Dark, wet, cold, and heavy…perfect words to describe those guilty shame filled feelings that linger making you wonder if you will ever again feel the warmth of hope, the joy of freedom, confidence to pursue people and things you once loved.
Guilt and shame are two words that are unfortunately, intimately and personally familiar to me. I have been guilty of wide variety of offenses and have felt ashamed of my actions more times then I care to remember. Sometimes the reminders of my wrong doings are from people who were hurt by my actions. Sometimes it’s from lingering consequences that I face. Most frequently the shame and feelings of guilt arise from within. On my worse days I rehearse my flaws and failures and use it as a form of self inflicted torture to feed what feels like the insatiable appetite of shame. If that weren’t enough I also listen to the enemy as he hisses deep into my being “With all that you’ve done wrong you’ll never be good enough, you can never measure up. Who do you think you are? Get out now before you are humiliated!” or “There you go again, screwing up like you always do. You’ll never get what you want because you always mess things up. You don’t deserve those good things. You should stop now before you make an even bigger fool of yourself.”
If this sounds familiar to you please know you are not crazy and you are not alone. Many of us struggle with this particular battle. In the heat of it we long for the false security of being alone, hiding from people and relationships, yet in that isolation the “proof” of how awful we are is magnified and screams in the silence. The answers for victorious healing can only be found in the things we most dread doing….to gain true victory there needs to be acknowledgement/confession, acceptance, repentance, restitution, forgiveness, grace and confident hope…all of which can only be found in the light of relationship.
I hope you will have the courage to continue reading to discover practical tools to help you secure victory in this battle.
Let’s first make sure we have clear definitions and understandings of the words guilt and shame. Guilt is “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.” This means it is tied to something specific you have done that was wrong, hurtful, mean, immoral, illegal, or unethical . If I have told a lie, then I am guilty of lying. This is true and legitimate guilt. I did something wrong and I feel guilty about it. In a healthy environment this kind of guilt should help prompt me to move forward to make things right. The unpleasant emotion may also help keep me from making the same mistake again.
There is also such a thing as “false guilt”. This occurs when I feel guilty over something I have not done wrong. Here is an example of false guilt. Let’s say you are invited to go out to work with friends but you decide you really don’t have the energy to go out so you decline the invitation. Afterwards you feel guilty because you said no. This is false guilt because you didn’t actually do anything wrong, you simply enforced a boundary around your time and energy. In this example your guilty feelings are not tied to a hurtful, mean, immoral, illegal, or unethical action so therefore it must be tied to something else. We will explore that in the next section on shame.
Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Feeling ashamed goes deeper than feeling guilty or embarrassed, it touches the core of who you are as a person. It makes you doubt your goodness, your worth, and your identity. It leaves you without significance or security. This type of shame typically comes when you have committed some serious offenses or suffered serious or continuous injury to your emotional self. When you experience this type of shame you have difficulty validating your own worth which in turn can cause you to become hypersensitive to situations in which you feel you may loose the acceptance or admiration of other people. In a mild sense you can become hypersensitive to guilt. In that scenario you would tend to perceive that you have done something wrong when you haven’t, like in the situation previously discussed above. In a severe cases it can lead to codependent or narcissistic tendencies. Both feed off the fear of loosing other people’s validation, approval, and acceptance. Shame thrives on fear and in isolation. It makes it difficult to give or receive love because it places you in a mode of self protection that is not easily penetrated.
A good way to tell the difference is simply this: Guilt says I did something bad, shame says I am bad.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE POTENTIAL INDICATORS OF GUILT AND SHAME:
Physical response: covering ones face, looking down, avoiding eye contact, a sense of heat that radiates through the body, making your body become small, hunched shoulders, head down, tightness/heaviness in chest, upset stomach, crying.
Thoughts about Self: I am bad. I am worthless. I always mess things up. I was wrong. It’s my fault.
Thoughts about God: God couldn’t love me. God can’t forgive me. God won’t save me.
Our action/tendency/response: Hide, place blame, avoid
Communication: “I did wrong.” “I am bad.”
Guilt and shame indicate different needs: Guilt indicates a need to make things right. Shame indicates a need for inner healing and forgiveness.
So what can I do?
