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Defining (and Challenging) The Messages of Shame

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This is the first post of a five-part series on shame.  Make sure you subscribe to our mailing list so you don’t miss a thing!
A few weeks ago, just as I was about to make a phone call, the phone rang.  I heard a voice on the other end, speaking urgently.  It was a friend:  “Would I come over? Fast?”  I finished my call and hurried to my friend’s house.  My friend had just lost her job.
How my friend got to this point is a long story, which I will not share here.  What I will share is how the experience of shame limited my friend’s ability to get out of this mess before it spun out of control.  Because of shame, my friend could not talk honestly about what was going on in her life.  Because of shame she could not accept help and concern from most people when it was offered.  Because of shame she became like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, unable to move and to act and given the implications of her situation, ultimately my friend was unable to stay in the job of her dreams.
Shame is a powerful force in our lives, so powerful in fact it drives people to hide themselves in all manner of ways from one another.  And like for my friend, the bearing of shame can lead to devastating consequences.
Each of us carries shame and for multiple reasons.  We may believe we are too thin or too fat, too tall or too short, too feminine or too masculine, too emotional or too much in our brains, too rich or too poor, too shy or too outspoken, too unorganized, too wounded, too unaccomplished, too ugly…  We may be the wrong gender, come from the wrong social class, have the wrong skin colour, have the wrong gender identity…  The list goes on and on.  It includes things for which we are ashamed in a minor way – and which really are just small things.  And it includes things for which we are so ashamed we can hardly even name these things to ourselves.  And these really are big things.
But what is shame?  You have probably heard it said that the difference between shame and guilt is that to feel guilty is to feel badly about what one has done and to feel shame is to feel badly about who one is.   Said most simply, guilt says, “I made a mistake”; shame says, “I am a mistake.”[1]
If shame is about who I am, then shame is associated with my identity.  The key here is that identity-based shame emerges from qualities we cannot easily change about ourselves.  While certain circumstances may change over one’s lifetime, changing one’s height, for example, is pretty much impossible.
You might wonder how one’s identity can lead to shame, but a set of expectations lurks behind the multiple identity categories with which we identify.  For example, there are rules associated with what it means to be male, what it means to be female, what body type is most acceptable, what it means to be a Christian…  The list goes on and on.  Really it is never ending.
We can blame our culture for our shame but for most of us, the messages of shame have taken up residence so deeply in our souls, we become the transmitters of the same cultural norms we now criticize.  We hold ourselves and those around us to standards that aren’t just unreasonable, they are unethical.  Shame binds us like a prison because even when we meet the standards set for us, our inner voice knows about the small person inside still afraid of not measuring up.  Shame is the voice inside that says, “I feel like a fraud.” It is the voice that says, “Why did I mess up, again?”  “Why are they better than me?” “I wish I were different” or  “Who do I think I am?”
Shame and identity – this is a set of measures by which all of us live.  It is also a set of measures that keeps us from remembering the very first lesson of the Bible:  That each of us is made in the image of God.
[1] For more on definitions of shame and guilt, visit the Brené Brown,
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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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