Understanding and Overcoming Shame

There are several attitudes of the mind that keep us from letting go of shame.

Excerpted From
Shame Off You
By Denise Pass

The mind is where the battles of this life all first take place. One would think that we could have better control of our mind—it’s ours after all. But sometimes we grow weary and would rather give in. Discouraged from the warfare we encounter within our own selves, we face many invisible foes in pride, insecurities, fear, pressure and temptation, to name a few. But those who want to have shame removed from their lives have got to stay in the fight to be able to experience the freedom of the Shame-Off-You life. Ready? Let’s face these foes together.

Pride

Sometimes we waste so much time worrying about people seeing us in our less than glorifying moments. We have an image to uphold. We have to avoid shame at all costs to maintain that image. This is all vanity and pride. We waste so much mental energy trying to measure up to some invisible standard because we want to make a good impression—or we get caught up in that whole acceptance trap. In humility, we recognize that we were all a complete mess before Christ redeemed our souls. Christ covered our sins and shame, but still we feel a need to “dress up” who we are. What if we were to freely admit our weaknesses and boast in them, like Paul said. With no more need to try to measure up because we realize we never could on our own, we would seek to glorify God by boasting in our weaknesses, so people might see Christ’s strength in us, instead:

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” —2 Corinthians 12:8–10

This humility did not just happen. Paul was suffering from some sort of affliction, described as a thorn in his flesh. God uses suffering in profound ways in our lives if we let him. We don’t know if Paul felt shame from the thorn in his flesh, but it was apparent he felt pain from it. Paul, used by God to heal many, could not heal himself? Or God was not going to heal him?

Sometimes we can feel shame when hard or painful things are allowed into our lives, as if we were better than that. The rain falls on the good and the bad and in God’s perfect sovereignty, sometimes the rain hurts, but he is there with us in that affliction. Paul turned a moment when he realized God was going to allow the momentary suffering to stay into a place of worship. More than that, he turned that weakness into a strength. Christ’s power rested on Paul as he let go of pride and shame and took hold of God’s promises. Sometimes in the midst of a shameful place, we are on the cusp of something great if we surrender to God’s purposes and let him work in our lives, rather than trying to “save face” or trying to figure it out. Rather than allowing his thoughts to obsess over his suffering or anyone’s perspectives on it, Paul took those thoughts captive. What an example of choosing to override the pride that shame emanates from and putting on the humility that sets us free! When we are free to admit we have nothing good in us and are a mess, God can turn a place of shame into a blessing. Knowing the typical warfare that goes on in our minds, we can prohibit shame from infiltrating our thought life and instead choose to think on redemptive thoughts by the grace of God.

Desperation

Being in a place of need hurts; not just because it is shameful to be the object of pity (due to pride), but also because deep inside we accept a lie that we are forgotten. We begin to think our needs are not seen by our God who loves us. We might even begin to feel shame that as representatives of Christ, God would allow us to walk through such shameful experiences. But it is what we do in our moments of desperation that defines us. The story of the Shunammite woman whose young son died shows her choice to have faith. But she didn’t just believe her son would be healed by Elisha; she put feet to her faith and went to find the prophet. Her desperation became fuel for healing, not defeat.

“And he said, ‘Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.’ She said, ‘All is well.’ Then she saddled the donkey, and she said to her servant, ‘Urge the animal on; do not slacken the pace for me unless I tell you.’ So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel. When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, ‘Look, there is the Shunammite. Run at once to meet her and say to her, Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?’ And she answered, ‘All is well.’ And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, ‘Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.’” —2 Kings 4:23–27

The Shunammite woman demonstrated tremendous perseverance in the face of a desperate situation. What faith she had to not accept death’s answer as final! She knew where to run in her desperation. We can do the same.

Presumptions

The battle in the mind is not always provoked by external circumstances. Sometimes we can concoct our own burdens. Trying to read the expressions on the faces around us can send us on a trail of vain imaginations that might have no foundation in reality whatsoever. And if they do, we can internalize that reality to our own detriment. What is it about the judgments of those around us that can affect us so? You guessed it: shame, once again. At the heart of our relationships is this craving for acceptance, but our mind is where the battle takes place, whether or not we will silence shame or listen to it. Presuming what others think about us is rooted in pride. How could we know another person’s heart? This is different from someone actively demonstrating displeasure with us. A straightforward confrontation isn’t hard to understand. It’s when we imagine or assume conflict or condemnation where none exists that we come face-to-face with shame.

