You ought to be ashamed of yourself!
You ought to be ashamed of yourself! I’m serious. It’s good for you. In the right way at the right time, shame is valuable and necessary.
It’s true that in the wrong way at the wrong time, shame is toxic. We’re used to hearing about toxic shame. In fact, most people think shame is always and only toxic. In bullying and other forms of abuse, shame is used as a weapon to damage others and gain power for oneself. The shaming that goes with abuse, however, is a horrible misuse of something God actually intended for good.
God’s word suggests that, contrary to popular opinion, shame isn’t always a bad thing. God doesn’t shame us.1 But he does sometimes gently point out shameful things we do as a way to help us grow.2 Although he’s not shaming us, we might still feel shame as a result of something God says, does, or allows.3 When we acknowledge our shame to him, he caringly covers it as one covers nakedness with clothes.4
If we’re going to grow in the way God designed us to grow – coming out of hiding, acknowledging our sins, receiving his loving care, and learning to care for others with that same love – we can’t avoid shame. Rather, we need to learn to recognize it as something potentially good for us and respond in a way that will help bring about that good result.
So what does shame look like when it’s good for us?
Let’s start with just the first half of that question: what does shame look like?
In her book Daring Greatly (well worth a read for her insights into shame, vulnerability, and joy), Brene Brown describes “the warm wash of shame.” Perhaps you can almost feel that warm wash as you read the words. I certainly can! We’ve all felt shame, and we’ve all seen it in others: cheeks flushing red, avoiding eye contact, feeling exposed and small, wanting to disappear. For me, these emotions and body sensations come with the thought, “I am so stupid!” and the fear that nobody will ever want to be connected with me again.
What does shame feel like for you? How does your body respond? What thoughts come? What fears? Sometimes shame explodes in us with such force we can’t help but notice. Other times we push the feelings away, refusing to let ourselves recognize or feel the unwelcome and uncomfortable – at times, terrifying – experience of shame. Whatever our natural reaction, the first step toward handling shame well is recognizing it.
As we learn to notice and identify our own feelings of shame, rather than pushing them away, we can start to change our response patterns. In fact, the very act of noticing the physical symptoms of shame helps us begin a positive response because it requires the involvement of our brain’s prefrontal cortex. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, it oversees brain processing under stressful conditions and can quiet panic, enabling us to respond to big emotions like shame in a healthy way.5
One thing that can make shame toxic is the circumstances and the intentions of others intending to shame us. Another thing that can make it toxic is our own inability to handle it well. My body can handle gluten, but for my friend gluten is toxic. Why? Because my body can effectively use its built-in components to process gluten, and hers can’t. Thankfully, our ability to process shame is more trainable than our bodies’ ability to process gluten!
Life Model Works’ Thrive training is one way to train ourselves to process shame using both the “fast track” of our right brain and the “slow track” of our left brain. What does brain-training do for us? Let’s look at some possible shame responses from a well-trained brain and a poorly-trained brain. In this situation, imagine my boss has criticized my work in front of a team of colleagues. Here are two possible responses, one from a poorly-trained brain and one from a well-trained brain:
“Uh oh. Here comes shame! I feel small and vulnerable. Every face is looking at me with anger and disgust. I feel attacked. I feel angry and defensive! I could just die! My adrenaline is rushing and I want to run away, but my feet are stuck to the floor. I can’t think straight. I can’t find any words for this. Oh no! I’m crying in front of the whole team! I want to fall through a hole in the floor and disappear forever! I’m so embarrassed. I’m such a worthless part of this company. I’ll probably lose my job. Oh! Oh! What will I do if I lose my job? Anxiety! Panic! I am watching my hands throw the meeting room door open, watching my feet hurry back to my office, and feeling my anger and shame rush out in hot tears. I’m thinking of all the things I wish I’d said to defend myself. But what did I say? Did I say anything at all? I don’t even remember. I just know she was angry and critical, and I was scared. What do I do now? How can I face the team again after they’ve seen me like this?”
“Hello, shame. I recognize you from the flush of my face and the squirming feeling inside that makes me want to go hide. I don’t particularly like the rush of adrenaline you bring, but here you are. I’ve spent time with you before, and I know you’re not going to kill me, so let’s make the best of this unexpected meeting, shall we? Let’s start by turning our attention back to the boss. She is saying something important right now, and I should try to hear it accurately without hiding or making excuses. Take a deep breath and make eye contact. I see that she is angry and frustrated, and I feel guilty. It is true that I should have called Jeremy sooner to plan for the big meeting. I don’t want to admit it, but it’s true that my mistake has made extra work for the whole team. And I understand their anger. I would be angry if I had to stay late because someone else made a mistake. It feels very vulnerable to admit that it’s my fault. I better acknowledge my mistake and apologize. Deep breath! I can do this. When they hear my willingness to take responsibility, maybe we can get back into a rhythm as a team. Maybe we can figure out together what we still need to get done before the meeting, and what I can personally do to make things right. It’ll be extra work for me, but I’ll survive. And maybe they’ll give me some grace. I hope I remember this feeling next time one of them messes up so I’ll give them grace too.”
Which of those responses do you want to have when you feel shame?
Turning shame into love
Obviously, the well-trained brain produces much better fruit (in this case, relational and behavioral results) than the poorly-trained brain. When our brains are well-trained to handle shame, we can recognize and respond to it out of our true selves, our God-given selves. Even while we are still feeling shame, we will be able to stay relational with others, react in ways that align with our beliefs and values, find creative solutions to problems, and navigate our way back to joyfully connected relationships that are in tune with God, self, and others.
When our brains are well-trained to handle shame, we can filter the false messages (“I’m worthless”) from the true ones (“I made a mistake that hurt others”), disentangling toxic shame from healthy shame. We can recognize when something is not true and speak up for ourselves without becoming defensive or angry. We can also hear painful truths that help us learn and grow.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when our brains are well-trained to handle shame, we can experience shame in the way God designed it – not as an affront to our value or identity, but as an alert that there is a break in relationship that needs to be restored. As in the example of the boss addressing my mistake in front of a team of colleagues, the real issue isn’t about my worth but about my relationships, about the impact my decisions have on others. When I can handle shame well, my response will focus less on protecting myself and more on fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and care for my neighbor.
- Ps 34:5; Isa 61:7; Rom 8:1; Rom 9:33
- Pr 13:18; Heb 12:5-11. See also Jesus’ response to Peter’s denial, which I describe in my blog, “Peter Was Grieved” - https://alivewell.org/2016/08/10/peter-was-grieved-john-2117/
- God didn’t shame Adam and Eve after they ate the fruit, but his searching for them brought their shame to the surface (Gen 2:25-3:13). See also Isa 30:3; 1 Cor 4:14
- Rev 3:18
- Jim Wilder, Thrive Track 3 Lectures on DVD, Lecture 5.