Shame On You

It was wonderful to have several of my adult children join us for church on Easter. Our Pastor said something that caught my attention, though it was far from his main point. He was reading from Romans 10 where it says if we believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths, we will be saved. Then, it says anyone who believes in Him will never be put to shame.

Shame. I know that word well. Maybe not the word per se, but the reality of carrying shame around with me and the resulting destruction it caused in my life. I had all the ingredients necessary for shame to grow in my life—judgment, silence, and secrecy. I did not know it until recovery, but there is a simple antidote. First, let’s examine shame.

Shame is not feeling bad because you have done something wrong. That’s guilt. I should feel guilty when I harm another person, don’t do my part, let someone down, or any other behavior (or lack of) that damages another person or the team. Most importantly, guilt directs my focus outward toward the feelings of others. Guilt is simple to deal with, hard, but not complicated. Guilt is resolved by confession and amends.

Acknowledging what we have done (or failed to do) to the person or people impacted begins the process of clearing our guilt. Verbal admission requires humility and confirms that we know what we did was wrong. This is impactful not only for the person or persons harmed, but also for us. This is why when you plead guilty in a court of law, you have to say what you did. Confession is the beginning, but then we must make restitution.

Amends is our best effort to repair the damage caused by our failure. If you take something, give it back and give back any lost opportunity too. If you said something hurtful about someone to other people, you should acknowledge you were wrong in front of those people. Sometimes we cannot actually repair what we have damaged. Then we practice “living amends” where our future behavior (hopefully better obviously) is a living testimony to our changed heart.

Guilt is a cousin to shame, but where guilt promotes socially adaptive behavior, shame actually reduces one’s tendency to behave in socially constructive ways. Shame is being made to feel small, insignificant, worthless, or damaged by the judgement of others (or ourselves). Shame directs our focus inward and causes us to view our entire self in a negative light.

Guilt says, “I did something wrong. I feel bad that I harmed someone else.” Shame says, “I’m a loser. I just can’t do anything right.” Shame can be painful and debilitating, affect one’s core sense of self, and lead to a self-defeating cycle. Shame increases one’s risk for other psychological problems. The link to depression is one of the best documented and strongest.

As a leader in recovery, I want our culture to provide the antidote to shame, namely empathy. Empathy is one of the byproducts of properly handling guilt. Empathy is learned when someone helps us to recognize and examine how our behavior impacts others. Leaders have a unique opportunity to promote empathy and remove shame. It begins with our choice of words. When someone does something that is wrong or doesn’t meet our expectations, we can clearly communicate that their behavior or performance needs to improve or change. At the same time, we can confirm that we value them and believe in them.  

For example, when someone comes to work late, instead of saying, “I’m so disappointed in you. You let me and the team down.” –which would be shaming—you can say, “When you come to work late it inconveniences the rest of the team. I know you value the team, and they value you, so please try to be punctual.” This correctly identifies the harm and the feelings of others and the way the guilt can be dealt with. 

Further, our actions and attitudes communicate more than even our words can. When someone is shamed, there is no real solution for them to enact. Failing to tell someone how they can correct their mistakes is a subtle way of shaming them. Giving people clear and concise steps to correct the error and then letting go of it when they do, communicates that we value them and see them as a good person who made a mistake, instead of a bad person we expect to do bad things.

There is no shame on you unless you take it on yourself. What caught my attention in church was the statement that anyone who believes in Christ will never be put to shame. I’m sure that doesn’t mean “will never do something wrong.” It does mean that because of what Christ did on the cross, I can actually be a good person who occasionally does bad things. If we value the people we do life with, that is the best news we could possibly share, and it is also The Bison Way.