Shame, Guilt, and the Church: Part 3 – Shame vs. Guilt

Some of these thoughts are instigated by notes I took during a class on conflict mediation back in 2012. Part of the class the professor discussed certain aspects about shame and guilt, and thus vulnerability as well. Other thoughts come from Brene Brown’s TED talks, which I’ve already posted about below. Although much of what I am about to write about is universal, I am going to be writing from a Christian perspective here, with references to God and the Bible. Even if you are not a Christian, I believe that much of this will still resonate with you.

If there is one thing that is definitely universal for all of us, no matter our faith, it’s shame. We all feel shame, whether we choose to admit it or not. Have you ever thought about what shame is exactly? If someone asked you to explain what shame was, how would you explain it? How would it differ from guilt? Maybe this will help:

Shame is that deep sense of feeling unacceptable. It’s that feeling of being exposed, humiliated.

Shame lies in the shadow of guilt. It is something that is FELT, not a cognitive issue.

Shame is an IDENTITY ATTACK.

Shame continually plays two tapes:

1) “You’re never good enough” and 2) “Who do you think you are?”

Shame is the “swampland of the soul.”

Shame arises in our significant relationships. It arises due to life’s situations and culture’s response.

Shame arises within us because of what we do — our addictions, our sexual behaviors, etc.

Shame attaches itself to those who are made powerless, those who are victimized.

Shame is felt by minorities in the midst of a majority.

Shame causes feelings of being an outcast, exposed, naked, unclean, contaminated, separated, alone.

Shame paralyzes people. It keeps people from being able to move or act.

Shame is NOT simply embarrassment.

Those are some examples of how we can think about shame. But lets remember, guilt and shame are not the same thing. And we here in the U.S. are really bad about knowing the difference.

Guilt lies without, while shame lies within ourselves. Guilt can be acted upon so that you are no longer guilty. With shame, there is no set of redemptive actions that is possible. The self is stuck. It’s immovable until the feelings of shame gradually fade away or are interrupted by other feelings.

Removing shame requires an intervention from someone outside ourselves. For Christians, ultimately shame arises when we are exposed to God’s holiness. But we are not left to wallow in it. Jesus pursues us into the depths of our shame. The church must be a place where people can honestly bring the pain of their shame. For Christians, Christ plays a crucial role in overcoming shame. By taking upon himself and embodying our shame, Jesus, in His suffering and death, overcomes and redefines shame, inaugurating possibilities of respect for self and others, and for praise.

You might struggle with shame if you feel wrong, but you don’t know why. Or if blame just always seems to end up at your doorstep. Or if you still feel the shameful experiences of your past.

When dealing with shame:

1) Embrace it.
2) Expose it.
3) Lament and repent.
4) Forgive self and others.

Dealing with shame is an emotional experience. It’s not simply a cognitive one. It needs to be deeply heartfelt experience, not a decision to just not feel shame anymore.

As we deal with one another, let’s contemplate and be more aware of how we exploit shame. For example, be aware about how you use the word “should” and how you apply it in your relationships. Do you “should” others? The Church itself would do well to evaluate its own use of should language. Overall, the church needs to undertake the big task of de-idealizing itself, one another, and even God.

The church could modify some of its practices to help enhance the possibilities of flourishing and growth. It can focus on ways of making people feel welcome, guarding itself against making people feel alienated, adding to the self-hate and shame of its members and visitors.

An evaluation of how and what is being preached within local churches might do a lot to reduce shame within the church. Jesus didn’t give lists about how to be a better person, leader, or family member. We should evaluate the theological methods and symbols we use, making sure that we are not adding to people’s sense of shame. Churches need to be a place that gives space for pain and provides a safe place for those wanted or needing to expose their shame. If you don’t give space for pain, people will resist.

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