Shame, along with sad, anger, fear, disgust and hoplessness, is one of the six negative emotions common to all people, joy being the positive one. But this shame is not destructive nor is it what we usually think of as shame. This shame means “Someone is not glad to be with me right now,”
and babies are to learn how to return to joy from this kind of shame around 12-18 months.When mother repeatedly leads the baby back to joy (being glad to be together) after being upset with the baby, shame is less difficult to deal with. But because it can be a difficult emotion, most of us grow up without knowing how to return to joy from it. This lack of a path back to joy causes another kind of shame to grow inside our belief system as we get older. It is what most people think of when they hear the word shame. I call it toxic shame. Toxic shame hits us when we are told–or believe—that we are bad. These messages can come in various forms, and most of the time are aimed at our personhood. Who we are as a person is different from our behavior, but most people mix the two. When the message says someone’s personhood is bad, we are giving (or hearing) toxic shame messages that destroy whomever they touch.
Since most people only think of shame as being the toxic kind that says something is wrong with them, it is very easy for any kind of correction or disagreement to trigger toxic shame. The correction might not be remotely intended as a put down. The disagreement might not be saying anything about the other person. But with little capacity for returning to joy from shame, fights break out, defense mechanisms take over, or withdrawal that punishes abounds. This greatly impacts relationships because we cannot relate to defense mechanisms (anger, blame, threats, control, accusations, toxic shame). We can only relate to other people. If we can get healing from the baggage of toxic shame, then “good shame messages” will be less likely to set off disagreements.
A good shame message says something like this, “What you are doing is keeping me from wanting to be close to you and I would like to be close, so can we work this out?” It takes maturity to operate this way, both from the giver of the message and the receiver, but I am seeing its importance. I want to have the courage to speak up when a good shame message is needed so that I can be glad to be with those I want to be close to.
I grew up with lots of toxic shame messages that came from church, family, friends and traumas. The whole world’s foundation, including most of Christianity, was/is performance based acceptance. PBA colors the way we look at ourselves, each other and God. PBA communicates toxic shame messages. Living under PBA gives us little hope of feeling truly loved, truly accepted, and truly okay, even if a Christian.
After living in such an environment for most of my life, I discovered two basic things that have helped me get free from shame. The first was in the 1980’s when I heard teaching that said PBA was not God’s way at all. God’s all encompassing love is filled with grace that separates who we are from what we do. Through studying Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians, I began to see that behavior and personhood are not the same thing; what I do and who I am are completely different. Great relief and freedom filled my soul, and I’ve walked in that ever since. As I walked with God, myself, and others, trying to practice separating behavior and personhood, slowly but surely it became part of my life, reshaping my beliefs.
The other way I got free from toxic shame was by receiving healing from Jesus for my past traumas, melting the shame messages I internalized from them and replacing the shame with His love, His presence and His perspective. In the years before it was acceptable to speak of sexual abuse, there was nowhere to turn for help, so we victims took the shame deep inside. As I learned to go to Jesus with all facets of my old memories, I found deeper healing than just knowing that who I am in Christ makes me okay. That is a wonderful truth that all of us should base our lives on, but actually sensing Jesus’ presence in the memory and hearing the truth from Him was even more wonderful and freeing. He always makes the theological truth practically real because we were never alone when the trauma happened—He was there.
As I went to Jesus one day about one of my past traumas, I saw myself there in that memory where someone I loved very much would not listen to my side of what happened. It seemed to me that the event was not my fault, but when the other person would not listen or try to understand, it went deep into my heart that I was bad because it had happened. While back in the memory with Jesus, I asked Him, “Where were you when _____________?” Immediately I saw Him standing there beside me. His face was sad. His arm was around my shoulder. I then asked Him, “What do you want me to know about this event?” I heard Him say in my heart, “You believed you are bad. You believed there is no use to explain yourself. I say that you are not bad. I say, ‘Explain yourself when possible, and don’t when it is unwise.’ I love you.”
The shame connected to believing I was bad was gone and I felt clean and free. Realizing internally that Jesus was there with me and hearing His words of love and truth changed the scene.
Jesus came and died to forgive and heal and redeem from toxic shame. I believe that we are born separated from God because of “who we are in Adam.” We are sinners. But I believe that after we are born again, when we receive Christ, now we are no longer sinners but saints; we no longer have a sinful nature. We are now “in Christ.” We can still do sinful things, but they are not who we are. I can bark, but that does not make me a dog. Understanding and believing who God says we are now in Christ and separating behavior and personhood, along with deep healings in the presence of Jesus can melt away the shame that haunts most of us, replacing it with His grace that is not based on performance (behavior). We do not have to carry the shame or guilt; He has taken care of it.
For more information on the Immanuel Process see www.kclehman.com
For more information on the Immanuel Process, the six emotions and returning to joy, see www.lifemodel.org and my books, Handbook to Joy-Filled Parenting or Joy-Filled Relationships at amazon.com or www.lulu.com/barbaramoon