Now that we’ve drawn a distinction between guilt and shame, let’s spend some time focusing on the latter—and more dangerous—of the two.
Even though it can be unhealthy, shame is an emotion we will all feel now and then. After all, everyone has done selfish or unkind things they later regretted. (As the 130th Psalm says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?”) And once we recognize the cruel or sinful nature of something we’ve done, then, with our emotions inflamed, it’s easy to think we are bad people for having done it.
Ideally, that feeling of shame dissipates after a relatively short period of time. Maybe we ask forgiveness from the person we’ve wronged; maybe we seek the counsel of a pastor, therapist, or mentor who reminds us that one sinful act doesn’t make us a terrible person. Maybe, with the benefit of time and a clearer head, we realize that what we did wasn’t as unforgivable as we initially thought.
What Makes Shame Toxic?
But when shame lingers and intensifies, we’re veering into the territory of toxic shame. We become our own worst critic, and that persistent drumbeat of “You’re a bad person,” “You’re unworthy,” or “You have nothing to offer the world” sends us into a deep spiral.
Why are some people particularly vulnerable to toxic shame? Often the seeds are planted early in life, by parents, teachers, or authority figures who reacted harshly even to our most innocent mistakes. As we grow older, a string of career or relationship failures can condition us to shameful feelings as well.
But whatever the root causes, toxic shame can snowball and stand in the way of healthy relationships, life goals, and more. When that shaming inner voice repeatedly tells you, “You didn’t just do a bad thing, you’re a bad person,” it magnifies every mistake or transgression, no matter how minor, into more proof that we’re worthless.
The Consequences Are Hard to Contain
In weak moments such as these, when we feel we don’t deserve the help or sympathy of others, it becomes easy to think, “I’m just going to have to suffer with this on my own.” But the consequences of toxic shame rarely stay contained for very long. Our coping mechanisms, no matter how well-intentioned, have a way of creating collateral damage.
- We self-medicate our pain through addiction. Whether it’s addiction to drugs, to alcohol, to pornography, or even to self-harm, they all have the potential to negatively affect our loved ones.
- We turn the pain outward, lashing out in anger at others—even those we love.
- We turn the pain inward, withdrawing from family and friends. We think that they won’t notice, or if they do, that they’ll be glad to be rid of us. But take it from someone who’s been there: They always notice, and our absence is rarely the comfort to other people that we might hope.
The Consequences Are Hard to Contain
So how do we tune out or silence these voices? One important key is recognizing them in the moment. If 99 people tell you you’re great and one person tells you you’re terrible, that hundredth person stands out. We can confront that person and ask them why they feel that way, or even discredit them entirely. But if voices of shame and self-loathing are all we hear, we start to accept them unquestioningly.
So be aware and cognizant when a toxic thought sets in—and don’t just accept it out of hand.
Yes, it sounds strange to encourage someone to doubt their own thoughts, but at least treat the shameful, self-loathing ones with a critical eye. Ask yourself, Why do I feel that way? Dig back to the root of your shame, face it honestly, and ask yourself why that would render you unworthy of love. Reframe toxic thoughts like “I’m a bad husband and unworthy of love” into more constructive thoughts such as “I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m going to learn and grow from them.”
Above all, show yourself compassion. If God has recognized our fallible humanity and shown us forgiveness, how can we not forgive ourselves?
Think of the story from the Gospel of John about the woman who was to be executed for adultery. Not only did Jesus refuse to condemn her, He reserved his harshest words for the men who were about to stone her, rebuking them for being judgmental and lacking in mercy. Let us likewise be merciful, rebuking the inner voices that drive us to condemn ourselves, and treating ourselves with the same Christlike compassion that God has called us to show others.
The goal of The Redeemed is to provide men a supportive, communal environment where they can discuss their problems, worries, and feelings of “brokenness” without fear of being judged or censored. Please consider joining us for one of our online small groups.
In these challenging, uncertain times, many men feel broken and alone. The Redeemed aims to show them they’re not alone in their brokenness, and that God’s love and strength are available to them too—not in spite of their human failings, but because.
If you would like to tell your story, talk, have someone listen, or surround yourself with those who have experienced brokenness and restoration, please contact The Redeemed.