Guilt vs Shame, part 2: There's a BIG Difference

This is the second half of a two part series on Shame from my real life friend and legit theologian, Libby Vincent. Be sure to read part 1, here!


The BIG Difference Between Guilt and Shame

In my last post, I talked about guilt. Now I want to talk about shame.

I've been working hard at understanding shame. It wasn't really my choice-it just happened. About two years ago  a bunch of unforeseen losses in my life pretty much broke me - I was depressed, listless and almost hopeless.  Once I got out of the fog, I began to dismantle deep messages of shame from my past and began to believe in God's message of worth. God used some key people in my life during this time: my family and friends (who stood with me and held me up); my spiritual director (who helped me expand my theological lens); my therapist (who embodies grace and wholeness to me), and the work of Dr. BrenĂ© Brown (who has researched and written extensively on shame and vulnerability) 

As I did with guilt, here's a working definition of shame - shame is:

"....the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging."

The primary difference between guilt and shame is this:  guilt is about what we do; shame is about who we are. It may seem like a difference of semantics, but it's more than that. Guilt says "lying to my boss was wrong"; shame says "you're a liar." Shame labels us with names like liar, loser, failure, ugly, stupid. Shame shouts "you'll never be man enough; you're a drunk; a pervert; a lazy slob; your body, mind, house, car, children -- your faith -- isn't perfect enough". Shame is what the devil uses to convince us we aren't worthy of God's love and never will be. Shame demoralizes, dehumanizes, and paralyzes us with fear.

Sadly, shame is prolific in the church: the one place that could be a safe haven from shame is often the place that shames us the most. But it doesn't have to be that way. The church can work against the destructive forces of shame. Instead of being a broker of shame, the Church can be a conduit of worth. I think we can do this work by encouraging one another to work through our shame, and expose it for what it is - lies. We can use tools like therapy and spiritual direction to help us know where we are vulnerable to shame. We can teach and preach on shame, helping people understand what it is and how it works. When we speak against shame - it doesn't mean we don't take sin seriously. 

We are people with brokenness; we sin, but our sin does not define who we are.  When we believe WE ARE BAD we can't recognize God's voice of acceptance because we are too busy trying to perform and clean up for God. We can't be representatives of God when shame owns us, because it makes us angry, hostile and fractured people. In an effort to alleviate ourselves from our own sense of worthlessness and self hatred, we release the venom of vitriol, cynicism and judgment upon others. This is not how God wants us to live. God wants us to live out of our worth - given to us at creation, redeemed through Jesus, and made complete at the end of time. Our identity as belonging to God is what gives us our worth (Genesis 1.31). When we believe that nothing and no one can change our standing as Gcd's beloved, sin becomes less attractive, coping mechanisms we have used to avoid our shame lose their appeal, and compassion for ourselves and others increases. Miraculous things happen. Healing and wholeness happens. Life giving choices happen. Christ in us happens.


Guilt vs Shame, part 1: Can Guilt Be Good?

I know this is weird, but not all of the brilliant people in the world write and post blogs from which we may glean wisdom and inspiration. Crazy, right?! I know! But it's true - some awesome people can only be found in real life. I love it when I get to introduce you to one of my awesome real life people, and today is one of those days. I cannot even begin to tell you what this woman's friendship has meant to me over the last couple of years, but I will say that when the stars align and we both have, like, a whole entire hour free for coffee, Libby breathes life into me. Every time I see her, I wish I could share her with you. You'll see why...


Can Guilt Be Good?

A while back - and by a while I mean 2 years ago - Jamie and I were having coffee and she said "will you guest post on my blog?"  I nodded my head nonchalantly and said "yeah, definitely."  And then I hoped she would forget. In my head I thought 'no way. I can't write for your blog. Jamie , YOU are a blogger. I'm...' I didn't even know what I was-I was just NOT a blogger. But she didn't forget and I got over my insecurity (almost).  I'm ready to blog and I want to blog on shame. Why shame? I think shame is one of the biggest tools if not THE biggest tool in the arsenal of the devil and the topic doesn't get discussed much in churches. And, I  have been learning a lot about the topic over the past two years -- as in first hand. The idea of shame isn't new to me, but sometimes you know about something (i.e. intellectual knowing) and other times you KNOW something (i.e. in your bones/gut knowing). It is almost as if I had to have a face to face with my own shame to realize how powerful and destructive shame is to all of us.

If we are going to understand shame, we have to distinguish between it and its close cousin, guilt.  Here's a working definition of guilt:

1. The fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law;

2. A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
Thank you dictionary.
Guilt is like a two sided coin: one side has an imprint of an offense and the other side, an imprint of our feelings about said event; we think or do or say something that falls outside of the parameters of a moral law to which we ascribe, and we have feelings about it. Within this rudimentary definition of guilt there is an important distinction between unhealthy and healthy guilt. My personal definition of  unhealthy guilt is  "blaming someone else for not getting what you want."  We have feelings (usually those that make us uncomfortable or we don't like) and we would rather not discuss them openly and honestly, so we shroud them in unhealthy guilt messages like: "you never call me" or "everyone else is going to the family reunion..." Unhealthy guilt points and blames; healthy guilt acknowledges and restores.

From God's perspective guilt is ultimately about broken relationship. It isn't just a Law that is broken or a specific sin, it's a connection to the divine that is torn and fractured. And while a system of offerings was set up to restore and maintain connection with God in the Old Testament, it is in Christ that we are relieved of the consequences of messing with our relationship with God.


Depression Is Not A Scandal

For the second time in a month my big, beige, suburban community is mourning the loss of a life to suicide.

Last weekend we lost another friend, a 46 year old father of two, to the vice-like grip of depression.

In the aftermath of these two tragedies, a lot of people are asking themselves what they could have done differently. There's so much regret to carry, and the tendency is to wish we'd paid better attention, that we'd been more attentive to one who was clearly suffering in our midst. It's hard not to shoulder the blame or harbor guilt for not having been there – for not stopping it.

But sometimes there is no stopping it.

Sometimes there's nothing anyone could have done, because, like many other chemically treatable illnesses, sometimes depression can be fatal.

My husband just talked to this friend on Christmas Eve and says everything seemed fine. “He seemed happy.” These are the words we hear all too often after someone we love succumbs to the crushing weight of depression.

Total Wednesday Addams.
 ...But, like, if Wednesday Addams was from California.
I've struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Like, even as a small child.

I had performance anxiety so bad that every day during 3rd grade math I broke out in hives. Now I like to joke that I am literally allergic to math, but the truth is I was just an incredibly troubled little kid. Recurring nightmares of being chased, abducted, and buried alive plagued my dreams, and I fretted constantly about my Mom dying or one of my siblings taken by cancer or something - there was a definite Wednesday Addams vibe to my childhood. I appeared to be a normal kid, the only outward sign of my inner turmoil were the sunken eyes and dark circles earned by long, sleepless nights of worry and fear.

But I seemed happy.

I played the role of happy well enough to not call too much attention to my state of mental health. As long as a person seems reasonably happy, usually no one around them will stop long enough to notice if they're not. The thing about life is that everybody's doing it all at once. Everyone is working really hard to navigate the rough waters of their own lives, and that makes it kind of easy for people who are battling depression to fly under the radar. I mean, as long as you're not doing anything really batshit, like talking to a fire hydrant or eating the couch cushions, mental illness can be fairly easy to sweep under the rug. It's just one of those things that everyone knows is there, but no one has to look at or acknowledge unless they've really got the time and energy to lift the cover. As a child, I seemed happy, or at least happy enough to stay safely swept under the rug.