What's Tony Thinking

On Shame


“Shame” is a frequent topic in the Bible’s psalms, which are really by and large, prayers.

For example, Psalm 31: 1,

“In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame.”

I suspect that most, if not all, of such references had in mind shame which originates in a source external to a person. Something like utter defeat at the hands of a bitter adversary. Or loss of standing in the community because of a reversal of circumstances like a loss of power, health or wealth. (Think Job on the ash heap).

But sometimes shame is not visited upon us externally. We do it to ourselves. We shame ourselves.

I don’t mean we do terrible things of which we ought to be ashamed.

I mean the ways and times when we tell ourselves that we aren’t of any value. Or listen to the voice that whispers, “worthless.” Or that if people really knew us, they couldn’t possibly value or respect us because they would discover just how truly awful we really are. Or we imagine that no one could really love us.

So something like that line in Psalm 30 might not mean only, don’t let me suffer an ignominious defeat at the hands of a creep. It might mean save me from beating myself up, keep me from drawing a shame-bath, lying down and wallowing in it.

“Do not let me ever be put to shame.”

Don’t let me hate myself.

Brene Brown has helpfully distinguished guilt and shame. Guilt, says Brown, is feeling bad because we have done something wrong. It happens. Guilt is a sign that we have something we need to attend to, to redress, to own up to or apologize for. I screwed up.

Shame is feeling bad about who we are. Not, “I screwed up,” but “I am a worthless screw-up.” Hear the difference?

The latter is a crippling blow, possibly a mortal one.

I am no an expert on all of this (to paraphrase the prophet Amos, “I am neither a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist”), but I do know something about the crippling power of shame, of the dangers of that internal voice that whispers to us that we are “worthless.”

And in that connection, I found something I read recently in a book titled, The Wild Edge of Sorrow to be so helpful that I want to share it with you.

The author, Francis Weller, writes,

“Shame closes the heart to self-compassion. We live with an internal state best characterized as self-hatred.”

Understood this way, the Psalmist’s plea to “not ever to be put to shame” may be a plea to be saved or delivered from beating up on ourselves, from hating on ourselves. “Keep me from shame, don’t let me go there, good Lord.”

Weller continues,

“In order to loosen shame’s grip on our lives, we need to make three moves.

“The first is from feeling worthless to seeing ourselves as wounded.”

A big difference there. “Worthless” is a pretty dead end. Wounded means we have been hurt and it still hurts. Maybe by others, by their choices, actions and inactions. Maybe by ourselves, our own choices or actions. We are, however, wounded — not worthless.

There is a difference between an apple with a nick or a bruise and an apple that’s completely rotten. Still plenty good apple that has a bruise. Some fine pies are made from apples with a bruise or two. (Well, probably that’s about as far as that metaphor should be taken!)


“The second [move] emerges from the first and is a shift from seeing ourselves through the lens of contempt to one of a budding compassion.”

A good friend, an older Episcopal priest, said to me once that he was so much better at extending compassion and grace to other people than he was at extending those qualities to himself. “Oh,” he sighed, “I used to beat myself up so badly.” I suspect that is true for many of us.

“Seeing ourselves through the lens of budding compassion,” can be quite a shift. One that requires a lot of patient, courageous re-programming.

“And the third,” writes Weller is moving from silence to sharing. As long as we see suffering as evidence of worthlessness, we will not move toward our wounds with anything but judgment.”

There’s a time for the call to compassion toward others.

There’s also a time for a call to what for some of us may be a harder task, compassion toward ourselves.

But my hunch is that true compassion for others, is rooted in and funded by compassion toward ourselves.




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