This series will be a look at Ed Welch’s explanation of how Christians should deal with shame. Shame does have a function; it keeps us from behaving reprehensively. Sometimes we do not have enough shame. At other times, we do not have enough shame. He is convinced that it lay at the root of many modern problems, including guilt, anger and fear. Welch defines shame in the following way:
“Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated.”
He provides an alternative definition:
“You are disgraced because you acted less than human, you were treated as if you were less than human, or you were associated with something less than human, and there are witnesses.”
What is terrible about shame is its public nature. Even if you are not warranted in feeling shameful, there is an essentially public component to it because, by its very nature, it makes you feel exposed. Shame, furthermore, leaves us feeling rejected and objectively contaminated. Shame leaves us feeling as though we do not deserve to live; it makes us feel like cockroaches. As Welch so poignantly notes, we can feel shameful, given the proper conditions, regardless of whether or not the feelings are objectively justified:
“All it takes is a tradition of demeaning, critical words from the right person. All it takes is nothing from the right person. No interest in you, no words spoken to you, no love. If you are treated as if you do not exist, you will feel shame.”
Some of us attempt to name-drop in order to feel important. Some attempt to make ourselves out to be more than we really are in order to impress others and avoid feeling ashamed. Drug addiction is oftentimes fueled by shame. Not only is the drug used to numb the pain of shame, but there is a genuine delight in harming oneself because we feel as though we deserve such destruction. No amount of objective acclaim can make us escape shame, although many of us attempt to undo our feelings of worthlessness in such a way. Shame does not discriminate according to socioeconomic class. No matter how much money you have, these wounds cannot heal simply by amassing wealth.
Shame needs to be distinguished from guilt, as Welch points out. Guilt is private and has to do with consciousness of having done something morally wrong. The guilty person has sinned and is in need of forgiveness in order to escape punishment. Shame is more public:
“Shame lives in the community, though the community can feel like a courtroom. It says, “You don’t belong—you are unacceptable, unclean, and disgraced” because “You are wrong, you have sinned” (guilt), or “Wrong has been done to you” or “You are associated with those who are disgraced or outcast.” The shamed person feels worthless, expects rejection, and needs cleansing, fellowship, love, and acceptance.”
Welch makes the crucial point that some sins are regarded as more shameful than others. Certain sexual sins, for example, are regarded as more shameful than other sins, especially if they are particularly deviant. However, it is unlikely anyone will feel unusually intense shame for a fit of road rage, because such an experience is more common and not regarded as deviant. Unfortunately, shame is very intractable, Welch notes. “Shame is life-dominating and stubborn. Once entrenched in your heart and mind, it is a squatter that refuses to live.”
Furthermore, there is an important difference between shame and embarrassment, although they are close cousins. Embarrassment is milder, and it comes from having been caught doing something that others do as well. Picking your nose in public is one example of this. Everyone picks their nose, but being caught in public causes us embarrassment, yet it is not as intense as shame because it is universally known that everyone else does this. Embarrassment can be laughed about for this reason, but the same is not true of shame:
“With shame, you never laugh at it. It feels like unending embarrassment, but it is more than that. Embarrassment doesn’t afflict the core of the person’s soul, but shame becomes your identity. It touches everything about you. Embarrassment points toward shame, but it wears away over time. For shame to wear away, it eels as though the shameful person would have to wear away, and some people have tried such things.”
Any number of things can bring shame, Welch points out. Being sexually violated, having been cheated on, being verbally battered or criticized too harshly, growing up with a predictable parent, feeling sexually objectified, feeling rejected or neglected, being physically or mentally disabled or different, being racially discriminated against, and so on. “What do you want to hide? That is a shortcut to identifying shame in your life,” Welch says.