The young social worker was having a really hard time. She had spent the whole day in tears, feeling utterly incompetent and burdened with the belief that she had let everyone down. Though she was still able to manage her client caseload, deep down she felt like a hypocrite. How could she help everyone else if she could barely get her life together? “What a mess! I’M such a mess!”
Just a few months prior, she not only had a bad break-up but also had to distance herself from all the friends she had in common with her ex-fiancé. Feeling lonely and wanting a way to escape the pain, she resorted to binging on some shows on Netflix and eating copious amounts of sugary treats. This in turn led to procrastination and a decline in her overall productivity. Then, unexpectedly, she got a call from her supervisor. “Haley, we need to talk,” came the concerned voice from the other side.
Now let me pause the story for a moment to give you a little more context. This is the Perfect-Always-Put-Together-Healthier-Than-Thou-Haley we’re talking about; the Haley that has no weaknesses, no dependence on others, and no mistakes to account for, at least in appearance. Afterall, the one that helps has to always be “strong” … right? So, what do you imagine some thoughts and emotions going through her mind could be? “Now, what do I do? I’m going to get caught! No one knows I’m struggling and if they do find out, I’ll never be seen the same way again. I’ve worked so hard to be a good social worker, and now everyone will think I’m a phony that doesn’t know what she’s doing. Am I going to lose my job over this?!” Aside from the obvious anxiety, sadness, and feelings of inadequacy that come along with those thoughts, what could be the front seat driver of Haley’s reaction? Shame.
What is Shame?
From a developmental perspective, "Shame is an emotion that emerges in childhood as a result of early experiences of disapproval, neglect, or abuse, and it becomes a fundamental part of one's self-concept.” [i] Shame is painful, and it can also be fruit of self-consciousness, a sense of inferiority and faultiness.
The growth of shame unfortunately doesn’t just stop at childhood. Think of the many marketing campaigns that may influence your views on what is acceptable behavior, “best” product to use, “best” appearance/body image, political inclination, money management, and all the negative consequences they say you will suffer if you don’t abide by those standards. In addition, Scott McConnell, Executive Director of Lifeway Research, mentions that “Shame has become particularly powerful in American Culture in the Internet age. A single mistake or embarrassing moment posted on social media can ruin a person’s life.” [ii]
Now, some might think that holding on to shame has a positive side, like a way to show they have morals and standards, or even as a protection mechanism by creating a barrier of emotional self-preservation, keeping them from behaviors or situations that might expose to potential rejection, criticism, or harm, therefore protecting their self-image or perceived social standing. But is it really worth it?
Impact of Unresolved Shame
Here are some short and long-term negative impacts of unresolved shame:
- Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, leading to self-sabotage and an inability to engage in healthy and meaningful relationships.
- Avoidance and social isolation out of fear of rejection or judgement.
- Reluctance to being vulnerable and open with others about one’s thoughts, emotions and experiences, hindering intimacy and trust.
- Communication issues and increase in conflicts due to oversensitivity, defensiveness, and challenges in authentic self-expression.
- Impact on romantic relationships, manifesting as fear of intimacy or an inability to trust and fully engage emotionally with a partner.
- Repetition of destructive relationship patterns, such as seeking validation through codependency, controlling behaviors, or constantly seeking approval from others.
- Adverse physical/physiological effects, such as increased cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure, fight, flight and/or freeze response, muscle tension, aches and discomfort, digestive issues, weakened immune system and sleep disturbances.
- Mental and behavioral health issues, such as anxiety, depression, addictions, self-harm, people pleasing, perfectionism, overwork or underperformance, and even suicidal ideations.
- Separation from God, as shame might keep you from connecting and reaching out to Him for help.
Now that we’ve reviewed some facts about shame and its detrimental effects, let’s continue with Haley’s story.
Haley sits down in front of her boss, and immediately starts crying. She no longer can hold it in. Feelings of being overwhelmed and embarrassment take over, but she can do nothing about them. “What’s going on Haley? I’ve noticed you’ve been... different,” her boss gently leans forward. Haley takes a deep breath and thinks “Well, here it goes,” and decides to explain everything. Her boss listens attentively and exclaims “Well no wonder you’re having such a hard time! You’ve been through a lot! I’m surprised you’re still performing at the level you have been!” Haley looks up, partially incredulous and confused, “Uhm, really?”
“Of course!” Her boss says reassuringly. “What can I do to help you? Why don’t you take a couple of days off to reset things? Would you like help to find a therapist? It doesn’t sound like you’ve grieved the loss of your ex very well, and I’m sure a professional could help you sort things out.”