Insecurity

There is something about feeling inferior to others around us that shakes our confidence, as if we were in a competition and had to prove our value by being better than everyone else in the room. When we feel we don’t measure up to others, insecurity rears its ugly head (a form of shame) and cripples our ability to cope in an environment where it seems like we are on the bottom of a totem pole. But who said anyone else was the standard, anyway?

We are in a losing battle if we become enslaved to the opinion and acceptance of man. The pursuit of acceptance can become idolatry as we hunt for confidence outside ourselves. The irony is that it is likely our own minds tearing ourselves down more than others. Maybe we can convince the people around us to look at us differently. Maybe not. Maybe they are not even thinking of us at all. Even if we were to achieve the acceptance we desired, the very people who had withheld acceptance before could do so again. And then again, it might have been made up in our mind to begin with.

Influence

One of the stumbling blocks that lets shame reach us is also a key factor in the battle of the mind: influence. Ever sat in a group of people and one or two people are just plain ol’ grumpy and impacting the tone of the whole room? They are negative and dream killers. Maybe even bashing other people. They spread shame by trashing people. We can feel shame when we are the recipient of their poison. If they are not stopped, their negativity could spread. And if it is not negativity they spread, it could be that they try to manipulate or control others, pitting them against one another.

Simply put, we are talking about toxic people. Their tool of choice? Influencing others through shame. We can get sucked into their drama if we are not careful. We can even initiate it if we are not guarding our hearts, minds and tongues. How do we stay away from such negativism? We recognize it as a battle of the mind and choose not to “drink the Kool-Aid” by participating in that behavior or endorsing it. If we put on our spiritual spectacles, we can see the real matter at hand is spiritual. Responding in the Spirit rather than in the flesh helps reverse the curse of a negative attitude and a negative influence. Head games are at the root of a lot of giving and accepting of shame. People think they have dominance over others with power plays. How silly. Planting thoughts in the minds of people to influence their acceptance or rejection of others ultimately can hurt the people indulging in such behavior. Gossips and slanderers can be found out, and people awaken from the stupor they were in when they were “under the influence.” We do not readily detect the infiltration in our minds caused by influences all around us. Negativity or shaming is interwoven within the subcultures we live and operate in, but we can begin to detect it if we know what to look for. Like Paul, we need to take captive our thoughts, but sometimes we need help recognizing those thoughts, too.

Anxiety

Another common battle we face is anxiety. Rather than feeling shame for being anxious, we can identify with our Savior, who also experienced anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane to the point of sweating blood. Christ suffered in the flesh just as we do, yet he overcame all of the stumbling blocks we trip over through the word of God. With every temptation that affected him, he countered with the Word of God. We can, too.

During one of the many legal battles I experienced, I found myself waiting anxiously for my children to enter the courtroom. I could hardly breathe. I never wanted them to have to testify. Once again, I felt unable to protect them. I had to learn to trust that God would protect them. But God. Those two words have become like an anchor to me when I was tempted to look at the waves around me. I clung to his promises and believed my God had a bigger plan. Shame is what gives peer pressure its power. No one wants to be shamed. Earlier that year my former husband had won visitation rights if our children said they wanted to have visitation with him. They didn’t. So we went onto the treadmill of counseling until either the children changed their mind or their father and his family relented and stopped suing. Our lives were miserable.

The anxiety that victims feel over being forced to do something they don’t want to do is doubly shaming. But in that moment when it seemed like we had lost, when my children had to testify, God defended us. He empowered them mightily on the witness stand. The truth became evident in that courtroom and we were finally set free after a five-year-long court battle. Like the anxiety Christ must have felt as his accusers pressed in and he knew they were coming to attack him, I felt extreme anxiety that affected me physically, as well. Anxiety is not a lack of faith. But staying in anxiety allows it to rule our emotions and heart and shame us from being who God created us to be. When life causes us to feel anxious, we can examine the root of that anxiety and find that shame was lingering there, too. Concern over life’s problems and people’s perspectives creates anxiety, but God’s Word can quell it.

Mindset Is Everything

Our mindset can be our ruin, especially when our minds are set in shame or negativity. It has been said that what we think on, we are. Scary thought. Until Christ. We can take our thoughts captive and redeem them by choosing to embrace God’s grace rather than the harsh realities of shame in our lives.

This world is tough. We learn to develop thick skin and possibly a hardened, pessimistic, jaded heart to cope with all the struggles around us. But thick skin does not prevent shame from reaching our hearts and minds. We have to form disciplines with how we process thoughts and be aware of the thoughts that come through the gate of our mind.

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Excerpted from Shame Off You: From Hiding to Healing. Copyright © 2018 by Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. Do not reprint without permission from the publisher.