We are all sinners alike. Only that the sins of the holy are not counted but covered; and the sins of the unholy are not covered but counted. —Martin Luther
For years, I lived with a deep sense of shame. I felt unlovable, unforgivable, unredeemable. I was wrong.
My earliest memory of experiencing shame is from seventh grade. My teacher called me an egoist for expressing joy about doing well on a writing assignment. From that painful experience, I deduced that I must not celebrate my accomplishments and that I was sinfully prideful. Over the years, I made more mistakes and took more serious actions that made me believe even worse things about myself. My shame increased exponentially.
By the time I turned forty years old, my shame had grown to a crushing weight, and I felt like I was dragging a giant U-Haul trailer full of stinky garbage everywhere I went.
Shame is a powerful emotion that can cause a lot of distress and discomfort. It’s the feeling of being exposed or vulnerable and judged negatively by others or ourselves. Various factors, such as past experiences, cultural or social norms, and religious or personal beliefs, can cause us to feel shame. Research shows that chronic shame is “highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, [and] eating disorders.”
In short, shame makes us sick.
There are two types of shame. One is meant to be temporary and has the potential to bring about growth and flourishing. The other is a trap we must avoid.
Dr. Lewis Smedes calls the first “healthy shame” because it helps us keep in mind that we are flawed people prone to doing things we know are wrong and harmful. Healthy shame becomes a reminder that can motivate us to make changes to our behavior and avoid making the same or a greater mistake in the future. Healthy shame is also referred to as guilt, regret, or conviction.
“Unhealthy shame,” on the other hand, makes permanent and negative claims about our identity. It’s rooted in contempt and makes us feel unlovable. It is a godless shame because it attacks who we are.
God created us in his image, in his likeness (Genesis 1:27). We were created to live in perfect relationship and unity with our Creator. However, humanity rebelled, and we continue to do so today. Although all have sinned, God never abandoned his people, and he never revoked our status as image bearers. Through Jesus, God set a plan in motion to restore humanity to right standing with himself. Once a person accepts the costly gift of grace through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, unhealthy shame has no right to live in our hearts. Unhealthy shame is not a permanent state, and there are ways to overcome it.
Here are the six steps I have discovered in my journey with God that have allowed me not only to move on from my shame but also to heal from it.
1. Identify the source of unhealthy shame.
The first step to overcoming unhealthy shame is to identify its source. It can be helpful to ask yourself what specific person(s), situation(s), or experience(s) triggered the feeling of shame. It’s important to be honest with yourself and reflect on what beliefs or behaviors may be contributing to your shame. Sometimes, the source of shame is another person’s words, actions, or inaction toward us. Also, Jesus, Paul, and Peter remind us that we are pursued by God’s enemy, Satan, and his demons. In Peter’s words, “Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Satan will often latch onto a particular wound and the misbeliefs and sins that fester because of it. If you have unresolved pain from your past, bring it to God and godly community to help with the healing process. If there is something you need to repent from and sincerely confess to Jesus, do so in prayer (1 John 1:9). Also in prayer, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and give you discernment and protection.
2. Challenge your beliefs.
Once you have identified the source of unhealthy shame, consider the beliefs behind it. Are they true? Asking yourself if those beliefs are accurate and if they serve you well is important since unhealthy shame can come from false beliefs or from people who mean to harm us. Often, we hold on to beliefs that are not helpful or true, and they can keep us stuck in godless shame. Read Scripture, such as Ephesians 1:1–14, to remind yourself of the truth of who you are in Christ. Also, consider inviting a trusted mentor, pastor, counselor, or therapist into this conversation and sharing these beliefs with them. The lies hiding in the depths of our minds struggle to survive in the light of those who tell us the truth about our value and worth.
3. Practice self-compassion.
Unhealthy shame can make us very self-critical, and it’s important to practice self-compassion to overcome it. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and mistakes do not have any true bearing on our identity as image-bearers. At times there will be consequences because of our actions—and those may be hard to live with—but sadness over consequences is not the same as shame. Be kind and gentle with yourself and treat yourself the way you would treat a friend who is going through a difficult time. Again, read Scripture, such as Romans 8:31–39 and 2 Corinthians 1:3–7, to remind yourself that God loves you unconditionally and to stay in godly relationship so you are continually reminded that you are worthy of compassion, empathy, and grace.
4. Seek support.
As I’ve already alluded to a few times, when you’re struggling with shame, seeking the help of someone you trust is vital, whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist. Sharing your experience with someone can help you feel less alone and provide you with a different perspective. Shame does not have the last word. No matter how loud the enemy’s accusations get in our minds, we can admit to God what we have done wrong and seek the support of others to help us remain free of unhealthy shame (see Ephesians 4:1–6).
5. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your victories!
Unhealthy shame can make us feel like we’re not good enough and that we can never fix our behavior or tendencies. We might feel as though we are stuck in a cycle we cannot escape. However, we can learn from every mistake we make. We can become aware of our needs, desires, tendencies, temptations, or patterns. What we learn can equip us to combat our tendency to repeat these behaviors and also help others avoid those mistakes (see Ephesians 4:17–32). Make a list of your positive qualities and achievements and celebrate them. Notice what you have learned from your past mistakes and affirm yourself for the progress you’ve made so far.
6. Take action and set achievable goals.
Identify what small step you can take toward overcoming unhealthy shame, and make a plan to achieve it. If the shame has its root in a wrong someone else inflicted, you can write a letter reminding yourself of who God says you are while working in community to fully forgive that person, even if from afar.
If the shame is rooted in something you have done, you can write yourself a letter admitting your sin, reminding yourself of the grace you have access to in Christ, and identifying what you have learned and will do differently. You can read Scripture, as I’ve mentioned above, particularly stories of people who chose sin and fear (such as David and Peter) and be encouraged by how God responded to their repentance. You can pray to God to help you embrace the grace of Jesus more deeply in your heart and help you separate the feelings of sadness for your behavior from the condemning shame emotions. Then, release your shame emotions to Jesus, asking him to comfort your heart.
When I went to Israel with our church, I metaphorically put my unhealthy shame on a rock and threw the rock out into the Sea of Galilee as a symbol of leaving shame behind. You can write your sin on a piece of paper and throw it away or burn it. Or you can pick a rock and throw it in the ocean or a lake, river, or ravine near you. These are ways to use your body to reflect the spiritual declaration that you’re leaving shame behind and following Jesus in freedom.
Overcoming unhealthy shame is possible, though it may take some time. It requires self-reflection, self-compassion, support, and action. It took me years, but now I realize it didn’t have to. The practices above helped me find the freedom I longed for. I am grateful to those who helped me learn how to do this, and I am happy to share these methods here with you.
My friend, remember Paul’s words in Romans 8:1: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” I pray that you will live in that freedom and overflow with gratitude for Jesus’ costly grace. I am convinced it will release you to serve the Lord and his purposes with ever-increasing joy and fruitfulness.
1.Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” video posted by TED2012, 20:22 (quotation begins 14:13), https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.
2. Lewis B. Smedes, Shame & Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 31.