling guilty
One of the easiest ways to understand shame is by comparing it to guilt. When you steal a candy bar, you feel guilty. When you slip up and look at porn, you feel guilty.
Guilt is the feeling that you have done something bad.
Shame is the deep-seated feeling that you are bad.
Shame is the voice in each of us that whispers to us that we do not deserve love; that we are not worthy of grace or of friends or relationships, or anything good at all. While guilt can serve a useful purpose of calling to light things which we have done wrong, shame is unredemptive and destructive in nature.
Through guilt the Holy Spirit can come and convict us of a wrong action and get us back on track, but if we listen to the voice of shame, all we hear is that we are beyond the bounds of forgiveness and God and other people don’t even want us. There is nothing within us even worth seeking out and reconciling.
The introduction of shame
When I explained this to my new friend in the park, I bent down and drew a circle in the dirt with my finger. I explained that this circle represents the soft core inside each one of us. When we are born, there is this soft, authentic, vulnerable core within us which is who we most truly are. It’s what David referred to in Psalm 139 when he writes, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.”
It’s at this deep and central place that God knows us. It’s who He intended for each of us to be. It’s who Adam and Eve were before the introduction of sin, when they could be naked and not even realize it.
But at one point, we are wounded. It’s inevitable.
I draw another circle around the first.
This wounding can come from anywhere: Neglect or abuse by a family member, rejection from other kids, isolation, or any number of sources. Each of us is wounded and this wound informs us that we are not good. The subliminal message of this wound, whatever its source, is that we are not inherently worthy of love.
So in response to this wound—I draw a third outer circle—we create alternate identities to hide behind. We become the class clown or the successful business man. We hide behind our physical appearance or travel a lot so people will think we’re cool.
Shame, the second circle, has covered our true self and revealed (or instilled) a weakness within us that we feel we must compensate for. So we adopt new identities to try to ‘win’ love for ourselves or earn it or be good enough.
Just as in Genesis 3, shame always makes us hide.
After Adam and Eve ate the fruit, sin and shame were introduced to the world and the very first thing they did was run and hide. Shame causes us to try to hide our true selves because it convinces us we are not good enough as we are.
It says, “You need to impress them or they’ll never like you.”
Shame and addiction
My pastor in Chicago once said that ‘addiction is the one thing which unites all of humanity.’ Each of us wrestles with one addiction or another, and the root of every one of these is shame.
Shame is what traps addicts in cycles of acting out, unable to break free from whatever vice binds them. It’s a spiral impossibly hard to break out of.
He takes his first swig of alcohol at a young age and is instantly hooked on the taste, or the escape, or the confidence it provides. So he returns to it later. And then again. And again. And soon he finds that he can’t stop.
And the voice of shame is swift to swoop in and whisper, “You’re nothing but a drunk now. No one will ever love you because you can’t stop drinking.” Yet the only escape from this voice of shame is to hit the bottle again and flee.
Porn addicts return to the digital images because they find themselves at a deep place unworthy of a real man or woman. But of course, after each episode of acting out, she feels worse than before. Even less worthy. No real man will ever love her, so she returns once again to the digital actors to feel relief. But feels worse afterward…..
The cycle is cruel and relentless.
The same goes for shopping addicts, food addicts, exercise addicts, eating disorders, and nearly every other form of addiction we can imagine. We have a deep knowledge that we do not measure up and seek out something to compensate for it or escape from it.
The unveiling of shame
Lately I’ve been realizing just how deep the roots of shame run in my own soul. I began dating a beautiful woman several months ago, and even though it didn’t work out in the end, that brief relationship helped shed light on a lot of areas where shame was influencing me in areas I hadn’t even realized.
The thoughts began the first night I met her: Upon seeing her walk into the room, my first thought was Wow, she is beautiful. I don’t even have a shot with a girl like that.
As time moved on, receiving attention and even attraction from her worked wonders on rebuilding my soul as a man. I realized that for so long, I had been operating under the assumption that I wasn’t really worthy of a relationship with a solid, Christian woman who was attractive and successful.
Where had these thoughts come from? They were the voice of shame conjuring up lies and convincing me to believe them with absolutely no grounding in reality.
If you’re anything like me, there are these things you believe about yourself which, if teased out, are utterly ludicrous.
If I drove a nicer car, I’d have a girlfriend now.
If I were as funny as ________ I would have more friends.
If I had my dream job I wouldn’t feel so insecure.
We often turn to externals like these to try to fix the deep shame dwelling within our souls. But putting more decorations on our exteriors won’t help heal the wounds at the soft, vulnerable core of who we are.
Shame is very, very deep. The more you examine many of the things you believe about yourself, the more you’ll find many of your core beliefs have been tainted by shame.
In my next post, I want to begin examining some of the ways we begin healing from shame and all of its insidious effects.
But for now, remember that the Lord loves you at the deepest part of who you are; the innermost circle. The little you that was wounded all those years ago. He doesn’t love you because you’re funny, rich, attractive, or intelligent. He loves you just because of who you are.
And that is the beginning of the unraveling of shame.