Shame…the ultimate dirty word

Few things take the air out of the room like trying to have a discussion about shame. It is uncomfortable. One of the most destructive and useless emotions that a human being can experience is shame. Embarrassment passes with time, guilt can be resolved through making amends, but shame touches our very core because it is an internal quality. Shame tricks us in to believing that somehow we are fundamentally broken, flawed, and perhaps that our very existence is a mistake. We all have felt it at some point in our lives, but where does this challenging emotion come from? That is the million dollar question. When I was a little boy we played dodge ball in kindergarten. Fortunately, I think they quit playing that archaic game in schools. It is pretty rough on some kid’s self esteem. Dodge ball was terrible when you were the little fat kid like me. Always the last to be picked for a team and the first to be hit in the face with that big yellow rubber ball, dodge ball always made me feel less than everyone around me. I felt like something was wrong with me. This was the first time in my life that I recall feeling shame. The roots of shame feel complicated, but the beginning of shame is actually pretty simple. Shame is cumulative though. That means that once the roots of it are planted it stacks up fast. Things that another wouldn’t find shameful automatically stack up on your shame “pile.” So, where do the roots start? What is at the bottom of the pile? I am glad you asked. When you were a baby, you cried. That is what babies do. You cried when you were hungry and you cried when you needed a diaper change. You even cried at 2am when you were bored and wanted mom and dad’s attention. Over time you discovered this amazing thing. When you cried, people came running to meet your needs. It was like room service! As you got a little older, you still received the care of your parents and them meeting your needs. Your worldview was kind of small then and like all kids you tended to be a little self centered and again, like all kids, you felt like you had more power in the world than you actually did. Now, flash forward a couple of years. Someone enters your life and hurts you physically, sexually, emotionally, or psychologically. When you consider the question that a child must be asking themselves when someone hurts them, most say the child might ask: “Why me?” However, you have to remember that the child has a limited worldview while at the same time thinking they have control over everything in their environment. So, the child does not just ask themselves the question “Why me?” They ask themselves the question: “What did I do to cause that person to hurt me?” This is the beginnings of the shame. A child takes on and internalizes something that was done to them by another as their own fault. This can spiral into a person having a sense of not having any control in their own life and a person losing their sense of self. It can also spiral into addiction as the individual works to self medicate the shame, worthlessness, and fears of rejection that constantly plague them. So then, a person continues to be victimized by their emotions because they internalized something as their fault that never was really their fault. Shame has no redeeming factor. I once did a word study in Biblical literature to look at shame. For me, shame had been such a pervasive concept in my spiritual life. I was surprised at what I discovered. There is no Greek or Hebrew word that captures our English understanding of shame. Biblical translators used the word shame, but in reality, the word they were translating into shame means dishonor. However, if a person is dishonored, it is an external experience. It suggest that a person once had honor and did something to lose it. This is more akin to guilt as it is tied to an external action while shame identifies a feeling that we have internalized. It is a faulty belief about ourselves. So, what do we do about it? That is the next million dollar question. While shame tugs away at our sense of self and value, we can engage in activities that reinforce our personal values and sense of self. It then becomes a matter of starving the shame. Every act that feeds the shame such as addiction or other maladaptive activities reinforce the cycle. However, when we engage in healthy fulfilling activities the shame begins to take up a smaller place in our lives. It never really goes away, it just ceases to control you any more. So, if you are reading this and you struggle with shame, I want you to take a moment and think of one thing you can do today that is personally fulfilling and a true expression of who you are. Think of an activity that reinforces your personal value and do it. Do this each day and by engaging in these small steps we can change and move from being driven by shame to becoming a more authentic and healthy version of the people we were created to be. You are beautiful. You have great value and you have a place in this world that no one else can fill. Don’t let shame take that from you.-

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