Feelings of shame and guilt can be a useful learning tool, helping us better ourselves and forgive one another.
The first time I can recall ever feeling a deep sense of shame was at the age of 10. After spotting the largest toad I’d ever seen on our family’s Texas ranch, I decided to dissect it.
The creature breathed slowly, its greenish-grey chest expanding like bellows, its black eyes fixed on the grass in front of it. In my right hand was a large rock. I sucked in a bit of air and brought the rock down forcefully on the frog’s head. Yellowish brain matter oozed out of the creature’s head as I dropped the stone. After turning the toad over, I held the white belly with one hand and carved a line into it with a kitchen knife. The dead animal’s innards smelled putrid and looked muddy.
I suddenly felt heartsick. My stomach didn’t feel so good, either. It was the first time I’d destroyed another living thing, except for bugs or spiders, on purpose. It was also the last.
Is shame good for us?
Was the shame I felt that day really shame? Or was it guilt? The two are often intertwined: both feelings of self-reproach, sometimes used as synonyms. Either way, I believe the emotions we experience that ask us to look inward and reevaluate our actions are helpful. In my case of the toad, those feelings prevented me from making similar decisions in the future.
Shame, contrary to what some authors and psychologists believe, has a place in the healthy life of an individual or group. For instance, think about the collective shame we experience when we remember our country’s complicity in slavery. Such an attitude, when we choose to repent and then turn away from our past wrong actions, assists us in making future moral choices.
|The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”|
Earlier this year in a study, anthropologists who performed research in the U.S., India, and Israel reported that shame seems to have developed in humans as a way of maintaining social order: “Because shame (like pain) causes personal suffering and sometimes leads to hostile behavior, this emotion has been called ‘maladaptive’ and ‘ugly.’ This ugly emotion may be the expression of a system that is elegantly designed to deter injurious choices and to make the best of a bad situation.” So while shame has negative connotations attached to it, the emotion may actually be a tool that we use to teach ourselves to be better next time.
Daniel Sznycer, one of the researchers, argues that shame—like pain—evolved as a defense. He notes, “The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”
Guilt, shame & grace
Shame can be good, then, as long as we don’t allow it to take over our emotions and actions. We must not accept the lie that we—or others—are unlovable, unforgivable, or irredeemable. When we feel shame, it doesn’t mean we automatically become any of those things.
Best-selling author and shame expert Dr. Brene Brown defines shame as: “Believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
|I wonder if guilt, regret, and shame are just different aspects of our God-given conscience.”|
While I agree with Brown on many things, I wonder if guilt, regret, and shame are just different aspects of our God-given conscience. If they are, what would happen if we allowed them their rightful place in our lives, instead of trying to run from them? Not to let them overwhelm us, but to acknowledge why they are surfacing, and use them to move forward with more love and compassion in our hearts.
After all, an entity or individual who has lost a sense of shame is dangerous. In Philippians 3:19, Paul writes of people whose “destiny is destruction … God is their stomach … glory is in their shame.” Sounds an awful lot like our society, doesn’t it?
The beauty of grace is that we don’t have to continue to feel shame and let it impede our growth. When we confess, we are forgiven of sin, and can live joyfully in freedom.
Now that is something to glory in.
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