I had a dream about shame a few weeks ago. In this dream I was desperately looking for a place to take a shower. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find anything suitable. Finally, I woke up disappointed and feeling a little dirty, so I took a nice warm bath.
That same day, at church, the minister stood up in front of the congregation and practically bellowed, "Have you ever been really dirty and desperate for a shower? . . . And when you find one, doesn’t it feel great to be clean again after being so dirty." "Well, yes," I said to myself, "as a matter of fact, just last night."
The minister went on to talk about the experience of Christ washing away our sins—one of the basic tenets of Christianity. I, of course, had heard this before and began ruminating on the idea of sin and redemption. This led quickly to thoughts about shame, which is bound to sin by virtue of cause and effect.
Within the Christian context, the relationship between sin and shame can be very confusing. On one hand, we are told that Christ died for our sins; therefore, we should relinquish our shame. But then, we are shamed into becoming virtuous people from the moment we know Christ. So which is it? Are we to be ashamed or not?
Before I could sort this out, the congregation started singing "Amazing Grace." As I listened to the second stanza, "Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fear relieved," suddenly it all made sense. Substitute the word "shame" for the word "fear" and you have: "Twas grace that taught my heart to shame and grace my shame relieved." Shame, it seems is not all bad. Without shame, I cannot see my sin, and with grace I am relieved of shame’s burden.
This makes even more sense if you understand the difference between "healthy" shame and "toxic" shame. John Bradshaw, who once studied to be a Jesuit priest, points this out in his book “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” He elaborates on the difference between the kind of shame that is corrosive and destructive (shame that leads to depression, anxiety, and apathy) and the kind of shame that engenders modesty, humility, morality, and self-control.
The challenge for us, armed with this new understanding of healthy shame and toxic shame, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. When does shame help us and when is it a hindrance? Here are some of my own ideas.
The past: Agonizing over the past leads to toxic shame. To cling unnecessarily to our past transgressions requires energy better spent trying to help others. However, an acute awareness of our shortcomings is healthy shame. We must never forget how easy it is to fall short.
Our bodies: Shame about how we look is toxic. We must always see ourselves through God’s eyes. He made us, after all. At the same time, a little shame about what we put into our bodies is healthy.
Nutrition is good; addiction is bad. Too much sugar now and then is not the end of the world.
Our potential: Shame about what we can’t do is toxic. If I am not a genius, so be it. If I can’t climb Mount Everest that’s okay. If I am disabled in any way, there is no point in me beating up on myself. However, a little healthy shame about what we can do keeps us humble.
Money: Shame about being poor is toxic. Shame about being rich makes it easier to share with others.
Original sin: This can be toxic or healthy shame. It is toxic if it becomes an excuse to give up on ourselves. It can be healthy if it is understood as something we all share—the propensity to make mistakes.
Family: The sins of our "fathers"—past and present—can be palpable. However, feeling guilty for what our mothers and fathers did is toxic shame. Learning from their mistakes is healthy shame.
Sex: Healthy shame about sex is important. Nothing can be more destructive than aberrant sexual behavior. However, sex is nothing to be ashamed of in the context of a healthy relationship.
Education: Feeling bad about a lack of formal education is toxic shame. Feeling a little healthy shame, however, may inspire us to search for knowledge and wisdom in a context within which we feel comfortable.
Jobs: Some of us have what the world likes to describe as "menial" jobs. Toxic shame makes us feel bad about this. Healthy shame encourages us to look for something more stimulating. The trick is to love what we do—and ourselves for doing it—while aspiring to find work that will help us realize.
The middle ground between toxic shame and healthy shame is humility. We are not more than or less than. We are just who we are---a work in progress.
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