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  • Writer's pictureSean R. Sears

Shame and Vulnerability

Updated: Jan 22, 2022

There are differences of opinion over the concept of shame. Some would say all shame is bad. Others say that there is legitimate and illegitimate shame. Legitimate shame reminds us that we are not God. Legitimate shame exposes the things, objects or people that we use to find life. It often reveals what we demand of ourselves and others. It also offers the painful reminder that we don’t really have control over the world we live in. Shame that is illegitimate is about our very identity – it is not about something bad we might have done or said but about who and what we are. We may feel embarrassed if we do something that makes us look bad. We feel shame when we think we are bad. There are three main sources of illegitimate shame. The first is parents whose love and acceptance is conditional or non-existent. The second is the world or culture we live in. The third source is religion or church without grace. A dysfunctional family environment is the origin of illegitimate shame. Children experience shame when no expression of feelings is allowed, only certain ones like anger or happiness are allowed or only allowed for certain family members. Children also experience shame when their feelings aren’t mirrored back to them as acceptable and normal. For example, if a young boy is hurt and cries and his father says, “Stop crying or I will give you something to cry about.” This leads to the boy thinking his needs or feelings are inappropriate. So, inevitably when these feelings come up again, he will feel shame for having them. The second source of shame is a world that tells us repeatedly that our self worth is based on performance and/or other’s opinions of us. We fear that others might find us deficient in some way which will lead to rejection. The ultimate fear of shame is one of abandonment. The third source of shame is found in religion or church where there is the empty legalism of trying to earn God’s favor. Lewis Smedes says, “The church is meant to be a place where we get the courage to feel some healthy shame and the grace to be healed of it.” Too often if grace is shared it gets drowned under a huge burden of guilt due to the fact that we don’t deserve it. The truth is that we don’t deserve God’s grace but we are worthy of it. If I deserve something good it means I did something to earn it. This is vastly different than being worthy because we are people of enormous value to God. Shame that is illegitimate makes us want to hide. We think “if you really knew me, knew what I am really like, you wouldn’t like me or worse you would reject and abandon me.” There can be no vulnerability with illegitimate shame because it causes you to live in constant fear of really being known. One of the answers to healing illegitimate shame creates a catch-22. In order to find out that we are wrong about how we see ourselves, we have to take the risk of letting someone else see inside. We must find non-shaming people that we can begin to really trust. This trust can give us the courage to risk vulnerability. In the transparency of that relationship we can discover the love and acceptance that we so desire. As we experience that we begin to change our beliefs about ourselves. We slowly come to realize that truly being known and still accepted leads to deeper and more meaningful relationships.

If you are looking for some help in processing shame, or if you would like to talk to a counselor, please reach out to one of our New Leaf Counseling team members.

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