By Marie C. Celano, LCPC, Director of Grace Counseling
“I didn’t get into that college.” “I didn’t get that job.” “I got a divorce.” “I made a bad financial decision.” All of these statements have these things in common: regret and shame. When shame is present, contempt is not far away either.
Contempt doesn’t see our missteps as mistakes. Contempt tells us there is something flawed about us. Contempt can lead to self-loathing statements that are then repeated again and again in our minds. “Of course you didn’t get into that college, you’re not smart enough”, “you aren’t good enough for that job” or “you’re not love-able” among other brutal accusations.
At times, our contempt is turned towards others. “If my parents had sent me to another school”, “that employer was a loser” or “if my spouse had been better, I wouldn’t have cheated” all deflect responsibility, so we don’t take ownership. We either hate ourselves or hate someone else for our failures. We are left driving in the cul-de-sac of shame and contempt.
This weekend Mitchel talked about guilt and how it can be a good thing at times. If my granddaughter hurts her sister, I want her to feel guilty for it and make amends. If I drive angrily on the highway and flip someone off, I hope I feel guilty for it and think twice about doing it again!
So what is the difference between guilt and shame?
Guilt is when you feel bad for a mistake you made. Shame is when you believe you are bad because of the mistakes you made. Shame can be debilitating and keep you stuck. Guilt, if genuine, can motivate you to make changes, apologize, and seek reconciliation.
So, what can we do with our shame? First, I think we need to notice when we are berating ourselves or hating others. Next, invite God to help you see, and understand when you feel shame. Be curious about what you are feeling and what you are doing when those feelings arise.
My former teacher, Dr. Dan Allender, suggests that the cure to shame is to see it as an entry way to our grief.
How have you internalized the messages: “I’m not love-able,” “I’m not good enough”, “I’m a failure”? If you look at your shame this way, you might see something more beneath it. “I’m sad I didn’t get into that college, I wish I had studied more” (guilt message). “I regret what I did that led us to divorce” (guilt message). “I really wanted to work for that company” (sad message).
When we start to look at the sorrow underneath our shame and contempt, we can cry healing tears. Taking those first steps of looking at our shame can be scary, but a big part of our spiritual journey is getting to the truth about ourselves.
Many of the messages we tell ourselves, or the way we judge others, come from our stories of harm and loss. Most of those messages are lies. One thing I have learned from working with people is that everybody has a story and how they are behaving now makes so much sense in light of their story.
Jesus said the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Tell the truth about yourself, but also remember that the truth of scripture says you are a child of God, a friend of Jesus, redeemed and forgiven.