For a variety of reasons, most of us live two lives: an external life, in which we learn the feelings, attitudes and behaviours that are ‘safe’ to express; and an internal life, in which we hide away our ‘unsafe’ traits – which exist isolated and undeveloped.
This is the essence of shame.
It is the tendency is to keep the unloved parts of ourselves forever under wraps, with the hope that in time they will go away and not cause us more pain.
This never works in the long term, however.
The reason why shame causes us to hide our pain can be traced back to two basic problems in life:
- We are an unfinished people, in need of maturing
Our main challenge, says Dr John Townsend, is that we are a bit like a beautiful but damaged home under renovation. In other words, we are in various stages of spiritual and emotional disrepair and immaturity. At times, we may feel like a burned-out bomb site. At other times, we see a glimmer of the image of God in us. Often, both are apparent.
God has lovingly and securely established our heritage and our future (Jer 29:11), and our present is the link between the two. It is a time when the restoration of essential parts of our soul is to happen.
If you are like me, this ‘under construction’ period can be a painful time of struggle. And yet just as a building constructor provides labour and materials to build a structure, God wants us to be active participants in our growth.
The way forward is to discover our areas of spiritual and emotional immaturity, and courageously enter into the work of healing necessary to restore those parts to their renovated condition.
Meeting our emotional and spiritual needs is not as simple as it looks, however, because part of God’s growth process is the essence of problem #2: in many ways, we hide from what we need to be whole.
- We fear the very things we need to restore us
Shame causes us to be afraid of exposing and repairing the broken parts of our souls. Each of us hide differently: some struggle with being open about our need to be loved; others have difficulty bringing their more autonomous, self-directed parts into the light. Regardless of the preferred defense strategy, hiding always produces a problem, and always produces symptoms, says Townsend.
These can range from failed relationships, to depression, anxiety, feelings of guilt, eating disorders, substance abuse, and many others.
But learning to look at symptoms as our friends can be a life-changer. This is because symptoms are simply doing the job that God intended for them – to tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘there’s a problem – it’s time to take a look at it.’
In my counselling work, I often share the following with clients who have a good level of psychological insight:
‘’The safety of the walls we build as children can become a trap in our adults lives’’.
Or, put another way, the strategy that once served us may no longer be serving us now.
The way forward for those of us imprisoned by shame and isolation is to bring to the light the hidden parts we have kept safe from abandonment and ridicule – perhaps for decades – and slowly expose them to safe, loving people who can model God’s grace and acceptance.
After all, we are all works in progress – longing to find God and others walking with us as we come out of hiding.