By now you will no doubt realize that we highly recommend Steven Tracy’s book, Mending the Soul [Affiliate link}. It contains a chapter devoted to the effects of abuse on the victim, and the very first effect discussed is shame. Let me emphasize to all of us once again that shame must be confronted, or it will continue to work (largely hidden) to enslave us and hinder recovery from abuse. Shame-based people can be unapproachable because shame isolates. It sabotages our relationships and even gets in the way of our relationship with ourselves and with the Lord. Have you ever looked at a picture of yourself and turned it over, even though it really wasn’t such a bad photograph as far as quality and pose and so on? Why did you turn it over, or turn away? Similarly, there may well be readers of this very post who turn away from it because they are even ashamed of their shame. But toxic shame is nothing to be ashamed of. As Morven Baker explained recently in one of her comments, shame needs to be put back onto the abuser, because he is the one who needs to be ashamed, not the victim.
Here are Tracy’s thoughts, in part. The Mary Beth he mentions is a young woman who had been abused and was bound in shame:
I’m convinced that shame is the most powerful human emotion. It often overwhelms, directs, and transforms all other emotions, thoughts, and experiences. For instance, no matter what Mary Beth was told by friends, pastors, or her doctor, and no matter what she felt or experienced, the conclusion would always be the same: she was a dirty, wicked, fat girl who deserved to suffer. Her shame hijacked all other internal and external voices.
Once a destructive shame virus has infected our mental hard drive, it’s extremely difficult to remove because it filters all thoughts and feelings that could be used to remove it. For example, when abuse victims like Mary Beth experience sensory pleasure (touch, pleasant music, and the like), they often instinctively feel guilty. These guilt feelings then reinforce the internal shame grid and strengthen the core belief that they are disgusting and dirty.
This is true for positive accomplishments as well. For example, when Mary Beth received an A in one of her courses, instead of accepting that the good grade gave evidence of her academic skills and hard work, her shame acted as an emotional parasite. It sucked all the healthy nutrients out of the experience by letting the A in this course make her feel bad for all the times in her life she didn’t get an A. It might also have convinced her that she didn’t really deserve the A; maybe the teacher just felt sorry for her. Thus, all experiences, including very positive accomplishments, indict and assault the self.
While shame is universally and profoundly experienced, it is seldom understood. For instance, there’s no scholarly consensus on what constitutes shame. But I’ll risk giving my own definition: Shame is a deep, painful sense of inadequacy and personal failure based on the inability to live up to a standard of conduct — one’s own or one imposed by others. Regardless of the subjectivity, fickleness, or rationality of the standard that was violated, if it’s a standard that we or others who are important to us value, it will produce shame. Because shame is connected with one’s failure to live up to an important standard of conduct, shame creates a sense of disgust toward self. Thus, shame makes us want to hide from others and even from ourselves. Longtime Fuller Theological Seminary professor Lewis Smedes paints a clear picture of the feeling of shame:
Shame is a very heavy feeling. It is a feeling that we do not measure up and maybe never will measure up to the sorts of persons we are meant to be. The feeling, when we are conscious of it, gives us a vague disgust with ourselves, which in turn feels like a hunk of lead on our hearts….
(Shame is) like an invisible load that weighs our spirits down and crushes out our joy. It is a lingering sorrow.
(Tracy, Steven R. (2009-05-19). Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Kindle locations 1423-1446). Zondervan. Kindle edition.)
[March 31, 2023: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to March 31, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
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8 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Shame — From “Mending the Soul” by Steven Tracy”
So, so true! I left the marriage a year and a half ago. I remember just standing in my friends bathroom and feeling so shameful. At the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Now I know it’s because by body was treated like an object. Because sex was used as a weapon against me the only thing my body and emotions know to feel is shame and disgust. As I get whole and healed the shame is not as strong but it is still deep in me. I can have nothing but a great day, full of laughter with friends and still at the end of it feel guilty and wrong. I have to purpose to not see myself as a “problem” but as a gift to others. Wow….these blogs are really helping me get to the bottom of what is really going on.
So glad you are finding help here. It is a real battle to put out the flaming missiles of shame. We have to keep putting them out. Then put them out again. Christ is our armor and it is His truth that we need to constantly flood our minds with. Going through the New Testament epistles and looking carefully at the various names the Lord calls us by as His own people is a huge help. Notice He is not ashamed of us, and I have yet to have anyone demonstrate to me that the Lord calls His own people “sinners”. Press on!
Shame as a virus that affects everything on the hard drive….
What a great image. Steve T is one of my heroes!
I sometimes wonder if shame might more properly be called “condemnation”. The two feelings don’t seem much different.
Shame seems to be the core legacy of abuse. I wonder how to heal it as it keeps being triggered and then one is awash in that painful shame and humiliation. It is rightfully the abuser’s shame, but the victim experiences it and suffers it.
Such a good post!
You may have seen that we have a tag for Shame. It currently has 30+ posts that you may also find helpful.
Funny….reading through the Steven Tracy quote, my mind was caught by the same image as Barb’s:
Of all the books or descriptions I have read on shame, I find his quote the most effective — and evocative — of any I have read.
Just had a thought that might add to the analogy….
A “worm”, a form of standalone computer malware, replicates and spreads to other computers. And worms do tend to have negative connotations throughout the Bible.
Finding Answers, please use that thought when composing your guest post about the analogy between computer programming and abuse. It’s brilliant.
You have a gift for this stuff. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