For victims (and purveyors) of shame, there is hope

It came to me on the heels of a big mistake. For months, I’d suffered from brain fog, my short-term memory just shot to the hot place, thanks to long covid. “But I told you and told you,” my longsuffering husband said when he heard what had happened.

“I know you probably did, but I just didn’t remember.” Being who he is, he simply got on the phone, called people, and set about fixing my mess. Then, while I cried my eyes out, he told me it would all be okay. “Things can be fixed. People can’t. The ‘thing’ will be okay, too.”

For most of that day, I writhed. I felt over and over the lash of shame, heard the “what will they think of you” hiss in my ears, and I could not regain my steady legs. A mostly sleepless night finally passed, and in the early-morning hour when I awoke, clarity returned.

I realized that the tumultuous flow of my thoughts was like the rush and tumble of a river. In that roiling stream, silvered fish were leaping and arcing. Those poisonous ‘fish?’ Their names were shame and fear.

“You don’t have to go fishing.” That’s what dawned on me as I pondered that scene in the early-morning dark. “You don’t have to hold them in your hands and draw them close. It’s okay to let them rush on by.” To rush on by, disappearing somewhere down-the-stream.

There are, I believe, two kinds of shame. One is a rightful response to a wrongful deed or thought. When we sin against another or against God, this kind of shame will take us by the hand and lead us to repentance, confession, and making amends. It is meant to guide us back into a right standing with our fellowman and with the Almighty. It invites us to the change that restores what we have broken. And once we have done that, it resolves, for it has done its job, and we no longer need to carry it.

The other kind of shame is the kind I experienced when I made that big mistake unwittingly. Some years ago, a friend explained the effects of such shame. Shame, he said, carried two messages. First, that we are unloved and unlovable. Second, that we are unaccepted and unacceptable.

This kind of shame turns a failing into a verdict, or a new and awful name. That name is Failure. It whispers other names as well, names like Disappointment, Inadequate, Loser, and Mistake. When we move from “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake,” then we know which voice is speaking, and we can choose to reject the lie.

As our friend pointed out, shame is a powerful motivator. It’s more powerful than fear, for shame can make us do what we are afraid to do. For instance, if a group of boys dares one of them to jump from a high cliff into the water below, he will do it in spite of his terror. The thought of being shamed before his peers is greater than his fear and so, fear notwithstanding, he will leap.

The fact that shame is effective does not justify its use. In my experience, the use of shame to control another is manipulative and coercive. It has two roots, fear and pride, and these deadly twins wreak havoc in our relationships. It’s nearly impossible to establish a safe, warm, human connection with someone who controls using the tool of shame. It’s a divider, driving people apart.

When my husband and I realized that we’d been using shame in our parenting, we went to our sons and simply admitted it. We asked for their forgiveness, and we told them what we had learned. As always, they forgave us immediately. Then we set out to do it a different way.

I knew it had worked when one of them called me one day. In a gush of honesty, he confessed a recent relapse. I held my tongue and simply listened to the hard, raw truth of his confession. Three times during that conversation, he said these words to me, “Mom, thank you for not freaking out or judging me.”

In my quiet acceptance of him and where he was, he felt safe to confide in me. He knew full well what I thought of his choices, and yet he knew that my love was there, a solid rock beneath his stumbling feet. That love was our connector, a bridge left standing after some very long and painful years. Where shame had blown bridges, love restored them.

Now, you. In your own life and journey, there is hope for you as well. Where shame has blown bridges, love can rebuild them. If you have been the wielder of shame, you can do what my husband and I did—just admit it. Ask forgiveness from those you have wronged, then practice a better way. As we learned it, we turned around and taught it. What a legacy we leave for future generations when we live our lives this way.

If you have been shamed by others, you can choose to stop fishing. Quit catching and holding that poisonous, lying fish. I want to tell you what I would tell my own four sons. “You are not unloved. You’re fully loved. You are not unacceptable. You’re fully accepted.”

Catch and hold these powerful truths. Catch them, and don’t let them go.

Tune into 77 WABC for the Saturday Morning Radio Extravaganza to hear America’s small, caffeinated mom. During the 9:30 hour, she and Bo Snerdley discuss the week’s essay and other events as they occur. Top off your mug and listen in.

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