Jason was eight years old and in Mrs. Penticoff’s second-grade class. Like other boys his age, he was looking for ways to fit in; ways to be accepted. Being popular; being accepted was important, even in second grade. At the front of Jason’s classroom stood the teacher’s big wooden desk. Not exceptional or out of the ordinary but for possibly one thing: pencils! In the top drawer of Mrs. Penticoff’s desk were pristine, yellow, unsharpened pencils. To Jason, it looked like there were at least a hundred pencils in the top drawer. That’s what made the dare so appealing. Everyone knew about the pencils because Mrs. Penticoff would occasionally reach in and make a withdrawal from the pencil bank if a student lost or forgot his or her pencil. During one particular recess, Jason and his friends talked about who had the “balls” to swipe those pencils. Jason, in a moment of rare bravery, said he could easily do it, so his friends dared him.
Of course, that kind of heist required some planning and forethought, so Jason began to envision exactly how he would pull it off. After some days of careful planning, Jason decided that he would swipe a few at a time whenever Mrs. Penticoff was away from her desk. The first few were like stealing candy from a baby. Pretty soon Jason had stolen nearly half of the pencils from Mrs. Penticoff’s pencil bank. The exhilaration of the dare was only surpassed by the euphoria Jason experienced when he saw how genuinely impressed his friends were. An easily frightened and intimidated boy had the “balls” to do what none of the other boys in his class would do. He was king—at least for a few hours. That’s when everything changed for the rest of his life.
When the bell rang for recess, Mrs. Penticoff stood at the back door of the classroom leading to the playground as she did twice a day every day as the children streamed past her on their way to the great outdoors. When it was Jason’s turn to step outside, Mrs. Penticoff put her hand on his head and told him she needed to talk to him. Jason’s heart sank as he watched his classmates file out one at a time until only the two of them stood alone in the classroom. Without a word, Mrs. Penticoff led Jason to the front of the room where she opened the top drawer of her desk to reveal a half-empty pencil bank. Mrs. Penticoff held out her hand and asked Jason for the pencils. Jason, with his head down and his hands in his pockets, shuffled back to his desk and retrieved his own pencil bag where he stashed the loot. Jason retrieved the pencils and gently placed them in Mrs. Penticoff’s out-stretched hand. Staring at the pencils in Mrs. Penticoff’s hand, what had seemed like a treasure-trove of shiny, golden pencils to Jason was, in reality, merely a dozen plain-old, yellow, #2 pencils. No one will ever know how Jason’s life might have been different if the entire botched heist had ended right there with some kind of classroom punishment. However, Mrs. Penticoff thought it best to deliver Jason to the principal’s office for more formal punishment. One phone call from the principal to Jason’s father set in motion events that would create a seminal moment of personal identity destruction in Jason’s life.
Jason’s father, Rob, was a big, burly, blue-collar worker who worked as a meat cutter until he was fired for assaulting a coworker with a meat hook. Thereafter, he made his living as a welder and doing landscape maintenance. Jason never recalls a time when his father was unemployed. Even after losing his job as a meat cutter, Rob was back to work the next day as a welder. Rob’s enviable work ethic was overshadowed by his fits of rage and uncontrolled alcoholism. When the two converged, life became hell for Jason. When Rob got the call from Jason’s principal, Jason’s life was on the verge of becoming a new level of hell he hadn’t yet experienced.
Rob showed up at the elementary school still dressed in his welding clothes—steel-toed shoes and all. Jason was sitting in the principal’s office when the receptionist’s voice crackled over the intercom on the principal’s desk that Jason’s father had arrived. Jason was already sick to his stomach before his father walked in. When Rob walked into the principal’s office, all the air was instantly sucked out of the room. He simply glanced at Jason and then asked the principal what was going on. The principal explained all the excruciating details of Jason’s pencil heist to Rob. Rob didn’t say a word until the principal was done. Then he looked at the principal and said, “I’ll take care of it.” He then turned to Jason and said, “Let’s go.” Jason lived only five minutes from the school but the drive home seemed to take hours as Rob sat silently staring straight ahead.
