Shame and What to Do About It

By Dan Blair, marriage counselor and family counselor

I look back over my life and I think we can all say we have made major mistakes. We have weaknesses and flaws. I think about the major mistakes in my life and how it has impacted me. To talk about shame, I’d like to start with the NRA in the Bible:

Not good enough



Adam and Eve encountered this as part of the consequences of sin in the garden of Eden. There now was toil with thistles and thorns. They were kicked out of the garden. They felt alone, longing for a restored relationship.

These emotions and other similar emotions are painful. We tend to respond with three levels of self-protective behavior, each level potentially more destructive.

Level 1
Adopt the American way and blame somebody. As long as I blame somebody I don’t have to look at my own responsibility.

Bury the feelings to the point we don’t even know it exists. We deny they are an issue.

Compartmentalize it. Focus on work, family, and distractions. Maybe we push ourselves a little too hard to try to compensate for negative emotions.

Level 2
Anger can give you a sense of control when you feel out of control, and it can numb painful or disturbing emotions.

Binging? Excessive focus on something else to escape and to deal with anger, fear and shame. Anger? Alcohol? Porn?

Crapulence (a  new word I learned) which is binging on an activity to the point of feeling sick or even to the point of self-harm.

Level 3 Affecting Behavior, Thinking and Emotions




Extreme. All or nothing thinking. Something or someone is all good or all bad. Inflexible.
Expectations of self and others cause negativity and criticism.
Evasive. Instead of taking responsibility for own emotions I try to change others.


Stress responses come from negative (but protective) thinking reinforced by the perception of threat:


Leading to . . .

Fixing (the unfixable, or when it is not helpful)
Figuring it out (dwelling over and over)
Forgetting it (requires focusing on something that the brain believes is a threat)

Transforming . . .

Anger to aggression
Fear to anxiety
Sadness to depression
Guilt to shame

Let’s address these three areas of dysfunction in behavior, thinking and emotion using these “F words:” Functioning, Facts and Feelings.


Here are areas that can be source of positive energy.

Accomplishment – meaningful work that makes you feel good about it after you did it

Connection with others, faith, family, friends, nature, a cause, a community, anything bigger than just yourself

Enjoyment – healthy and energy-giving, not something that brings you down or regret

Self-care – sleeping, eating and exercise, paying attention to what you feel and need, and that is in your control

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him” (Romans 12:1).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15a). Remember before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he took the time to cry with his friends. You may be strong but there is no strength where there are no tears (ojo).

“Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on” (Hebrews 10:25).

The writer in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 talks about taking care of yourself and that God deals out joy in the present, the now, from gratitude and good things. (The writer also suggests it’s useless to brood). In Ecclesiastes 9 he adds, “Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

This allowed Paul in the Bible to say, “I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift” (2 Cor. 12:9).


When evaluating a thought process, “THINK.”

True – is the thought the most accurate?

Helpful – does the thought help me in some way?

Inspire – does the thought give you energy?

Necessary – does the thought really make a difference?

Kind – is the thought come from love?

“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious, – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (Phil. 4:8).

“People need more than bread for their life; they must feed on every word of God” (Matt. 4:4).


Instead, here are ways to manage or regulate the emotions.

Acceptance of reality, that feelings and situations are real. Make sense of the emotions, because they are there for a reason. Be kind to yourself instead of trying to make them go away.

Breathing techniques. The Hebraic word for love in the Bible is ialeph,ayin, which is pronounced by simply breathing, which reduces stress hormones which in turn affect the whole body.

Calming techniques, focusing on one or all of your five senses which are activating or comforting.

Distraction techniques (healthy).

Expressive ways to experience emotions and adapt to them, i.e. talking, writing, art, music, or Exercise.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10a).

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23).

“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Finally, shame is created in the context of relationships, and is healed in the context of healthy relationships. One of the most misunderstood aspects of shame is that it is basically about separation from love. As John says in the Bible, perfect love drives out fear. You could say that shame is based in fear, fear of being separated from love. When people know that they are loved, they are not afraid of being inadequate, or wrong, or their “badness”. They feel accepted, safe and not alone. You do not have to perform well to feel that. Love does that.

Instead of love, people tend to rely on performance to feel accepted, safe and not alone. Shame is performance-based. Paul asked the Galatians, after beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to obtain your goal by human effort? In addition to that, many are afraid that disagreeing or being different will lead to rejection. If you never disagree with someone you love, something is wrong. In that case, you may fear that disagreeing means you will be rejected or even abandoned. You may even argue to try and prevent disagreement, and disconnection.

Ideally we would be able to say when someone is upset with us is that their feelings about you doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. Of course if you did do something you regret you can apologize and make repairs. But other than that, instead of defending ourselves we can empathize with what the other person feels.

This is more difficult than I would like. I just got done camping for a week with my wife, and I had to apologize for all the things I said while we are trying to set up the tent. I was surprised how often I was taking things personally from my wife and my son when I was on this camping trip.

Love, though, gives you the freedom to be yourself. It’s here where we can be honest and speaking the truth in love through:

Acceptance and grace

Sense – making sense of the emotions so you don’t feel like you are weird, crazy, or unacceptable as a human.

Kindness to self and others

Conflicts in relationships. can then be addressed with more “F” words:


Fact-finding which often does not change feelings. (But it is true, feelings aren’t facts).

Fault-finding is the responsibility of the individual, not someone else trying to change you.

Instead, focus on:

Feelings are the way to show or receive care. People want to be be ok with what they feel, and for it to be ok to feel better.

Future options reflecting the needs of each person is more productive than dwelling on the past.

More “F Words”

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