“I’m not in trouble?” Haley asks as her mind reels with her boss’ kind responses.
“Well, you have some catching up to do, but if I’d known about this sooner, I could have taken some of those tasks off your plate! Let’s work together and make a plan...”
Haley couldn’t believe her ears. She sighs in relief and immediately feels the huge burden being lifted off her shoulders. Contrary to popular belief, there are some really nice bosses out there, and hers happened to not only be very supportive but also sensitive to mental health concerns. The next day, she surprisingly looked forward to getting up and starting her day, with new motivation and hope. “Wow, that’s all it took–one talk with the boss” she chuckles to herself. The months ahead were not exactly easy to her, but she started therapy and initiated the process of chipping the shame away.*
What are some steps that Haley took to break her shame that you can also take?
Steps for Breaking Free From Shame
Recognize the problem: A big detriment to healing lies in the tendency to avoid facing our wounds and pretend everything is okay. It can be painful to admit the reality of a situation, but it’s important to understand it and recognize the reality without avoiding uncomfortable emotions. By fighting the past, we get stuck in the past. By accepting reality, we are enabled to move forward. For Haley, the first step of putting to words everything she was thinking and feeling was crucial to her, as she recognized that shameful feelings were part of a pattern she had been carrying for years.
Differentiate guilt from shame: True guilt can be a healthy emotion that leads to a recognition of wrongdoing and fault, which leads to repentance and acceptance of forgiveness. It is based on facts, and it brings reconciliation with God and others. False guilt and shame ‘are based on self-condemning feelings that you have not lived up to your own expectations or those of someone else”. [iii] Shame says “I am” the mistake, instead of “I made” a mistake, which keeps you stuck in condemnation, self-pity, and alienation.
Accept forgiveness: Forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting, but it accepts that we are all living with the consequences of ours and other people’s mistakes. Choosing to forgive ourselves and others sets the captive free, only to realize that you were the captive.
Deal with related emotions: Watch out for any underlying emotions like fear, anger and pride that can keep you stuck in shame, and address those with care and compassion.
Make peace with your story: Since you can’t escape it, be the owner of it. This gives you the power to choose what happens next. No, we are not doomed forever by any perceived or real mistakes, even if the consequences are lasting. Don’t let the lessons you could be learning, and transformation opportunities go to waste!
Re-adjust perceptions about yourself: Negative self-talk and criticisms are not nearly as effective as truthful, encouraging, and kind words to bring about needed change, despite the struggles and imperfections. False and negative labels like “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m stupid” keeps you from seeing your true worth and value and leads to an attitude of self-punishment.
Change underlying behaviors: Recognize maladaptive coping strategies and replace them with healthy thought habits and lifestyle. It takes a lot of work and practice, but with the help of others and through the power of God, it is possible! (See Philippians 4:13 and 19).
Bring it to the light and share your experience: This is one of the most powerful tools to break the spell of shame! A husband that shares about his marital struggles finds support and community; a young lady that shares her story of abuse and PTSD finds that she is not alone and that it was not her fault; a busy mom that shares that she hasn’t figured it all out and that her house does not ever look picture perfect, finds help and acceptance; A distressed daughter shares about her struggles with an eating disorder, finds professional treatment, and becomes a motivational speaker and educator, ministering to teens with similar problems. Haley finds comfort in the fact that she no longer needs to hide behind a perfect façade and works towards creating a healthy routine and a new group of friends. As she grieves and lets the masks go down, she allows others to truly know her and love her anyway. She feels peace in her life once again.
Dear reader, if you have been suffering from shame and its consequences, take courage! The first step of breaking the silence is usually the hardest but make the choice of letting your loved ones in, and you too can find freedom from experiencing shame.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” [iv]
*This is a fictitious story inspired by a combination of my own experiences, and those of the countless clients who have sat in front of me.
Please contact us first before publishing this article (but feel free to share it!)
Resources on shame:
Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection
Paul Coneff’s book The Hidden Half of the Gospel
Elise Harboldt’s YouTube video: 18 - “Beyond Bulimia” - A Multitude of Counselors - YouTube
[i] Lewis, M. (1995). Shame: The Exposed Self. The Free Press.
[ii] Smietana, B. (2021). Americans want to avoid shame, make their loved ones proud. Lifeway Research.
[iii] Hunt, J. (2008). Counseling Through Your Bible. Harvest House.
[iv] Keller, T., & Keller, K. (2016). The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. Penguin Books.