The Shame Game

Shame is something we all experience (unless you’re a sociopath, and that’s a whole ‘nother post).

For most of us, shame — that feeling of remorse and regret that follows illicit activity — is a GOOD thing. It prompts us to repent, to turn around, to seek forgiveness when we’ve wronged those around us, to change our ways. But sometimes shame becomes a poison that seeps into the very marrow of the bones and taints every thought, every feeling, every action. When shame becomes toxic, it hinders forward progress instead of being a catalyst for positive development. It shuts down growth instead of acting as a fertilizer.

What makes the difference? I’m not sure. It might be a nature vs. nurture question, or a genetic weakness, or a predisposition based on inherited habits and tendencies, or even a generational curse passed down through the ages. Whatever it is, when shame becomes toxic, it becomes a problem. Like penicillin, which is good when properly administered, improperly administered shame is destructive.

Have you ever been ashamed of yourself? It hurts.

Now imagine that shame filtering into every choice, every activity, every behavior, good or bad, right or wrong. No matter what you do it won’t be good enough. Acceptance, approval, and the ever-elusive “success” are always just out of reach, just beyond your ability. Ouch. Right?

You see, shame is like a bottomless pit. It’s never satisfied. No matter how well you perform, shame will find a way to trivialize it.

I make a point of returning my grocery carts to the cart corrals, partly because I think it’s incredibly lazy to leave them scattered across the lot and partly because one of our cars was damaged once by a stray shopping cart. Returning a cart to the provided receptacle is both considerate and responsible. It’s “the right thing to do,”  in the immortal words of Wilford Brimley.

But for those who have been poisoned by shame, returning the cart to the corral isn’t satisfactory. “You should have taken it back inside,” shame says.

Do you see the difference? The healthy person returns his or her cart to the corral and walks away at peace. The shame-poisoned person wonders if returning the cart to the cart corral was good enough.

Parents, are you guilty of using the shame tactic to inspire good behavior? Stop it! You’re poisoning your children!

Pastors, have you tried to shame your congregation into regular church attendance, giving, tithing, service, or anything else? Cease, please! You’re creating a community of toxic Christians!

Don’t shame people into using reusable bags at the grocery store, into not smoking or drinking or listening to terrible music. Don’t try to shame people into a healthy lifestyle, adopting a shelter dog, recycling, carpooling, or voting on the conservative ticket. Leave shame alone. It’s a tool that’s entirely too powerful for mere mortals to play with.

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