Are Feelings of Shame Causing You Pain? How Grace and Love Overcome this Toxic Emotion
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Psalm 32:3-5
We are emotional beings, gifted with the ability to feel joy and sadness, disgust and anger, fear and surprise. We have an amazing repertoire of emotions that color our existence and impact our relationships, for good or ill. Complex emotions like shame, embarrassment and guilt—known as self-conscious emotions because they are uniquely human and require a capacity for self-awareness—are often the source of deep relational pain. These negative emotions often lead to heartache and brokenness, disconnecting us from the ones we love. But are we allowing emotions like shame too much power? Instead of driving us apart, could we limit shame’s power and instead actually use it to strengthen our relationships, deepen our understanding of grace, and revitalize our love for God and each other?
To do so it is important to realize that shame is a mix of feelings, beliefs and misperceptions. It is the feeling of unworthiness and the belief that we are not good enough, smart enough, kind enough, pretty enough, skinny enough or worthy enough to deserve the love of someone else. It is shame when we believe that our behavior or views or position in life does not match up to a standard of what is good or right or perfect. It often causes us to engage in highly destructive patterns—from self-loathing to intentional disengagement to lashing out in anger. These are painful and paralyzing byproducts that result from a combination of wrong thinking, poor choices, bad timing, and/or sinful behavior.
The good news? Shame’s power, which results in relational brokenness and feelings of unworthiness, has an Achilles heal.
Peter's encounter with the risen Christ
The most awesome demonstration of this is found in Peter’s encounter with the risen Christ on a quiet morning on the seashore, over a breakfast of freshly caught fish. One month earlier Peter had denied Jesus three times in a single night, just after boasting that he would never do something like that. His shame and disgrace must have been crushing. So when Jesus opened His mouth to speak, looking directly at him, Peter’s heart probably skipped a beat. Perhaps he feared the upcoming indignity, wanting nothing more than to hide. Instead, in the span of three simple questions, Jesus took Peter though a beautiful model of restorative, redemptive love, modeling how speaking about our shame cuts off its power over us.
“So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” John 21:15-17 (ESV)
Do you love Me? In this amazing passage we see in Jesus’ treatment of the shamed, unworthy Simon, son of John, a model for how He responds to all “unworthy” humans who are self-consciously aware of their brokenness. His treatment was strong and kind and deeply restorative. The powerful, painful, wrecking ball of shame is overcome by being reminded of, speaking about, and confirming in our hearts God’s deep and unchanging love for us, and our love for Him.
Said Alexander MacLaren of this encounter between the resurrected Lord and Peter by the seashore, “The beginning of Christ’s merciful treatment of the forgiven man is to compel him to remember, that he may learn and be ashamed...He forced Peter with a merciful compulsion to look steadfastly and long at his past sin, and to retrace step by step, shameful stage by shameful stage, the road by which he had departed so far.”
The growth and change that occurred as Simon, son of John grew to become the wise apostle Peter models for us how to overcome shame, stay connected to those we love, increase authenticity, and in the process transform our relationships. When Jesus asked Peter to proclaim his love with those three questions, He was leading him through his shame and vulnerability, allowing for and creating in him the process required for his healing and growth.
Peter needed restoration and healing from his shame (the painful feeling he carried about himself) and guilt (the painful feeling of regret for his three denials). The kind and strong and loving Christ led him through his vulnerability. Peter had to have the courage to show up and be seen, risking even more failure, hurt and heartbreak.
For even after all his foibles and failures and defections, noted John MacArthur, it was the Lord Himself who met him by the shore, re-commissioning him into the ministry, using him in mighty ways from that point forward. Inspired by the Spirit he went on to author two books of the New Testament. This is restoration and redemption at its fullest, grace and hope at its best.
Talking about our feelings of unworthiness, and remembering His love, is shame’s Achilles heal.
Peter’s shame would have fed on secrecy, silence, and judgment—just like ours, for shame gets in the way of authenticity and vulnerability. “How can we be vulnerable and authentically known when we are paralyzed with fear about what others might think or see?” asks Dr. Brene Brown, an expert on shame. She says that shame only works when it keeps you in this false belief that you are alone. We all have it, we are all afraid to talk about it, and when we don’t talk about it the more control it has over us. “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them...If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
How to overcome the power of shame
For us today shame is overcome when we share our feelings of unworthiness and pain with others, with discernment and mutuality, in a trusting relationship. Sharing in such a relationship requires boundaries and trust—it avoids over-sharing, purging, or indiscriminate disclosure. And it brings grace and hope to those most hurting.
If shame is causing heartache in your relationships, here are some suggestions for overcoming its destructive and toxic power:
1. In order for shame and guilt to ultimately strengthen our relationships we need to commit to praying regularly for those we are in relationship with. We must show empathy and genuine interest in them, spend time getting to know each other, increasing trust.
2. We need to meditate on scripture and passages on love like that found in John 21:15-17, found throughout the gospels, and especially in the gospel of John. Know and understand His deep and unchanging love for His children, found in so many remarkable acts of Jesus toward us humans, his beloved children.
3. Challenge yourself to model how to share feelings and thoughts, without judgment, and to be appropriately vulnerable in your authenticity. Vulnerability is not weakness, but just the opposite—It is courage.
4. It is important to set boundaries and limits on sharing and disclosing, and even more critical to maintain confidentially. In so doing we will be able to affirm and express appreciation for each other, to have fun and laugh together, countering the negative effects of these toxic emotions.
5. We will all experience feelings of shame, but there is a model for us during those dark times. We need to know what shame is and not be afraid or embarrassed or feel unworthy. Instead we need to be able to talk about it with those we trust and care for. As we identify the events that cause feelings of shame we will begin to counter them by thinking and feeling more accurately. This is where other people can help us. Reach out to them and practice being vulnerable. “Shame can’t survive being spoken” says Brown. “Talking cuts shame off at its knees.” It is then that our relationships can move forward, stronger than ever, full of grace and restored with hope.
“Do not call to mind the former things, or ponder things of the past. Behold, I will do something new, now it will spring forth; will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” Is 43:18-19
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.