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The Walk of Shame: Tips Toward Healing

Posted on Monday, February 03, 2014 11:12 AM

Everyone of us has experienced shame; from the warm wash of embarrassment to a scar that sears the heart like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Downton Abbey’s Anna spoke of the sting of shame: “My shame has no where to hide. I’ve been spoiled.” Psychologist Brene Brown believes that shame “is an unspoken epidemic and the secret behind many forms of broken behavior” (Mar, 2012). Gershen Kaufmann, research pioneer on this same subject agrees: Shame is the affect which is the source of many complex and disturbing inner states: depression, alienation, self-doubt, isolating loneliness...compulsive disorders, splitting of the self, perfectionism, a deep sense of inferiority, inadequacy or failure, the so called borderline conditions and disorders of narcissism (1989).
Shame is no small thing. Unlike a fly in the coffee that can be plucked out, it’s more like creme that colors the whole cup.Yet shame isn’t all bad. Ignatian spirituality calls it the “grace of shame” because it keeps us humble. It also signals us to set boundaries. Functioning as a normal human emotion, shame flashes a yellow light when we cross a line that compromises our core values. That’s not a bad thing in a shameless society with blurred lines. But when shame saturates our self-image and seals our identity, it becomes “a state of being” that is toxic and dehumanizing. (Bradshaw, 1988, p vii). Unlike guilt that says you’ve made a mistake, shame says you are a mistake.

Shame’s sources are several. Society layers us with powerful lenses. Our worthiness can be based on money, class, status, race, roles and even norms. Citing Boston College researcher John Mahalick’s study on gender norms, Brown says women are to “do it perfectly and never let them see me sweat,” while men are never to be “perceived as weak” (ibid). But society isn’t the only culprit. Graceless religion rates us with strict rules, dysfunctional families heap on secrets that we're told to sweep under the rug, abusive trauma taunts we’re victims without a voice.
Like Anna said, the 'go to' solution is hiding. Shame, the first feeling word in the Bible (Genesis 2:25), sent Adam and Eve into hiding from God (Genesis 3:9-10). From rationalizing and denying to projecting and blaming, we’ve been hiding behind fig leaves ever since. Lewis Smedes says that grace is the solution to shame (1993, p 105). Secularizing grace, Brown says empathy's the antidote: “Put shame in a petri dish and it will grow in secrecy, silence and judgement. But expose it to empathy and it can’t survive” (ibid). What are some tips toward healing our shame?

Own your story. In a recent Bible Study the class was asked to tell a story that shaped them from childhood. The teacher had a strong family and fond memories. But as we circled the room, it was clear that few people fit that profile. Because their memories were painful, many people passed. Since safety is key, keeping their cards close to the chest was a smart choice. But telling our stories to trusted people in safe places is critical to healing. Despite the skeletons in the closet our histories aren’t horrible mistakes that have to stay hidden. Hiding only gives them more power. Instead, speaking our stories and owing our histories makes our life more authentic.To deny who we are and where we came from only creates a false self. And when we opt for a false image over an authentic self, we abandon ourselves. Self-rejection is foundational to shame. A way to take small steps is to write short segments in a journal and read them out loud to a therapist, pastor or friend.

Forgive your shamers. Healing the shame that binds us requires dealing with feelings toward our shamers. While we can’t rewrite our histories or change our circumstances, we can choose the way we think, feel and live with it. Revenge seems sweet for a season, but its a recursive loop that only escalates. Resentment isn’t an option, because it eats away at joy and spirals downward into depression. Forgetting doesn’t work either, because even when the mind forgets, the body holds the trauma. Hannah Arendt had it right: “The only possible redemption from the predicament of being unable to undo what one (or another) has done...is the faculty of forgiving." This includes forgiving ourselves. For one of the best books on steps toward forgiving click here: https://www.amazon.com/Forgive-Forget-Healing-Hurt...

Accept yourself. Acceptance is different from forgiveness. While we forgive ourselves for what we did, we accept ourselves for who we are. When we forgive ourselves we heal our guilt. When we accept ourselves we heal the shame. Acceptance, according to psychologist Erik Erikson, is based on attachment (1950). Healthy attachment is nurtured when we see affirmation mirrored in the face of our early caregivers. Without experience of early approval, we see our lives through a lens of disapproval. This translates into the unworthiness that unleashes shame.Though a theory, it seems to hold water. As adults we're affected by what we see in someone's face. Christian scripture offers an alternative mirror to the scowl of our critics: “But we all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of God are being transformed...” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Click here for spiritual practices: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/revie...

In summary, despite little clinical literature on the subject of shame (Wheeler,1999), Yale psychologist Helen Block Lewis found that when shame was ignored in psychotherapy, client problems were prolonged or worsened. But when shame was recognized, treatment was shorter (1974). All the more reason to take Anna’s feelings of shame seriously. Because hiding can hurt us.


Bradshaw, J. (1988). Healing the Shame that Binds You. FL: HC, Inc.
Bradshaw. J. (1993). Bradshaw On: The Family. FL: HC, Inc.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. NY: Gotham.
Brown, B. (2012). Retrieved January 29, 2014, from http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_...
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. NY: W.W. Norton.

Kaufman, G. (1989). The Psychology of Shame. MA: Schenkman.
Lewis, H.B. (1974). Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. NY: IUP.

Smedes, L. (1993). Grace and Shame. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Wheeler, G. (1991). Self and Shame: A Gestalt Approach.
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