I came to believe emotions were given to us as messengers, telling us something about our hearts, our lives, and our relationships. Sometimes the messages are affirming and sometimes they are corrective. For example, grief tells us we care deeply about something or someone. Fear tells us we don't perceive ourselves to be safe. Hurt feelings tell us we need to either address hurtful behaviors in a relationship or adjust our expectations. Guilt tells us we have sinned and need to confess to God and make amends.
Emotions that are shared by two or more people about a common event can create emotional bonds between those involved. It has been said that if we want our families to become close, we should take them camping and pray that everything goes wrong. That camping trip and the common emotions surrounding it will forever bond our families together. It is important to understand that our emotions, like everything else in the world, became skewed during the Fall, and as a result, they are greatly misunderstood, misused, and mismanaged.
One of the most interesting emotions I studied was shame. Shame was originally designed to show us we are less than God and need Him. This carries over into our human relationships as well. Children experience shame when they see parents or older siblings able to do things better than them. For example, when I am at the store I see parents in a hurry who have children in tow. The healthy parents notice their child is having a hard time keeping up and alleviate their frustration and developmental shame by saying, "I am sorry I am rushing you. Lets slow down so you can keep up. Someday your legs will be long enough to walk as fast as me." This developmental shame reminds a child they need their parents. Unhealthy parents will turn normal developmental shame into toxic shame by saying something like, "What is wrong with you? Why can't you keep up?"
When Adam and Eve sinned, shame no longer served to remind us God is God and we are not because Satan whispered his lies into our ears. It became a ferocious, overwhelming, debilitating emotion that is driven by the fear of being exposed and the belief that because of our sin and shortcomings we are not worth redeeming. Healthy shame is associated with conviction, which leads to confession and correction. On the other hand, toxic shame is associated with condemnation, which leaves us feeling disgusted with ourselves. It tells us we are the mistakes we have made, the sins we have sinned, and the failures we have failed. It is the reason so many of us wear "look-good" masks and put on facades to deceive others into believing we are better than we are.
Healthy shame is good. It shows us we need relationships and helps us avoid the worship of self. It also reminds us we have the potential to fail and do harm to ourselves and others. As we acknowledge healthy shame and accept our humanness and need of grace, shame dissolves into God-honoring humility, which enables us to come out of hiding to develop true intimacy with ourselves, others, and God. This happens as we allow ourselves to be fully known and accept the grace we so badly need. It also allows us to recognize and accept the commonality, differences, and limitations we experience as humans.
As believers, we experience godly shame when we sin and do harm. In healthy people, the more harm we've done, the more sharply shame will be experienced. We may find ourselves thinking, "I can't believe that I did that." This discomfort reminds us even in our restored state we're not God. It reminds us that mistakes and sin are a part of our human experience. It reminds us to separate our flawed behavior from who we are in Christ. It reminds us that we are in need of the Savior's continual grace. It also serves as a deterrent to repeating the same sins over and over, (Chip Dodd, Voices of the Heart)
A healthy understanding of shame allows us to live with two opposing truths at the same time. The first truth is that we are created in the image of God and in that truth we find dignity. The second truth is that we experience shame because we are depraved and that shame is relieved when we turn to Jesus for our redemption and worth. Shame turns toxic when we permit Satan to attack our dignity by buying into the lie that we are hopelessly flawed, having no hope of redemption. (Dan Allender) We wills stay in toxic shame until we believe we still have the propensity to bear his image. Because shame is painful, many continue to deny its presence, numb it, or keep wearing look-good masks. This is because we believe the lies that we are too defective and too bad to receive God's grace.
It is normal to feel embarrassment regret, sorrow or guilt when we have done something wrong. But it crosses into toxic shame when the shame is way over the top for the offense committed. It is toxic when we can't shake the feeling that we have done something unforgivably wrong, but can't figure out what it is. It is toxic when we are feeling repulsed by ourselves and are sick and tired of being us. It is toxic when we feel deep shame for small infractions, mistakes, lapses of judgment, blunders, oversights, slips of the tongue, lack of knowledge or capability, for things for which we are not responsible, or for the weaknesses we have.
