More Thoughts on Shame — From “Mending the Soul” by Steven Tracy
By now you will no doubt realize that we highly recommend Steven Tracy’s book, Mending the Soul. It contains a chapter devoted to the effects of abuse on the victim, and the very first effect discussed is shame. Let me emphasize to all of us once again that shame must be confronted, or it will continue to work (largely hidden) to enslave us and hinder recovery from abuse. Shame-based people can be unapproachable because shame isolates. It sabotages our relationships and even gets in the way of our relationship with ourselves and with the Lord. Have you ever looked at a picture of yourself and turned it over, even though it really wasn’t such a bad photograph as far as quality and pose and so on? Why did you turn it over, or turn away? Similarly, there may well be readers of this very article who turn away from it because they are even ashamed of their shame. But toxic shame is nothing to be ashamed of. As Morven Baker explained recently in one of her comments, shame needs to be put back onto the abuser, because he is the one who needs to be ashamed, not the victim.
Here are Tracy’s thoughts, in part. The Mary Beth he mentions is a young woman who had been abused and was bound in shame:
“I’m convinced that shame is the most powerful human emotion. It often overwhelms, directs, and transforms all other emotions, thoughts, and experiences. For instance, no matter what Mary Beth was told by friends, pastors, or her doctor, and no matter what she felt or experienced, the conclusion would always be the same: she was a dirty, wicked, fat girl who deserved to suffer. Her shame hijacked all other internal and external voices. Once a destructive shame virus has infected our mental hard drive, it’s extremely difficult to remove because it filters all thoughts and feelings that could be used to remove it. For example, when abuse victims like Mary Beth experience sensory pleasure (touch, pleasant music, and the like), they often instinctively feel guilty. These guilt feelings then reinforce the internal shame grid and strengthen the core belief that they are disgusting and dirty. This is true for positive accomplishments as well. For example, when Mary Beth received an A in one of her courses, instead of accepting that the good grade gave evidence of her academic skills and hard work, her shame acted as an emotional parasite. It sucked all the healthy nutrients out of the experience by letting the A in this course make her feel bad for all the times in her life she didn’t get an A. It might also have convinced her that she didn’t really deserve the A; maybe the teacher just felt sorry for her. Thus, all experiences, including very positive accomplishments, indict and assault the self. While shame is universally and profoundly experienced, it is seldom understood. For instance, there’s no scholarly consensus on what constitutes shame. But I’ll risk giving my own definition: Shame is a deep, painful sense of inadequacy and personal failure based on the inability to live up to a standard of conduct—one’s own or one imposed by others. Regardless of the subjectivity, fickleness, or rationality of the standard that was violated, if it’s a standard that we or others who are important to us value, it will produce shame. Because shame is connected with one’s failure to live up to an important standard of conduct, shame creates a sense of disgust toward self. Thus, shame makes us want to hide from others and even from ourselves. Longtime Fuller Theological Seminary professor Lewis Smedes paints a clear picture of the feeling of shame: Shame is a very heavy feeling. It is a feeling that we do not measure up and maybe never will measure up to the sorts of persons we are meant to be. The feeling, when we are conscious of it, gives us a vague disgust with ourselves, which in turn feels like a hunk of lead on our hearts. . . . [Shame is] like an invisible load that weighs our spirits down and crushes out our joy. It is a lingering sorrow.”
Tracy, Steven R. (2009-05-19). Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Kindle Locations 1423-1446). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.