I've counseled a lot of people over the years, and I've seen and heard a lot of heartache. Along the way I've observed that one of the most common, yet least talked about emotions that people struggle with, is shame. So allow me to share some observations about it that I hope might be both helpful and insightful.
1. Shame is different than guilt. Guilt says, "I made a mistake." Shame says, "I am a mistake." I've met a lot of people who believe that about themselves. I used to be one of them. 2. It seems to me that we learn shame at an early age, as adults in our lives (parents, teachers, coaches) plant the seeds of shame through relentless criticism and a lack of sensitivity. 3. Whether male or female, any comment or criticism can suddenly send us back to some moment in our lives when we were ridiculed, berated or made to feel worthless. 4. For men, shame says, "I can't be weak. I mustn't be vulnerable. I can't let anyone know I'm afraid...ever. 5. For women, shame says, "I'll never be enough...pretty enough...smart enough...thin enough. I'm not a good enough mother, daughter, wife, lover, or friend.
6. Both men and women feel that they're not really deserving or worthy of being loved, or of loving themselves. Many have come to believe that there's nothing they can do to change that. 7. Many emotions and behaviors have their roots in shame: fear, perfectionism, procrastination, isolation, obsessive guilt, anger...especially anger. 8. Shame can be triggered by a memory, an experience, or something as simple as being corrected, overlooked or forgotten. It may last for a few moments, but sometimes for days or weeks.
How can we deal with shame and ultimately find healing? It would take many pages to address that question, but over the years I'd learned that there are some fundamentals that all of us can apply.
1. Allow yourself to feel. Get in touch with the depths of your emotions. Don't try to stuff them by being too busy, or by avoiding people or conversation. 2. Make space in your life for solitude and reflection. If you're too busy to be still, you're too busy. 3. Learn to recognize the triggers. Do some reading. You'll discover there are many. Until you understand them you won't understand yourself. 4. Realize that the "you" that you've created is not the "real" you. Shame drives us to create an "image" that we feel is necessary for survival. It's not the "you" God created you to be.
Before you learned to live out of shame you were very likely happy, spontaneous, carefree, playful, joyful and uninhibited. It will take a long time to reacquaint yourself with the true you, but with God's help it's possible and it's a journey we must allow ourselves to make. 5. Lay down the need for perfection. It's a disease, not an exemplary personality trait. Ask yourself, "Why must this or that be perfect? What can this kind of thinking do to make my life richer, deeper or more significant?" The answer is usually, "nothing." Be honest with your answers. 6. Grant others permission to not meet your expectations. Did you know you can do that? Did you know you should do that? More people suffer from trying to change others...than any other sickness. 7. Start celebrating the little things. Moments. Relationships. Smiles. A kind word. An opportunity to listen. Thoughtfulness. A child playing with a toy. Sunsets. Gentle breezes. Stars. Seasons. Today. My friend, the "little" things are really the "big" things. We've got it all wrong. Most of us are content with what is not life at all. 8. Receive God's view of you and start living it out. He says, "I accept you. I love you. I value you. I affirm you. I celebrate you. I've got plans for you. I made you, and you're not a mistake. You matter. You're special. We'll do this together. Hold your head up. Look people in the eye. Value them, and value yourself."
There's so much more to say, friends. If you'd like to read a good book, I recommend "Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve," by Lewis Smedes. There are certainly many other great resources out there too. Find them and begin your pathway to a better, more fulfilling life. Understand that it won't happen overnight...but if you stay on the road to recovery, it will happen.
If you choose to stay the same...well, that's your choice, and frankly, it's also a shame. You know why? You're infinitely better than that. Please believe me.