Shame. I'm no psychologist or expert, but I do have a lot of experience with that toxic emotion called shame.
Shame is more than an emotion. It's a total perception of yourself. It's the fundamental belief that you are worthless, bad, unlovable, unqualified. It silences your voice, causes you to retreat inside yourself, avoid relationship, and live in a toxic stew of depression, anxiety, and feeling bad about yourself all of the time.
Shame leads you to hate yourself for even normal human behaviour and mistakes. It causes you to beat yourself up over every conversation and action, convinced that you made a fool of yourself and that no one can possibly like you. Shame leads you to hide. It drives you away from relationship with those who regard you positively. It makes you feel you've done something wrong even when you haven't, but more insidiously and deeply, that you ARE wrong, in the very core of your being, and there's nothing you can do to escape it.
Shame is often the legacy of a toxic and abusive upbringing. Parents are meant to provide children with unconditional love and acceptance. Although they discipline their children for bad behaviour, they do not withdraw their affection. They instill in the child that he is fundamentally worthwhile and that nothing he does renders him unworthy of their care.
By contrast, an abusive or toxic environment instills a deep sense of shame in a child. He is told through words and actions that he is unlovable, bad, worthless, and nothing he says or does can alter this fundamental judgement. A child has no independent filter or point of view. He believes what his parents say about him and incorporates it into his self-perception. This destructive legacy lasts far beyond leaving home. Children from toxic homes become adults with no sense of self-worth. They carry with them the terrible burden of chronic shame, impacting jobs, relationships, emotional health, physical health—everything.
Shame's worst damage comes in the area of relationships. We avoid relationship, or choose it with people who regard us in the same kind of devaluing way that our parents did, thus repeating the cycle. We feel that no one could love us if they knew who we really are, so we isolate or join up with people who don't truly care about us, in accord with our self-judgement. Anyone who treats us with respect is rejected, because they are so foolish they can't see the truth. Our shame becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, re-wounding us and keeping us from relationships with people who might show us we are indeed worthy of love.
Shame has the same kind of damaging effect in our greatest relationship, with God. It twists our perception of him just as it does that of other people and ourselves. Unkind and unloving parents deeply imprint in us a false image of a God who is like them. In reality, God is loving, kind, forgiving, accepting, totally just, and trustworthy. But a child of shame cannot see this because his or her emotional reality is trained otherwise. It can take a long time and much struggle before this deeply-imprinted false image of God is replaced by an accurate one.
For many years, my legacy of shame from a hate-filled and abusive upbringing hampered my relationship with God. I had difficulty becoming a Christian not because I had intellectual objections to the gospel, but because I viewed myself as so completely sinful that I was beyond God's grace. I saw God as angry, punitive, capricious, rage-filled, unjust, unmerciful, unreasonable, unbending, incapable of pleasing—in other words, very much like my father.
Even after I became a Christian, I struggled. I never felt close to God or accepted by him. When I tried to pray, it felt like my prayers hit the ceiling. I'd give up in desperate loneliness, wishing that I could feel loved by God like other people I knew.
I felt that I knew the truth about God. That all this talk of God's love and gentleness and kindness was a false construction by people who'd had it better than I did. No matter what they said, I knew deep down that he hated me.
Don't get me wrong. I do believe in God's judgement and holiness. He will discipline us as believers when necessary (in love), and he will eternally punish those who remain finally unrepentant.
But I have come to know that God is a God of justice, and of love. His justice means that he must punish sin. But his love means that he'd rather have mercy. His love means that he sent Jesus Christ his beloved Son to die on our behalf to bring us back into relationship with him, and his justice means that when we truly repent of our sins and trust him, he will never punish us for those sins. We can enjoy the favour and smile of God. We cannot and must not deceive ourselves into thinking that makes it ok to go on sinning, but we can and must believe in the goodness of God to completely forgive us. We must believe the testimony of Jesus and of Scripture that God is a kind, generous, trustworthy Father. We can live free of shame and self-hatred and enjoy a close walk with a God who loves us.
So how do we move from our shame-filled distance from God, into a right understanding of him that allows us to life in the light of his love? The problem is not that we do not hear teaching about who God truly is. The problem is that for us, shame, anger, and condemnation are emotionally true, on a level that goes far beyond logic. We can't escape it. This fundamental emotional reality must be radically altered, but how?
I don't have any magic answers. But here are some of the things that helped me on my journey:
Don't give up. The road to healing can be a long one, littered with difficulty. But I truly believe that those who seek God will never be disappointed. The legacy of abuse and shame can be a tough one to overcome. But I stand as living proof that it's possible, and I know it's possible for anyone who trusts the same God I do.
Admit to God, as difficult as it might be, your shame and negative feelings. Admit your powerlessness and inability to change. Admit that you don't feel close to him and don't trust him. Ask him to do whatever it takes to bring you to healing and wholeness.
As difficult as it may be, seek out relationship with people who will reflect God's loving-kindness to you. People who will counsel you, pray with you, and seek freedom with you. Shame leads us to hide. But godly people are essential in this process. They can see what we can't and have faith when ours is dead.
These must be people with whom you feel safe. You must be able to open up to them and say whatever's in your soul, no matter how dark, and know they won't condemn, criticize, or correct you, but respond with love.
As hard as it might be, I believe that ultimately we have the choice to either believe what God says, or to believe our feelings. True freedom only comes when we make the choice to trust what God says no matter what our feelings or experience shout at us.
For those who were raised in a religiously toxic environment, it may be hard to read or to hear God's word in a way that is not condemning. I'd suggest a few things: one, take a break from reading scripture if need be. If you are reading it out of obligation and guilt, stop. It's not going to bless you.
Two, seek to understand Scripture through the eyes of those who know God as loving and kind. Hear their perspective.
Three, pick a totally different translation of the Bible, one that might slip past your “filters” and allow you to hear the intended meaning, rather than your shame-translation. The Message is a good example of a fresh, contemporary take on the Bible that reads completely differently from traditional translations. It might not be the best for in-depth bible study, but for grace-starved souls, it might be just what they need to hear the voice of the Shepherd more clearly.