Dealing with Shame

Shame is something that we hardly discuss as men but we all deal with it. Some of us are just very good at hiding our shame. Some of us hide because of our shame.

However, we have the power to overcome shame.

Case in point: during our church’s Men’s Retreat on Catalina Island in 2016, many of us overcame our shame by getting up in front of other men and confessed our sins – porn, drugs, anger, fears, affairs, and other deep wounds. That’s only the surface level. That’s because there were plenty of us, including me, who held back, who continue to give up the surface level sins, and won’t or can’t deal with the deeper issues.

Recently, I was starting to be overwhelmed with remorse, guilt, and shame – about the things I did in the past and am doing in the present, and wondering if there is any hope for the future. I was feeling regret now over things I did 27 years ago in the ignorance of youth. Why is it? I had to get to the bottom.

As I started to read and think about shame, I am reminded of the Greek mythical creature called the hydra – the snake with 9 heads. Shame strikes in multiple forms and multiple ways – from shame of association, shame rising from guilt, and shame through comparison (why can’t you be more like your brother/ sister/ cousin/ coworker X?).

Shame permeates us and throughout society. The terms “mask shaming” and “travel shaming” entered our vocabularies this year. I could also talk about how shame affects cultures, especially the honor-shame cultures in the Middle East and Asia. I could talk about national shame – the avoidance or usage as international law enforcement. However, those are much, much longer conversations.

I also learned how shame works. One of my pastors recommended me this book: The Soul of Shame written by Christian psychologist Curt Thompson. Thompson outlines the mechanics of shame:

  • Shame affects how we look at the past, present, and future. We tell ourselves we failed in the past, we are failures now, and we will probably fail in the future.
  • Shame affects our decision making processes at all levels – from the macro-level (whether to believe in God), the mid-level (careers, marriage), and down to the micro-level (what to wear).
  • Worse, shame fractures the mind, soul, and body: when we are filled with shame, our minds shut down the higher level thinking. We are awash in emotions. Our body reflects the mind and soul; our body language exhibits defensiveness and withdrawal, and worse, we cannot fix it by stitching everything together.

Left unaddressed, shame can bring us down for decades.

There are three main types of shame that I think we experience: the wrongs done to us, the wrongs we have done, and shame used as a weapon against us. In the first category, we feel shame because of our defenselessness, or being victimized, and worse, shame changes the narrative which makes us think that we are the only ones at fault. Lastly, shame makes us relive our wounds – like instant replay.

In one of my favorite movies, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays a genius mathematician who comes from an abusive home.

After one run-in with the law, Will is forced to see a psychologist, Sean, played by Robin Williams. At first, Will is very defensive and not want to open up about his broken past. However, Will begins to open up to Sean. Perhaps during the most poignant moment of the film, Sean tells that Will’s abuse is not his fault.

“Yeah, I know,” Will says, shrugging it off.

“It’s not your fault,” Sean repeats.

“I know,” Will repeats, but clearly getting uncomfortable.

Sean repeats that point and Will tells him to “Stop messing with me, Sean” and tries to push Sean away, but Sean presses in. Eventually, Will breaks down and accepts Sean’s unconditional acceptance.

If you have seen that movie, you will know what I mean when I say that shame made Will hide his broken past and shame rewrote Will’s belief that he was the one at fault.

What about the next type – shame over the things we have done? How many of us have ever thought: If I am a Christian and my sins are forgiven in Christ, why do I still feel bad a week later? A month later? A decade later? In Psalm 51:3, after David finally confessed and repented of his adultery and murder, David wrote: “my sin is ever before me.” How can that be? David knows he has been forgiven – but the feelings of shame do not go away easily. David should know: he had spent eighteen months hiding – hiding from God, hiding the truth, and hiding from himself. You can see his decision making process was flawed and how every aspect of his life was altered.

Shame is no respecter of persons, affecting even the most godliest of men in the Bible.