When Rob’s truck stopped in the driveway, the only thing Rob said to Jason was, “Get in the house.” Jason was standing in the kitchen with his mother, Sarah, when Rob walked in and slammed the door. From that point, everything went downhill. It only took two strides for Rob to get from one side of the kitchen to the other where Jason was standing shaking. Rob grabbed Jason by the back of the neck and dragged him downstairs to the bedroom where he threw Jason onto the bed and ominously warned Jason that he’d be back shortly. Jason heard Rob screaming the details of what Jason did to Sarah. When the yelling stopped, Rob burst through the door with a broad leather belt draped over his hand.
Rob was already sweating and red-faced when he told Jason to strip all his clothes off. Jason had barely taken his underwear off when Rob started wailing away. With every lash of the belt, Rob screamed that Jason was a worthless, jackass and should be ashamed of himself. Jason was screaming in fright and turning around and around trying to avoid the next lash of the belt. But that just meant that every area of his body was impacted by the whipping. At some point during the beating, Jason began to urinate. He urinated everywhere and on everything. He urinated on the floor, on the bed, on the full-length mirror hanging on the closet door, on himself, and worst of all he urinated on Rob that served to fuel Rob’s rage. At some point, Jason’s condition must have shocked Rob back to reality because the beating suddenly stopped. Rob grabbed Jason by the top of the head like a basketball player palms a basketball and stood him in front of the mirror that was streaked with urine. The feeling and image of standing in his own urine on the cold, gray, linoleum floor staring at himself in the mirror sprayed with his own urine would remain with Jason the rest of his life. However, it was his father’s words that would shape Jason’s image of himself. With thick, red and purple welts covering practically every inch of Jason’s body, Rob made him look at himself in the mirror and said, “Look at yourself! You did all this to yourself! You should be ashamed of yourself!” When Rob left the bedroom, with Jason still crying uncontrollably, Jason’s mother came in and took Jason by the hand and, without saying a single word, led him to the bathtub where she cleaned off all the urine, dressed Jason in pajamas and put him to bed. And just like that, the entire incident was put to bed—but not for Jason. For Jason, the trauma left a lasting imprint of self-shame and self-hatred on Jason’s mind that he carried with him into all his future relationships. Unfortunately, it was just one of many times when Rob reminded Jason that he was worthless and shameful; words that would replay over and over inside Jason’s head like a recording for the rest of his life.
Distinctions of Shame
In our contemporary culture, you will often hear people with traditional, conservative values describe people with more liberal values as being “shameless” in their behavior. While we usually identify shame as something negative or detrimental, there is clearly a positive element to shame that attempts to moderate discretionary behavior within a given culture. Nevertheless, there is clearly shame that moves beyond this positive aspect of shame and becomes destructive. Author and psychologist Carl Schneider loosely defines the two forms of shame as “Discretion-Shame” and “Disgrace-Shame.” With respect to discretion-shame Schneider writes, “The close parallel between shame and modesty…suggests an ethical element in shame, inasmuch as modesty is normally treated as a virtue…The connection between shame and virtue is even more closely established when we note that cultures regularly give shamelessness a negative connotation. The concept of shamelessness suggests that the lack of a proper sense of shame is a moral deficiency and that the possession of a sense of shame is a moral obligation.” In contrast, and with respect to disgrace-shame, Schneider writes, “If discretion-shame sustains the personal and social ordering of the world, disgrace-shame is a painful experience of the disintegration of one’s world. A break occurs in the self’s relationship with itself and/or with others. An awkward, uncomfortable space opens up in the world. The self is no longer whole, but divided. It feels less than it wants to be, less than its best it knows itself to be.”
Added to this mix is the concept of guilt, which is not the same thing as the negative aspect of shame. Instead, guilt and discretion-shame share many commonalities and could, in fact, be synonymous in some aspects. Both guilt and discretion-shame are intended to be instruments of correction. The subtle distinction is that discretion-shame is proactive; keeping people from doing something wrong. Guilt, on the other hand, is reactive; a feeling that occurs after doing something wrong. Although in our modern culture many equate feelings of guilt with disgrace-shame, they are not related because there is a way out from guilt; forgiveness and reconciliation. From a biblical perspective, “one of the fundamental understandings of guilt is that it results from a violation or transgression of the acknowledged and accepted communal or corporate code of conduct in relationship to God as well as other human beings. Violating the established precepts of moral or ethical propriety results objectively in being declared guilty and subjectively in feeling guilty.” Again, an important distinction between shame and guilt is that guilt can be attenuated. Specifically, “The biblical tradition…makes clear that there is a process whereby the guilt which is incurred as a result of sin can be dealt with within the framework of the faith tradition.
