Shame is a demoralizing emotion. It’s an indiscriminate sort of internal bully. No person, regardless of their relative confidence or station in life, is exempted from its ridicule. There is no route home where shame is not waiting for you. It can dispirit the strongest of souls. Bring the noblest to their knees. For some it appears out of nowhere. A mistake. An unintended disclosure. For others shame is rooted in their very existence. Always present and standing in the center of their history. Sexual abuse as a child. Sexual indiscretion as an adult. The emotions of shame are hard to describe, but universally understood. Everyone has been cornered by it. I’ve felt it. I know shame’s scorn. Like most people, I never imagined it would find me. Like most people, I assumed I was out of its reach. But then, like most people, I found myself in a situation I never assumed I’d find myself in. And then I realized, “I am most people.” There is only one version of all of us – imperfect. There is this one person in my life with whom, at times, I wished I had no association. This one person I wished I could forget. It is always me at my worst. For all of us, there is that moment we wished we could go back and change what happened. A decision. A word. An event. An outcome. But, there is no going back and shame is ageless. Like a brand burned into a soul, shame is worn as an emblem of identity.
As a self-conscious emotion, shame is always informing us of our internal state of inadequacy. A person, circumstance, or situation can trigger shame’s sensation. But more often, it’s a self-inflicted pain. The hall monitor of our souls is always rising up and pointing to the distance between what we claim and who we actually are. We fail to be who we should be, or do what we should do. Shame is an emotion based on assumptions. We assume how life should be, who we should be, and we fail to measure up. We go round and round trying to justify what we did, or who we’ve turned out to be. In the end it’s simple math. A wrong has occurred; the wrong is me. Compare shame to guilt for a moment and you’ll understand its power over personhood. Those found “guilty” have done something wrong. Guilt is concrete. “You are guilty of theft.” Because a penalty may be paid, or a sentence served, guilt brings with it an opportunity for closure. Something may be done about it. Shame, on the other hand, is openended. This is because it’s tied to personal value. Shame is about acceptance . . . not reciprocity. The reason you are not accepted is because you are unacceptable. Guilt is about correcting something. Shame is about being something. As one author points out, “Guilt is about behavior: ‘I made a mistake.’ Shame is about self: ‘I am a mistake.’”
If you were given a “re-do” for one day of your life, if you could actually go back and change something, you would not go back to the moments of joy. Joy does not need to be corrected. Nor does joy usually alter a life. It would come down to two destinations: suffering or shame. It’s quite likely you’d make a beeline for shame. Changing one decision. Reversing one impulsive action. Stopping an offense. Keeping your mouth shut in a moment. Speaking up in another. Shame originates from all kinds of circumstances. You can’t predict (or avoid) what causes shame: the loss of a job, physical appearance, the absence of an intended career, relationship status, family context, financial hardship. We’ve all heard of “weight shaming” and “body shaming.” Because shame is so malleable, the list is endless. Shame can also be initiated by another person, or group of people. Parents shamed over how their “child turned out.” Children shamed over how parents “turned out.” A leader shamed because of how he “did not turn out.” Some of us run from the mistakes. We’re trying to put some space between who we are and what’s been done. Others are simply stuck in shame’s despair. It is too much to handle. The nagging thoughts and feeling of inadequacy are hard to quiet.
As hard as we are on ourselves, society seems to pile on even more weight. Shame is a cruel weapon in the hands of our culture. As the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, shame them.” Don’t only go after what they did. Go after who they are. Shame fits like a glove in social media, news outlets, disciplinary methods, marriages and parenting strategies. All of these can be breeding grounds for shame. When we have nowhere else to attack, we attack the very soul of the person. Consider for a moment the family. Even in our most intimate relationships shame is present. We all know the edict, “Don’t bring shame to the family name.” For fear of shame, husbands are forced to hide their anxieties, doubts, and failures. As one husband said, “My family would rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off.” Wives are forced to pull off a flawless impersonation of a perfect wife and mother. Kids, activities, homes and careers must all be spotless. And it must all look effortless. Kids are not exempt. We expect them to mature without a hint of failure or flaw. Life is lived, quite literally, trying not to be an embarrassment to mom and dad. They carry the burden of their family’s reputation on their shoulders. Consider the number of times parents shame their children into change. Shame has no bounds.
Empathy is the greatest threat to shame. In our moments of shame, we tell ourselves “No one will understand.” What we mean is, no one will want to be associated with us “if they knew.” So we hide. We assume we’re alone in our burdens and that any attempt at exposure will end in rejection. Isolation is where shame finds its power. “No one loves you.” Empathy breaks in on shame’s bondage and declares, “I love you.” Empathy throws open windows of understanding on the isolated soul. On one level empathy is as simple as listening. Not merely hearing, but taking in, understanding and acknowledging the story behind the scars of a person. On another level it is deeper. It is accepting the person for who they truly are even after you come to understand them. Empathy doesn’t dismiss what someone has done, or what’s been done to them, it embraces it. Empathy is a stepping towards the ugly, not away from it. Shame is a leprosy of the soul. Therefore, the touch of empathy is to shame what Jesus’ touch was to the leper. It stops the shamed in their tracks. It cleanses them. Raises them up. Sets them free. And presents them as acceptable.
Fear is at the root of shame. Empathy is at the root of love. Since the resident fear in shame is rejection, empathy is a perfect antidote. The shamed are convinced of one simple reality: “If people knew who I truly am, what I’ve truly done, they would reject me.” They’re caught in the bondage of keeping up a façade and desiring to truly be known. Empathy steps in and declares, “I see you. And I love you anyway!”