Overcoming Shame

Posted on May 10, 2013


This post is based upon a talk I am presenting this weekend to a group of leaders of Christian sexual addiction recovery support groups.  As such, my Christian view is particularly on display in this one.  My hope is that my readers who are of other faiths or no faith will still be able to find truth in the points being made.  Additionally, I reference a TED talk given by Brene Brown.  Her talk is definitely worth hearing.  You can watch her presentation here:  http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html.

My presentation is focused on overcoming shame as a part of addiction recovery and restoring the relationships that have been damaged.  My basic assertion here is that shame is the enemy of connection in relationship and the enemy of health, both mental and physical.  From addiction to hypertension to ulcers to heart disease, shame is detrimental to one’s health.

Let me begin with the original story of shame getting in the way of relationship.  It can be found in Genesis 3.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.  Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” 11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

What is the first thing people did after they sinned?  They hid.  Shame causes us to hide.  When we are ashamed it makes us withdraw from relationship and avoid intimacy.  In this story, the man and the woman now hide from the God with whom they had previously enjoyed perfect intimacy.  The second thing that we see happen is they start trying to deflect the blame.  When we are deep in our shame, it hurts too much to own it, so we need to find some other place to land some or all of the blame.  In this case, the man blames the woman (with even a hint of accusation at God for placing her in the garden with him) and the woman blames the serpent.  Whether you take the story as literal or allegorical, it has a ring of truth of how human beings respond to shame.

In Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame, she described shame as “the swampland of the soul.”  That is an apt description.  She drew a distinction between shame and guilt.  Shame is “I am bad.”  Guilt is “I did something bad.”  I would draw a similar distinction between shame and repentance.  With shame, I feel bad about what I did because of what it says about me.  With repentance, I feel bad about what I did because of what it did to you and our relationship.  For our discussion, let’s use “shame” and “repentance.”

Shame is a major driver in addictions.  I would assert that all of us have a piece of us that believes, “I am bad.”  This is one of the enemy’s favorite lies.  The talk track goes something like this, “You are bad.  God doesn’t love you.  If God does love you (because he loves everybody), he is colossally disappointed with you.”  How do we know this is a lie? God doesn’t talk to us like that.  The Holy Spirit may convict us of our wrongdoing and call us to repent, but he does not tell us that we are bad.  He calls us back to restore relationships.  However, when the negative message (I am bad) takes over, it is an invitation to let the addict drive the bus.  Shame is painful.  It feels really bad.  Your addict says, “Let me drive and we can make the pain go away.”  So you let the addict drive.  The problem is that the relief is at best temporary and it feeds into the cycle of addiction and acting out.

Shame is also “me” focused.  For addicts when you were acting out, it was about you.  If you are now feeling bad about what you did because of what it says about you, it is still all about you.  Shame relationally leads to defensiveness and disconnection.  It gets in the way of restoring intimacy and healing.

Brene Brown identified 3 things shame needs to grow: Secrecy, Silence, & Judgment.  As such in the church, we often unwittingly create the perfect storm for shame.  We don’t want to be perceived as weak and sinful.  We don’t want to let on that we don’t have it all together.  Consequently, we remain silent and keep our struggles hidden.  It doesn’t always feel safe to be vulnerable, but vulnerability is the path back from shame.  Shame is based upon a lie, and a lie does not survive being exposed.

Georgia Hawkins wrote a booklet on Fasting All Negative Thoughts.  This is a very similar to the concept of fighting automatic negative thoughts (I sometimes say “killing your ANT’s) which is a common focus in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  Among Hawkins’ points is the biblical concept that keeping one’s mind focused on God and his truth is a path to peace of mind.  Several passages in both Old and New Testaments assert that this is so (italics are mine).

  • Isaiah 26:3 – You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.
  • Phil 4: 7 – Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
  • 2 Cor. 10: 4-5 – The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
  • Eph. 4: 27 – do not give the devil a foothold.

The way that this becomes a pathway out of shame is to not keep fellowship with the negative messages that you have received about yourself.  Do not let them take up residence in your thought life.  If they have already done so, evict them.  With clients who frequently go to a place of shame, we work on learning to affirm yourself as part of self-care.  Negative messages we received about ourselves can be firmly entrenched and we need to work at getting rid of them and exposing them as a lie.  Self-affirmations can take the form of listing one’s positive traits and learning to repeat these to displace the negative messages and the resultant shame.  For Christians, there is the addition of being able to claim our identity in Christ as an antidote to shame.  Neil Anderson organized scriptural references of our identity in Christ into three categories, “I am accepted.  I am secure.  I am significant.”  His listing of these scriptural references can be found at http://www.ficm.org/index.php?command=textwhoamiinchrist and can also be useful tools.

Sometimes we also need to clean out the closet.  Negative messages that are firmly ingrained may need therapy to take away their negative power.  Everyone has some amount of trauma in their lives.  These are not necessarily the life threatening events we normally think of as traumatic.  Rather these are those disturbing or painful memories that are so clearly seared into our brains.  Generally these are accompanied by a negative message that we have about ourselves.  When these have power over our lives, it is helpful to get some therapeutic support to rob them of their power.