“The attenuation of the guilt and the concomitant guilt feelings were accomplished by confession of the same to the party or parties offended, whether that was God or others. There was an appeal for forgiveness, an apology, and often appropriate restitution for the harm which was done. Once the established sequence was completed, the person or persons could experience forgiveness, freedom from guilt, and reconciliation.”
In contrast to guilt, shame, specifically, disgrace-shame, is very different with the power to destroy a person. Shame differs from guilt in that “shame results in feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness as one feels judged by others and judges oneself as of no value, consequence, purpose, worth, or significance. The self views the self from the shame perspective and like a malignancy, the shame metastasizes to permeate the entire person, physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually…Unlike guilt, where a ‘way back’ is provided as noted earlier, the individual possessed by a shame perspective and perception believes there is no way back to the mainstream of life.” Very simply, “there are…formal mechanisms for dealing with guilt like confession and atonement. Shame has no such remedies.”
The Destructive Effects Of Shame
There is clearly a positive and negative aspect of shame. Positively, discretion-shame and guilt have the effect of moderating behavior, both proactively or reactively, to align with cultural norms. Negatively, disgrace-shame has the destructive effect of altering a person’s perception of themselves. Although not all instances of disgrace-shame lead to destructive, life-long consequences, many instances of disgrace-shame do. Add to the impact of disgrace-shame, repeated abuse, and disgrace-shame reinforcement during a child’s formative years and negative self-perceptions become deeply entrenched like deep grooves being cut into a person’s brain.
This was certainly true in the case of Jason who was regularly filled with shame for failing to live up to Rob’s expectations. To reinforce the feelings of worthlessness that normally accompany shame, Rob often told Jason he was worthless, referring to him on more than one occasion as a dumb jackass. Repeated often enough during Jason’s childhood, “worthless” no longer described Jason, it defined him, in his mind, like a recording repeating itself for the rest of his life. “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…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.”
Some experts believe that shame is the most destructive human emotion because it overwhelms all other emotions, especially in the context of abuse.
Nothing can generate toxic clouds of shame like abuse. Most abuse victims carry massive amounts of toxic shame [a.k.a. disgrace-shame], and apart from God’s healing, they will carry it all the way to the grave…Children don’t have the cognitive or emotional resources to ferret out the truth and to reject the undeserved shame abusive parents heap on them…Absorbing undeserved shame is a natural defense mechanism for children who have been abused by their parents or caregivers. It’s much easier for abused children to conclude that they are bad and defective than to accept the fact that their parents (who are all-powerful and beyond the scope of the child to change) are evil and their parenting is defective…Abuse victims’ lives literally revolve around shame. Abuse produces shame, and then the more shame abuse victims feel, the more long-term damage they will experience. It’s as though the shameful, corrupt things an abuser does penetrates below a victim’s skin and alters his or her heart and soul.
Relational/Intimacy Consequences Of Shame
Unfortunately, the destructive consequences of shame don’t magically disappear after childhood. Instead, they follow the victim of shame into adolescence and ultimately into adulthood where the wounds of shame often poison relationships in general and the intimacy of relationships specifically. Victims of shame usually suffer a whole host of destructive characteristics. To a greater or lesser degree, victims of shame battle chronically low self-esteem and low-grade depression, they are both insecure and jealous, they have a constant need to compare and compete, they are unable to accept criticism, they need to blame others, they often feel like they don’t belong, they may at one time be self-focused and at other times externally-focused, they are particularly susceptible to addictions, they are hypercritical and shallow, they are either unaware or purposely dishonest with their feelings, and as a result they sabotage intimacy. Finally, victims of shame exert significant energy maintaining a façade that keeps people from seeing who they really are. Life, for victims of shame, is not defined by joy. Instead, life is generally hopeless which leaves the victim of shame exhausted as they struggle to reach the next day.