If dealing with our wounds isn’t hard enough or dealing with the feelings over our sins, shame is a weapon. This was the devil’s tactic from day 1.

Read Genesis 3. The devil asked: “Has God really said…?” The devil first cast aspersions on God’s character, making God less trustworthy. Second, when the woman bumbled God’s commandment, the devil drove in the dagger of shame of memory / forgetfulness. The woman probably was scratching her head, wondering if she remember correctly. Maybe she felt shame she didn’t get it right. At no point did the woman ask Adam or even God – “hey, can you repeat that command again? Verbatim?” Finally, when their eyes were opened, they were “ashamed” of their nakedness.

What did they do? They hid and blamed each other. When God came, they hid from God. Ever since then, we have been hiding: from each other, from ourselves, and from God.

The Remedy

What is the remedy to shame?

First, we are to have joy. Keep reading Psalm 51; in just a few verses later later, David asked God to restore the joy of his salvation. God want us to have joy. Joy is not the sense of euphoria. Joy is to much more persistent delight in something – it is much more subtle. Joy is not happiness, but wholeness.

Scientists have found that joy actually unites the mind while shame shatters it. Joy gives us the ability to explore, to be creative, and to do our heart’s delight. Psalm 37:4: “Delight your heart in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”

Secondly, Thompson in his book The Soul of Shame said we are to renew our minds. Romans 12:2 says that we are not to be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is our mind that governs our emotions.

Secular neurobiologists already know that – they call it a high road and a low road. The low road is what our emotions and body does automatically – right or wrong. For example, if I see a cute girl smiling at me, my subconscious has already made the decision to smile back long before my conscious does. Likewise, shame is the low road – an automatic emotion that overwhelm us. The high road is the conscious brain which can override the base emotions – decisions to stop or continue. It takes practice, but God’s word in our minds and hearts can override that. We can ask ourselves: do I want to continue listening to the voice of shame, or the voice of God?

Perhaps, the third most important thing is a call to be vulnerable. Earlier, I mentioned the 2016 Men’s Retreat – how dozens of men, including our own lead pastor, got up and exposed their souls. Vulnerability is dangerous, because at the core is the fear of rejection and judgment.

A pastor or a church elder might think: “I just told them my struggles; will I get fired?”

A man who confessed his affair might think: “Will they stop being my friends?”

I could go on forever and you are probably familiar with those thoughts because everyone has had them more than once.

Why are we called to be vulnerable? It’s because God chose to be vulnerable with us. When God gave us free will, God opened himself to rejection. Yet, God continued to pursue mankind despite the cost to himself. The greatest point was God’s vulnerability when Jesus was spat on, beaten, mocked, and finally crucified.

I look at my own struggles; as a man, I must appear strong all the time. Being vulnerable runs counter to all my natural instincts. We have gotten used to hiding and going it alone, that we forget that we are meant to be in a community, just as God is in community. We need a loving community of men and women who will get in our face and say: “You are loved! You are forgiven in Christ! You are free!”

For better or worse, this takes practice. Think of this as a sport; you need to learn new, good habits even as you are unlearning bad ones. Start small and work up and don’t quit.

Lastly, above all, if you need professional help, seek it! And above all, be honest with them.

5 thoughts on “Dealing with Shame

  1. Such a powerful piece! As someone who was severely bullied, I dealt with paralyzing shame for years. I’m so thankful that, as I’ve gotten older, God has brought me out of the shame. And I loved the Good Will Hunting movie. Thank you so much for posting this.

    1. Hi Cherie,
      I feel so sorry that you were severely bullied. 😦 I had a tormentor in 7th grade. That was 27 years ago and I still remember his name and some of the things he said. It takes a long time to get over traumas like that and just as long to remember God loves us no matter what.

      1. Thank you so much! And you’re so right! It does stick with you. My heart goes out to you for what you endured during the 7th grade. Middle school is the hardest. I’m doing great now and I use what I went through to help others. May God richly bless you. 💞

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