There is one more pitfall for Christians.  Our spiritual life may be one more area in which the enemy tells us we are blowing it, pushing us back into shame.  Sometimes these messages are delivered by well-meaning brothers and sisters.  “If you just had more faith, if you just prayer more, if you read your Bible more, if you were a better Christian…” can become its own negative cycle.  You feel bad about yourself for feeling bad about yourself because that just confirms what a miserable failure you are as a Christian.  This is one more lie you need to not buy into.  The spiritual disciplines you do are there for your benefit and not as a requirement to be accepted.

Addiction is usually devastating to relationships.  Shame, as we have identified, is the enemy of connection and healing.  We need to find an antidote to shame’s poisonous effects of relationships.  What is the antidote to shame in relationship?  Empathy.  Empathy is the essence of repentance.  Empathy is entering into the other person’s experience.  Responding to what this means for your partner and not what it means for you.  This is fairly simple, but certainly not easy.  This requires ego strength, a firm enough sense of self to step out of your own experience and be the healer for your partner.  It requires that you silence the voice of shame.  So let’s take a look at some examples of interactions that happen between partners.  I adapted these from stories clients have shared with me.

  • When your partner yells at you for coming home 30 minutes late from work, you
    1. Defend yourself.  You were, after all, at work.
    2. Attack back because she attacked you unjustly (which she always does).
    3. Apologize and withdraw so that the fight doesn’t escalate.
    4. Respond to the feeling, “it seems like you were really hurt that I am late.”


It is probably obvious that d is the best response, but let’s look at why that is.  The first response is quite natural.  When we feel unjustly attacked, it makes sense to defend our position.  When we are misunderstood or misjudged, we want to be understood and to set the record straight.  The problem is that this feeds a negative cycle of criticism and defensiveness (see post on the 4 horsemen) that leaves both partners feeling hurt and disconnected.  The second response is also quite common in couples.  This creates a negative cycle in which both partners attack.  Arguments escalate into screaming matches where more hurtful attacks occur.  Both parties are not only disconnected, but emotionally bloodied by the experience.  Rather than healing wounds, new wounds get added.  The third option is a favorite of many and is typical of the partner who takes the position of withdrawer in a pursue/withdraw negative cycle.  Three things fuel this cycle.  One is a desire for things to be peaceful.  A second is that the relationship is really important to both partners.  Pursuers pursue to protect the relationship from disconnection.  Withdrawers withdraw to protect the relationship from escalating conflict.  The net result is that this is a failed attempt by both to get their needs met.  Third, shame can fuel this response.  I am bad and the best I can do is apologize (again) for my badness and then withdraw in hopes that you will stop rubbing my nose in it (so to speak).  Answer d is an example of empathy.  Generally, this attack is not about you being late, per se.  It is about “I feel like I am not important to you,” or “I am afraid that you are acting out again.”  Reflecting you partners hurt and/or fear is a move toward connection and healing.  Your partner may continue to be angry.  These feelings may be overwhelming and they don’t go away like flipping a switch.  The message of empathy is that I see your pain.  I care about you.  I want to help you cope with the pain and find healing.


  • Your partner says, “Your SA group doesn’t help.  It is just a bunch of you getting together to make excuses for each other.”
    1. You defend the value of your SA group.
    2. Respond, “Why do you have to be so negative all the time?”
    3. Respond, “The group is really important to me.”
    4. Respond, “My acting out caused you so much pain.  It is really frightening to think that I might act out again.”


The responses here are similar.  The first is a defensive response.  The second is a counter attack.  The third is slightly different in that it is more of an intellectualizing response.  Your partner is actually communicating an emotional reaction, and c is a cognitive response.  It is not likely to promote connection and calm your partner.  The potential for calming is the empathic response in answer d.  This response is acknowledging the unspoken communication that your partner is coping with an overwhelming sense of pain and fear.


  • Six months into your sobriety, you are working on your computer and your partner comes in and says, “That’s right.  Go visit your favorite porn sites.”
    1. Ask, “When are you going to get over this?”
    2. Apologize again for your prior acting out.
    3. Say, “You know we have Safe Eyes on the computer and I couldn’t look at porn anyway.
    4. Respond, “You must be really hurting right now?”


By now, you are getting the idea.  A is an attack.  B is an attempt to pacify in hope of deescalating, a response which does not promote connection and healing.  C is an intellectual response to an emotional experience.  D is an offer to connect emotionally.


One final point and we are done here.  It is important to have empathy for yourself as well.  This is not the same as making excuses for your behavior.  With fellow Christians, I sometimes ask the question, “What do you need to do to make God love you more?”  The answer of course is that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and conversely, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.  You are under grace so give yourself some grace too.  Your acting out may have been devastating to the ones you love.  It is appropriate to feel a deep sorrow for the pain you have caused others.  Don’t let it define you.  You are not your addiction.