A person filled with shame cannot accept their inherent value resulting naturally as a creation of God. Instead, they naturally feel inferior to everyone else because they believe they are irreparably flawed and defective; worthless. It is one of the reasons why people filled with shame struggle so desperately with the theological concept of being loved by a perfect God. They naturally project on God how He feels about them based on how they feel about themselves. And how they feel about themselves is specifically characterized by their self-hatred which means they believe God hates them as well. Shame-filled people struggle desperately with the theological concept of God’s grace freely given even if that grace is specifically offered to those who in no way deserve it. Victims of shame believe they are so defective and worthless that not even God’s grace can save them.
Because shame-filled people are hopeless and believe they are defective and broken beyond repair, they easily fall into a state of depression. The life of a victim of shame is filled with pain and in an effort to alleviate or anesthetize that pain, even temporarily, shame-filled people are particularly susceptible to addictions of one kind or another—drugs, alcohol, sex, food, etc. As a result of their feelings of worthlessness, they are also terribly insecure which turns to jealousy when they are exposed to others who are successful in any way. When they are around others who succeed, are rewarded, or who are complimented, shame-filled people take it as a personal assault on them because they are also intensely self-focused. Victims of shame are so insecure that they are always focused on themselves. They believe that everything that happens or is said is about them. Oddly enough, they over-estimate their importance in the world even though they are convinced they are worthless, believing that whenever they are in a group of people, everyone is looking at them, talking about them or thinking about them. As a result, people filled with shame are unable to enter into authentic relationship with others. In large part, this is because people filled with shame always need to compare themselves to others or compete with them in order to demonstrate that they are “better.” If for whatever reason, a shame-filled person doesn’t come out on top then there is always someone else to blame. Someone who believes they are already defective and worthless, cannot bear the added pain of accepting responsibility for their mistake. Consequently, someone else must be to blame. The easiest way a shame-filled person finds fault in others is by being hypercritical of others. At the same time, a shame-filled person cannot accept criticism, even constructive criticism. Because shame-filled people already see themselves as inferior and defective, criticism is always seen as a personal attack attempting to make something defective even more defective. Victims of shame are usually unable to extend grace to others because they are unable to accept grace for themselves.
In the wake of a shame-filled person’s life is broken relationships. Victims of shame are convinced that they are defective and different from everyone else. They feel like they just don’t belong which makes healthy relationships extremely difficult. Add to this a shame-filled person’s self-hatred and inability to engage in constructive self-examination and the victim of shame can offer little more than shallow and superficial relationship. Even in those superficial relationships, shame-filled people are terribly insecure and therefore protective about what people see on the outside. “With guilt, we can choose to reveal our transgression or keep it hidden. With shame, we feel compelled to cover it up.” As a result, victims of shame are experts of disguise; wearers of masks, always giving the impression that everything is “fine.” Because shame-filled people spend so much time hiding their true selves from the world, they are either dishonest or unaware of their true feelings. Victims of shame spend so much time and effort disguising or suppressing the pain in their lives in order to convince people that everything is “fine,” they either don’t know how they really feel or they become detached from their true feelings. As a result, normal emotions become confused. For example, disappointment might be expressed as anger. Unfortunately, feeling as though they don’t belong with an unwillingness to allow people to get too close by always pretending that everything is “fine,” and neglecting or rejecting their true feelings, victims of shame sabotage true intimacy. Shame-filled people long for intimacy. They seek companionship in friendships and marriage like everyone else. However, because they are desperate to hide their brokenness and defectiveness, they tend to consciously or unconsciously sabotage relationships when they become too intimate. This is particularly destructive when shame invades sexual intimacy meant to connect husband and wife at the deepest physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level and is turned into a simple act of physical satisfaction with no connection to the mental, emotional, or spiritual person.