1.) Find the source of your true hope and identity. It will always be difficult to overcome shame if you don’t have your source of identity secure in an unshakable, unchangeable source. As Christians we know that source is Jesus. There is nothing that you can do that will ever make you unlovable to Him (Romans 8:38-39). There is also nothing you can do that will make you more lovable to Him (Ephesians 2:8). His love for you simply doesn’t depend on you. He has said you are valuable and has paid the price for you with His life (Colossians 1:14). We have covered this topic in more depth in the following article: Your True Identity: Your Roots (Designed: Roots) https://confidenthope.blog/2018/06/25/your-true-identity-your-roots-designed-roots/
If you are not a Christian, or you are not sure if you are a Christian, I beg you to please take the time to explore this. You can reach out to your local church or other believers r you can follow these links: How To Become A Christian http://www.sbc.net/knowjesus/theplan.asp or How Can I Be Sure I’m Saved? https://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/advice/faithdoubt/how-can-i-be-sure-im-saved.html
2.) Confession. You know how it feels when you have done something wrong and it eats at you. It gnaws away at your heart making you feel guilty. Here is how you get rid of that feeling…CONFESS. Go and admit you did wrong.First and foremost confess to God (1 John 1:9). Admit your wrong doing and ask for His forgiveness. You can also ask for His power in helping you continue with the rest of the confessing. It is incredibly difficult to swallow your pride and admit wrong doing, but there is something freeing about humbling yourself and owning your mistakes. Your confession is the first key to unlocking your freedom. It may surprise you to know that your confession isn’t really about the other person. It is something you do for yourself. It is coming out of hiding, taking ownership, and regaining freedom and power. Sometimes you are able to go to the other person directly and tell them you were wrong. In those cases be prepared that your apology may not be met with kindness. They may still respond out of hurt or anger. Sometimes you won’t be able to confess directly to the person, it may be the person is unknown to you, passed away, or it may simply put you in a very dangerous situation. In those cases my suggestion is that you symbolically do a confession (example write a letter to the person and then destroy the letter) or offer your confession to a trusted friend or pastor. We are always to confess our sins to God but the bible is also clear that there is healing power in the act of confessing one to another. (James 5:16)
Just to be clear….confession and apology are not the same thing. A proper apology includes a confession and is delivered for the person who was injured by your offense. There are many people who are willing to confess to an offense, but remain unapologetic. The reasons behind this are typically because the person was directly caught, they believe they were actually in the right or justified in their actions, or they are trying to avoid a stricter punishment.
3.) Repentance. In Christian terms repentance is defined as “turning around”. What this means is changing your behavior, trying to not make the same mistake twice. When we repent of a wrong doing we agree that it was wrong and we desire to do right. You can repent of your wrong doing and still fail again. We are not perfect. You do your best. If you fail again, you go through the process again. Think about what went wrong, what is needed to do better, put new safe guards in place and try again.
4.) Forgiveness. When dealing with our own personal shame and guilt we often have to examine forgiveness from a variety of angles. First, we can go to God and seek His forgiveness. He is faithful to ALWAYS forgive us and cleanse us no matter what our offense was He will forgive us (1John 1:9). Next, we may need to forgive ourselves. This can be a hard step to take. You may feel that what you have done is so awful, so shameful that you do not deserve to ever be free from it. Let me ask you this: If a perfect, holy and just God, is willing to extend forgiveness to you as a GIFT what right do you have to harbor unforgiveness in your heart toward yourself? His sacrifice was enough for you and whatever sins you have committed past, present and future. It is His desire that you live in freedom from the bondage of your sins, He died to give you that freedom (Romans 8:1-4). For more information on how to forgive yourself you can review this previous Confident Hope article Forgiving Myself https://confidenthope.blog/?s=forgiving+myself
5.) Make things right (restitution). We are a people who typically like to “do” things. We like to have some type of evidence that we have repented and are trying to be better. In some cases you are able to make things right through an action. For example if you have stolen something you can return it with interest, or if you have lied you can tell the truth and allow others to check/verify the truthfulness of your statements until their trust in your words has returned. The process of restitution can be painful, but it will often produce a sense of setting things right, and can go along way in restoring a relationship.
6.) Acceptance. Some times we are not able to make restitution. Some times we simply have to accept the fact that we have done something wrong and try to move forward. Acceptance can be a hard thing to obtain. When dealing with the emotions of shame and guilt you may need to accept the fact that you will sometimes do things that will cause you to feel guilty or ashamed. Part of acceptance is allowing yourself to identify and feel the emotion in a non-judgmental way and then release the emotion.
If you try to work through these steps and are continuing to struggle with these emotions I suggest you seek out trusted friends, a small group, a coach, a pastor, or a professional counselor. There is not a medication that will “fix” this for you. These emotions are a common struggle and part of being human. Healing and victory are something that has to be done in the context of healthy relationships.
Dealing with GUILT and/or SHAME? Here is your challenge:
Think about where you are at with guilt and shame. Are there things you need to do in order to relieve those painful emotions? Review the steps outlined in this article. Review some of the other resources that are listed. What are the steps that you need to take? Do those steps!
As we draw to a close, I am reminded specifically of two passages of scripture. One is the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. After they sinned they felt shame and tried to hide. They longed for isolation because of their sin…BUT GOD CALLED OUT TO THEM! He drew them back into relationship with him so he could restore and redeem them (Genesis 3:1-9). There were still consequences that needed to be faced, but they no longer needed to hide in shame. The other passage and scripture talks about how darkness cannot hide in the light (John 1:5). It reminds me that when we shed light (truth, forgiveness, love, grace, mercy) on those shameful places those feelings will disappear. As we bring them to the forefront and deal with them they become less powerful and sinister.
This is such a painful subject. It hurts my heart as I remember the things I have done that have caused me to feel ashamed. I think of other people who are also currently struggling under the weight of poor decisions and hurtful words. I know that you are the one with the power to heal and forgive and restore. I ask that you strengthen me as I pursue freedom from shame. Give me courage to face my fears. Grant me grace to forgive others and myself even as you have forgiven me. Let me not run from relationships, but instead help me press into them so that I may find healing for myself. And also so that I may provide a place of healing for others.
In Jesus Name-Amen
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—(Ephesians 2:8)
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:14)
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
ADAM AND EVE IN THE GARDEN: Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:1-9)