It’s nearly two years ago now. My son had a particularly bad day at school, and his rage had hit the point at home that evening where I needed to wrap my arms around him until he calmed down. When he finally settled into my embrace, he sobbed. He couldn’t look me in the eye as I asked him how he felt. Head in hands he muttered, “I feel yucky inside, and I feel like that almost all the time.”
Despite all the love being poured into him, nothing was sticking because of his profound sense of shame. Holding my broken-hearted son, I have never felt more broken and helpless as a father. As a dad, when you see your child hurting, you’d do anything possible to help. That image of my son sitting in my lap, hands over his face unable to look at me and see the love and care in my eyes, will remain with me forever. It has driven me deeper into my own sense of call to express the love of God to those most desperately in need of it, especially those trapped in shame.
Shame is a sense of being totally unlovable -- worthless. While guilt is feeling bad about what we have done, shame is about feeling bad about who we are. Shame can be the result of deep hurt, abandonment, abuse or neglect. When these traumatizing factors occur early in life, as in my son’s case, the effect is devastating to an individual’s sense of self-worth and belonging. Many shame-based children and individuals find it hard to trust. Trust is built upon a strong foundation of relationship, and the shame-based child feels unworthy of significant relationship. As a result, the shame-based child feels powerless and hopeless to change their situation or improve their condition. Often those caring for a shame-based child take on that same sense of hopelessness.
Working with the shame-based child can be exhausting. Those stuck in a cycle of self-loathing often do things that reinforce their own sense of unworthiness. They feel unlovable, so they try to make it impossible for others to love them. The shame-based child thinks in terms of all or nothing, either/or, generalizing and labeling. Shame shields the individual from the ability to accept praise in the present. Shame robs the future of any joy. Shame is the enemy of hope.
So what is to be done? Where can you help the person trapped in shame-based living?
In order to overcome a sense of shame, an individual must feel loved at the very core of who they are. The love required is both tender and tough. Tenderness is required to enter into the shame of the other person by connecting with your own sense of shame and hurt. Let them see that the deep hurt they feel has been felt by others and experienced by those they might look to as role models and examples. This combats the lie that they are alone in their shame, and that no one could love them if they really knew how awful they are.
Get professional help and know your limitations, especially if you are working with a person whose shame is the result of adverse childhood experiences. Boundaries and security must be in place, not only physically, but emotionally as well. A secure and tough love says, “I see you. I love you. We’ve got this together. I can help keep you safe.”
This secure love sets the stage for trust to be built, a necessary ingredient for any healthy relationship. Trust-building takes time because it involves delving into the deep wounds that caused the sense of shame.
In a ministry context, you must embrace the long road of discipleship and a commitment to the messiness of ministry with the damaged soul. Even when breakthroughs occur in ministry to the shame-based individual, you must be mentally prepared for the inevitable relapse or regression into previous behaviors and shame-based thinking. It will help the shame-based individual to know that God loves them no matter what, but what they really need is to see your commitment to be used by God to show them that unconditional love.
For those individuals or faith communities that would be interested in becoming more informed about working with shame-based children and individuals, a great place to start is by becoming better informed about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their effects throughout life. Visit acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score to see how you may personally be affected. Finally, I’d love to be in conversation with any in our community that feel called, as I do, to advocate for and empower those working through issues of shame.
The Rev. Chris Haughee is a licensed minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church and has served as chaplain of Intermountain’s residential services since 2012. An adoptive father to two, Haughee is an advocate for greater inclusion of foster and adoptive families in the life and ministry of local congregations. You can follow his ministry at www.intermountainministry.org or contact him at email@example.com