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March 18, 2013

The Definition of Shame


“Life is a journey of progress, not perfection”
-Chip Dodd

I realized last week, after having a long conversation with my Mom, that I need to explain what I mean when I write about shame. I think most people have a pretty good idea what shame looks like, but often don’t realize just how deep it runs or how much it can affect many of our daily lives. I don’t think I realized it until a few short weeks ago.

Honestly, I don’t think I am the best person to define shame. My suggestion, for those interested, would be to read Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly (I've also posted a video she did for TED a few years ago below). Brene does a far better job of explaining shame and its’ affect on our culture than I ever could. Chip Dodd, in his book The Voice ofthe Heart, also gives an outstanding description of the struggles and reality of shame. For those who would rather not read a book I will attempt to paraphrase both Brown and Dodd.


First, let me say I don’t believe shame to be a negative emotion. However, because most of us experience shame as painful, we often come to believe shame is bad. We associate it with hurt and rejection. Yes, shame can come in toxic forms, but shame isn’t a bad emotion. It’s just an emotion that, because it often feels painful, is thought to be bad.

In its’ healthiest form, shame is actually a very helpful feelings. Shame, Dodd says, is what shows us our limitations. It reveals man’s need for God and other humans. Through these limitations shame reveals in us empathy for others. As we see our own imperfection we come to accept the same in the rest of mankind. We learn to love imperfect humans because we are no better. As Dodd says, “We are glorious ruins in need of others and God.”

This is, however, far different from toxic shame. Toxic shame, the type of shame most of us often feel, is far different and much more painful. Toxic shame, as Dodd says, tells us “the way we are made is defective”. Unhealthy shame, rather than showing our need for others, tells us we are unworthy of others. It causes us too “reject our hearts through the belief that the way we are made is defective”.

Dodd goes on to say the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame is the difference between self-awareness and self-centeredness. Being self-centered creates comparison and competition. Self-awareness, and an acceptance of our own brokenness, creates “a sense of deep gratitude”. Self-awareness is healthy and life giving. Self-centeredness is a barrier to love and vulnerability.

As you might have seen in the video, Brene Brown has an interesting take on shame. She says we often struggle to understand the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt, Brown says, is the feeling of “I’ve done something bad”. On the other hand, shame is a feeling of “I am bad”.

This idea, that I am bad, is what I mean when I talk of shame. For me shame is a deeply held belief in my own unworthiness – in my lack of belonging. Shame is the feeling that pushes me away from intimacy and keeps me from taking risks. Shame is my ball and chain - a burden I’ve carried around for as long as I can remember.

The more I dig into my own story, the more I realize just how closely associated shame is with vulnerability. In other words, my deepest shame corresponds almost exclusively with my deepest fears of being vulnerable. I fear intimacy with God because I don’t believe I am worthy of his love. I fear vulnerable relationships because I doubt someone could ever love me in my imperfection. On a daily basis my toxic shame, my deeply held belief in my own defective nature, stands as a barrier between me and the love and freedom of self I so desperately desire.

The truth is my shame is what causes me to hide. It’s what causes me to tell 99% of my story but hold back the scariest 1%. It's what causes me to attempt to push away or ignore moments of my past because I fear it will mean I’m unlovable, unworthy or hopeless.

Shame, my friends, isn’t simply a moment of embarrassment. It’s not a little mistake we made long ago or a silly moment from our youth. It’s the culmination of all our imperfection. In its' healthiest forms it's the very thing that says, without reservation, “I need you Lord, and I am nothing without you.” And toxic shame is the belief that our imperfections, our mistakes both past or present, mean we’ll never be good enough. Toxic shame tells us we’ll always be left to sit in our own shit, and it’s killing us inside.

“If we speak shame, it begins to wither”
-Brene Brown

In the following weeks I am going to write more about my own struggle with shame. I’ll do so partly because writing and sharing is an incredible release for me when I’m digging deep into my own psyche. There is also another reason, however. I am going to write about my shame because I believe it’s incredibly important for us to have these kinds of conversations. It’s important that we, both men and women together, let the world see us moving towards openness and vulnerability, rather than away from it. 

Ignoring shame will never make it go away. Hiding from our story will never change our past. It’s time now to give shame a name for all to see. It’s time to free ourselves of the shackles and walk boldly out into the light, where our blemishes can shine bright for all the world to see.

Who’s with me?

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