Is Shame Good for Us?
Updated: Jul 30, 2019
"Shame on you!" We don't have to actually say this phrase to each other to convey shame. We have found multiple ways to add shame to the lives of those around us from phrases such as "that doesn't make any sense" to looks of disgust or outright bigotry. While shame is generally thought to be negative, its use is prevalent.
In the Christian worldview, it may even be considered good for us to be shamed and to feel shame for behaviors. For example, in Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Bradford A. Mullen states, "Shame is a consequence of sin. Feelings of guilt and shame are subjective acknowledgments of an objective spiritual reality." He adds, "Shame is a godly motivator. A virtuous life shames the ungodly, providing a context for evangelism ( Titus 2:8 ; 1 Peter 3:16 )."
Although he adds that Christ removes our shame, this consequence for sin leads people to Christ so he can then remove it. Shame is bad for us--Christ removes it, but it is good for us as a deterrent for sin and a motivator for salvation. A paradox such as this is not unusual in Christianity, but this particular one plays with our emotions.
Dr. Krystine Batcho, in "Why Shaming Doesn't Work" explains, "For people who care about how others view them, shame can deter behavior that incurred such sanction. A form of punishment, shame is an aversive emotion that most people will try to avoid. " However, she continues, shame can result in behaviors going underground instead of causing change. Ultimately, it motivates, but not necessarily for the better good. She adds, "Shaming someone for what they cannot change places them in an impossible situation that can yield nothing beneficial."
The Christian response to this could be that Jesus changes what we cannot change about ourselves--our sinfulness, but Batcho's statement is focused on issues such as gender, race, and mental illness. Clarifying this distinction is important since the conversation around shame is often muddled by differing definitions.
The two above authors do agree that shame is relational and guilt is personal. This distinction helps us understand the nature of shame as horizontal, not redemptive. Batcho clarifies, "Guilt is associated with a specific behavior and by itself is not likely to be associated with psychological distress such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder." Shame, on the other hand, can become toxic. Darlene Lancer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explains in "What is Toxic Shame?" that strong feelings of shame "stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction." She adds, "If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success."
In answering the question, "is shame good for us?" it seems we often think it is good for others, but
not for us personally. We see it as an effective motivator, a way to deter bad behaviors, a means to reach a societal better end. We seem to think we should be actively shaming, but we should avoid being shamed. Of course, there are some who welcome personal shame directed at the self, often for the religious reasons mentioned above. For those outside of Christianity looking in, religious shaming is one more reason to stay away.
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