This essay, the second of a two-part series, was originally posted in October 2005.
In my previous post on guilt and shame, I discussed their nature and differences, their impact on personal and social life, and their instrumentality in much of our individual unhappiness and communal dysfunction. If indeed shame is the common thread of the human condition–fraught as it is with pain, suffering, and evil–it must be mastered and overcome if we are to bring a measure of joy to life and peace to our spirits and our social interactions.
Shame is the most private of personal emotions, thriving in the dark, secluded lairs of our souls. It is the secret never told, the fears never revealed, the dread of exposure and abandonment, our harshest judge and most merciless prosecutor. Yet like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain is far less intimidating than his booming voice in our subconscious mind.
The power of shame is the secret; its antidote, transparency and grace. Shame thrives in the dark recesses of the mind, where its accusations are amplified by repetition without external reference. Shame becomes self-verifying, as each new negative thought or emotion reinforces the theme that we are rejected and without worth. It is only by allowing the light of openness, trust, and honesty that this vicious cycle may be broken.
The barriers to this liberating openness are fear and mistrust: fear that revelation of our darkest selves will lead to rejection, pain and humiliation; and lack of trust that the sharing of such darkness will be used against us to our detriment. This fear and mistrust lock us into a self-imposed prison from which there is seemingly no escape. Our only recourse becomes the adaptive but destructive defenses of withdrawal, self-attack, avoidance, or aggression.
The most dangerous type of infections in medicine are those occurring in a closed space. As the bacteria grow, they generate increasing pressure which drive deadly toxins into the bloodstream. Only by uncovering and draining the abscess can the infection be treated and health restored. And so it is with shame: we must take that which is most painful, most toxic, and release it, lest we become even more emotionally and spiritually sick.
So just how do we go about such a process? It is not something to be done lightly, as the world remains a dangerous place, and there are many who cannot bear such disclosure–and who may indeed use it against us. It is for this reason–this reasonable fear (amplified many times over in the echoes of our inner chambers of shame)–that many will not take this step until life circumstances become so difficult or painful that they have no other choice. Hence you will find this process first in the alcoholic at his bottom, at the therapist for intractable depression, at the counselor after divorce, in the prodigal son re-seeking fellowship in a grace-based church or small group.
But we need not wait for such disasters before beginning the process of addressing shame. There are a number of principles to begin the journey from shame to sanity and peace. Here are a few which come to mind:
♦ Sharing of shortcomings with trusted friends: First and foremost, we must be willing to open the door, to begin sharing something of our inner selves with others. This involves finding someone trusted, someone who is a good listener and not quick to judgment. It means taking some risks, as many people may be unwilling–or unable–to be safe harbors for our vulnerabilities, failures, and shortcomings. Test the waters by sharing some small issues with others who seem trustworthy–or perhaps even better, by being open to others who may be willing to share their pain in some small way with you. Nothing builds the trust of others quite like your own vulnerability: it signals a willingness to establish a relationship based on true intimacy. We all put our best foot forward, expending great energy at maintaining our masks. But at the same time, we all hunger for the intimacy of being truly open with another.
♦ Learn to Listen: Our isolation begins to lessen when we hear our story repeated by others. As we begin to hear the bits and pieces of our own experiences, failures, and struggles in the lives of others, the uniqueness–and the shame–of our own experiences begins to lessen. We develop compassion for the struggles of others–and thereby become willing to accept our own shortcomings. Becoming mutually vulnerable is the essence of true, intimate relationships–and to achieve this we must be willing both to share our own weaknesses and to accept those of others.
♦ Honesty: Deceit and shame go hand-in-hand–dishonesty with self and others is a requisite for the maintenance of the autocracy of shame. Dishonesty becomes habitual, making life far more complicated and difficult than one based on openness and truth. The main driving force for deceit is fear: fear of discovery, of condemnation, of judgment, of rejection. In reality, the consequences of honesty about our failures and shortcomings–particularly with those we trust and with whom we reciprocate acceptance–is far less onerous that of sustaining the fragile edifice of a life of lies.