Some who have experienced trauma and abuse have, at the very core of their being, deep toxic shame. Everything they experience in the present, every thought they think, and every emotion they experience is experienced through that shame. Because shame can be attached to our trauma and because it is in itself a shameful topic, we often don't acknowledge it or do the work necessary to be set free from it. We can be sitting in church, smiling, serving, and praising God and still believe in our heart of hearts that we are second class citizens who don't matter to God.
Shame, in its toxic state, keeps us from the relationships for which we were created. It causes us to hide from God. We may go to church, but we struggle secretly with sin too powerful to overcome alone. We hide the sin and pretend its not there. We keep our distance from others so they can't see it. To overcome this sin, we must realize there is healing in the confession of our sin to one another and to God. To face this shame, we need to realize it will intensify at first and then will dissipate as we experience Grace.
In addition, toxic shame causes us to hide the questions we have concerning His sovereignty over hard things like abuse, natural disasters, violent crimes, and unmet dreams. It also causes us to hide the emotions we feel rather than listening to them and resolving them with the Lord's help. Finally, toxic shame keeps us from praying, especially when we don't feel like we have the right to ask Him for something.
Toxic shame can cause a strain in the relationship we have with ourselves. Abuse caused me to hate myself so much that I continuously thought self-depreciating thoughts. I could be listening to a sermon, reading with my children, talking to a student in our youth group, singing a praise song, or on a date with my husband and simultaneously be thinking about how much I hated myself. And the more I hated myself, the more I doubted God's love and the love of others. I even skipped a wedding shower of one of my favorite gals, believing I would keep her from having fun if I went. She later asked me later why I had not attended and I told her why. She explained she had wanted me there because she knew I was the one person who would make it fun for her. I realized then that I didn't see myself as others did and it was time to change.
Toxic shame can also harm our relationships in several ways. First, when we experience toxic shame, we have a tendency to hide from people by withdrawing, by pretending to be something we aren't, or by withholding our hearts from those to which we are closest. Not letting others know the real us leaves us feeling unloved. Another way we respond to the toxic shame is by developing a poor self image. When we do this we are super hard on ourselves so no one will criticize us. This hurts relationships because others fear they will crush us if they are truthful with us and that prevents intimacy from growing. Third, we can become pharisaical and hypercritical of others. This happens when we are full of shame and believe if we point out the faults of others, eyes will be averted away from us and our faults. This creates a unsafe, ungracious atmosphere in relationships, which again keeps intimacy from forming.
It is important to know the only way out of shame is to acknowledge it. This is hard because it is an emotion that intensifies as we acknowledge it. We deal with it by identifying whether or not it is beneficial shame or toxic shame. If it is beneficial and caused by sin, the way out of it is to confess it to Jesus and to trusted friends who will commit to praying with us. The fear of being found unworthy goes away in the experience of grace.
If it is toxic shame, it is important to try to identify it source. It could be shaming words spoken over us. It could be legalistic believers hounding us with "should of''s." It could be the messages of abusers who put their shame on us. It could even be that we, ourselves, are doing things that are perpetuating the shame we've experienced. Perhaps we're failing to take our stinky thoughts captive to God's truth. Maybe we're letting others continue to abuse us. Maybe we're avoiding confronting someone who could treat us with the dignity an image bearer deserves. Maybe we need to forgive ourselves for sin already confessed or trust that the relationships that expose our shame have the potential to heal it.
If we are stuck in shame, we need to figure out if we are holding on to it for a reason. It could be that holding on to it allows us to avoid taking risks in our relationships so we don't have to face the fear of rejections. It could be that holding on to shame gives us an excuse to not try something new so we don't have to face our fear of failure. It could be that we are using shame to avoid asking for what we need in our relationships, because vulnerability scares us. It could be that it allows us to be lazy in our relationships rather, avoiding the hard work of growing them. It could be that shame is simply more familiar than humility and easier to bear than the pain of acknowledging our inadequacies. To overcome toxic shame we have to be willing to face it, feel it, and find the roots of it.
In closing, one of the most significant ways to abolish toxic shame is to grab ahold of the truth that God loves us with an eternal, sacrificial, indescribable, and irrevocable love that doesn't depend on our performance. His love flows out of the very essence of His being and is freely and lavishly given to His children. The truth is that, as believers, we are given purpose, significance, power, strength, mercy , and grace. God has removed our sin and the shame of being depraved through the cross. May we never forget that Jesus died to silence those pain-inflicting words, "Shame on you!"