“ ‘Intimacy’ describes a special kind of familiarity, with a love and understanding that continues to grow. Although we may experience it as physical attraction or chemistry, it is motivated by a desire to really know another person and allow that person to experientially know us. Intimacy is sharing our feelings and our lives with our partner. Over time, we develop trust as we treat one another (and are treated) with total honesty, kindness, empathy and acceptance. This is the foundation for a growing physical and emotional attachment.” By definition, a shame-filled person as described above, to a greater or lesser extent, is unable to enter into a truly intimate relationship at the level of a close friendship or at the level of a healthy marriage relationship—especially a healthy sexual relationship which requires the most extreme personal exposure; physically, mentally, and emotionally, exposure that is antithetical to a person filled with shame. For example,
Justin had never spoken of this [sexual shame] to anyone. Only now, in his late thirties, did he seek help, when the repeated collision between his longing for female companionship and his abject terror of rejection once he became involved with a woman and reached its nadir. Despite his overwhelming success, first as an investment broker and then as an entrepreneur, he was convinced that something was quite wrong with him. Why was it that every time he became emotionally close with a woman he genuinely cared for, he began to construct, almost involuntarily, barriers to further connection? Eventually, the pattern would repeat itself and the prophecy would be fulfilled that despite his desire he was not able to have a close relationship with a woman.
Board-certified psychiatrist, Curt Thompson, creatively, yet very accurately, personifies shame in the person he calls our “Shame Attendant.” He describes it as our personal attendant that is keenly attuned to every aspect of our person—thoughts, feelings, behavior, etc. However, the shame attendant is not interested in your well-being. Instead, your personal shame attendant fills your mind with verbal and non-verbal elements of self-judgment and self-condemnation. Our shame attendant infiltrates all areas of our lives—images in our mind, feelings, language, and sensations. The attendant is always available to offer advice that leads to our destruction. The attendant is our constant companion when we wake up in the morning when we walk into the bathroom and look into the mirror, especially a full-length mirror, at work, and especially in the bedroom where we are most exposed. Thompson writes,
When we wake up each morning, our attendant greets us with the words, “Wow, you really didn’t get enough sleep last night. What were you thinking?” You move to the bathroom and take a shower and are reminded that you look like you have put on more weight.
You get in your car to go to work and your attendant whispers that the conversation you have scheduled with your difficult client is going to go poorly because you are ill-prepared. Later that day as you are bored at work and your mind drifts off to the beach where you would rather be, you hear that you won’t ever have the job you really desire. While that is taking place, the shame attendants of each of your colleagues are also quite busy, deepening their reluctance to help others by reminding them that to do so will lessen their chance for advancement. In fact, as the attendant is quick to point out, no one in this company really cares about doing meaningful work. You may be the supervisor who is reminded by the attendant that you will not be okay if you do not make your quarterly quota. And of course, you won’t be okay because your boss is listening to his attendant say the same thing.
When you arrive home, your wife, seemingly unworried about hiding any sense of resentment in her voice, reminds you of the leaking toilet, which you said you would repair two weekends ago. And the shame attendant, faithful as ever, offers you images of other failed handyman excursions, basting your mind in the notion that you are a mechanical moron. This does not give you more confidence, leading to feeling deflated and passive. All of which means, of course, that you are not likely to have sex with your wife tonight because she’s not attracted to a deflated, passive husband. And the attendant watches you, offering multiple opportunities to assimilate a story that tells you, in essence, that you are not enough, you do not have what it takes to be okay.
And just like that with a few well-placed words throughout the day, beginning first thing in the morning, our shame attendant interferes with and damages all our relationships and destroys the intimacy we so desperately seek.
Part 2 (To be posted 6/13)
--Theological Perspectives On Shame
--Healing The Effects Of Shame
(Audio version; Music--"Valentine" by: Hillsong Worship and "Reckless Love" by: Cory Asbury; Music coordinator: Meagan Seredinski)
 Carl D. Schneider, Shame, Exposure, and Privacy, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1977), 19.
 Ibid., 22.
 Robert H. Albers, Shame Perspective, (New York, NY: The Haworth Press, 1995), 18-19.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 22.
 Stephen Pattison, Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 43.
 Elspeth Probyn, Blush: Faces of Shame, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 65.
 Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 74.
 Ibid., 76-77; 81.
 Eunice Cavanaugh, Understanding Shame: Why It Hurts, How It Helps, How You Can Use It to Transform Your Life, (Minneapolis, MN: Johnson Institute, 1989), 9.
 Ibid., 81-82.
 Douglas Rosenau and Deborah Neel, Total Intimacy, (Atlanta, GA: Sexual Wholeness Resources, 2013), 9.
 Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the stories we tell about ourselves, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 37.
 Ibid, 93-94.