♦ The importance of forgiveness: When you begin to make yourself open to others, trusting them, you will sooner or later get hurt–perhaps intentionally, more likely inadvertently. Count on it, it’s a sure bet. Once it happens, you then have some choices: you can withdraw, no longer exposing yourself to the pain, or strike back, or carry a resentment. These approaches are proven shame-builders: they do little or nothing to visit revenge on our offenders, but rather replay the injury over and over (re-SENT-ment: to experience–to feel–again), reinforcing our loneliness and worthlessness. Forgiveness allows you to move on. It may mean taking the risk of confronting the one who has hurt you–a terrifying thought for a shame-based person–but such courage pays off in restored relationships at best, or maintaining your dignity at worst. Courage is not acting without fear, it is acting in spite of fear–and is the best antidote to fear, as reality is virtually never as bad as the scenarios our fearful minds fabricate. Bear the pain, reconcile where possible, and move on from there.
♦ Other-orientation: We are designed to give, but have been programmed to receive. We try to fill our inner emptiness by getting: material stuff, the attention and admiration of others, pleasure, the oblivion of drugs or alcohol, food, sex, success, achievements in work or society. None of it works–the emptiness remains, as we are not worth something because we have something. We become worth something when we give–when our actions and efforts are helping others, improving their lives, giving them joy, help, comfort, support. This is why someone like Mother Theresa experienced a richness in life unmatched by endless hosts of wealthy, famous celebrities or business billionaires. We nod, agreeing that this is so–but no one wants to walk her path: we lack her faith, and her calling. But we don’t need to move to Calcutta to start down the same path: we can begin in small ways, one little act at a time. Make an effort to help someone out each day, somebody who doesn’t deserve it, perhaps someone you don’t like or would rather avoid. Do it when you’re too busy, or self-absorbed, or too tired. Do it willfully, not grudgingly. Don’t do it with any expectation of return. Try it–and watch miracles begin to happen, in your life and those around you.
♦ Grace and mercy: Grace is receiving what we do not deserve; mercy is not receiving what we do deserve. Shame tells us we deserve nothing good, that we are tried, convicted, and condemned both by ourselves and by others. Grace trumps shame by not waiting until we are worthy, or worthwhile, or “fixed”, but by accepting us right where we are, just as we are. It must be experienced–it cannot be appropriated by logic, reason, will or effort. It is, indeed, anti-logical. It starts when you tell a friend a painful, dark secret–and hear that he has done far worse. It begins with terror at relating humiliating events, and ends with laughter and perspective about those same events. It arrives when you tell of hurting another, and receive not condemnation but understanding and guidance on repairing the damage and restoring relationships. And it shatters the gloom like shafts of light through broken clouds when the God whom you have driven away and abandoned–a God in whom you have lost all hope and confidence–instead wraps His arms around you in tears of joy at your return. When you have experienced such grace, your life will never be the same again.
♦ The role of faith: People struggling with guilt and shame often turn to religion for answers and relief. This is not invariably a wise decision: religion can be of enormous benefit in overcoming these liabilities–but can also greatly exacerbate them. Guilt and shame are the golden hooks of toxic religion and religious cults, and even mainstream religious denominations which have a highly legalistic emphasis can cause far more harm than good. Cults and toxic religion lure the wounded by offering “unconditional love”–which later proves very conditional indeed. You are accepted only when you rigorously follow the rules–which may be arbitrary, capricious, or even unspoken–and interaction with “unbelievers” outside the sect is severely restricted, leading to isolation, ritualism, and depersonalization–and severe rejection should you choose to leave. Becoming enmeshed with such groups, driven by shame, is highly detrimental and a recipe for personal and emotional disaster. But true grace-based faith and spirituality can transform shame into service, guilt into gratitude. It finds the balance between a God who is just and One who is merciful. It is a place where love accepts us with all our imperfections and shortcomings–yet desires their removal that we may live with more joy and purpose, not hiding our flaws but using our own brokenness to restore, heal, and lift up others.
There was–the story goes–a holy man, who sat by the side of the road praying and meditating. As he watched and prayed, the broken of the world passed by–the crippled, the lame, the ragged poor, the sick, the blind. In his prayer, with broken heart, he asked God, “How could such a good and loving Creator see such things and do nothing about them?”
There was a long period of silence with no answer. Then, in a soft voice, God replied: “I did do something about them: I made you.”
Our shame, our brokenness, brings us great pain and wreaks much destruction in our lives. Yet it is by this very means that God equips us to be His hands, His heart, His voice, His compassion. In such can be found a purpose in life unmatched by anything else we might wish for or desire. Such are the ways of the God of endless surprise and limitless grace.