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Shame vs. Guilt A Christian Counselor’s Perspective

By Pam Shaffer, MA, LMHC, CDP, Seattle Christian Counseling, PLLC

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Shame and guilt are two very common feelings. Most of us can relate to having felt guilty or ashamed of something we have said or done. Perhaps you are still carrying around feelings of guilt or shame. So what is the difference between them – and what can we do with these feelings?

The Difference between Guilt and Shame

Guilt is a feeling of remorse or of taking responsibility for some type of offense that we have committed. Whether this is a legal, moral, or relational offense, guilt is something we experience when there has been an injustice. It is often resolved when reconciliation and restoration takes place and is usually not a lasting emotion. Shame, however, is a much uglier beast. Shame stems from guilt, but is often long-lasting and creates a mess of problems for us. In this article, I want to focus on the issue of shame and what you can do to overcome shame and be free from its grip.

Shame Cuts Us Off from Others

Shame keeps people sick, isolated, lonely, depressed, anxious, and hidden. I have yet to meet anyone who has dealt with shame and has not had to fight a grueling battle to overcome its clutches. I have also not met anyone who has dealt with shame and has been thankful for what shame has brought into their lives. In Christian circles, it is somewhat common to attempt to find the silver lining amid difficult circumstances. We strive to trust that the Lord is using our pain for good and to rest in the knowledge that the pain will not last forever. But shameful feelings perpetuate negative thoughts and emotions. “I’m not good enough and I never will be.” “If this person knew what I’ve done, they would never speak to me again.” “I can never tell anyone about this or I will lose everything.” Those are usually the thoughts that run through my own mind as I deal with my own shame.

We are built for relationships and God created us to be in community with one another. The book of Genesis outlines this for us, as God presents himself as being in community with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, as well as demonstrating that it was not good for a man to be alone. (Genesis 2.18) He created woman in order to fulfill what was missing. Through this relationship, and in relationship with God, we are shown that we are meant to be known – fully, deeply known. Shame drives us away from being in community and relationship with others. It causes us to hide from relationships due to the fear of being judged, condemned, and rejected. Shame reinforces our sinful nature, causing us to believe that we have fallen too far from grace and can never be healed. Thankfully, this is a lie.

Overcoming Shame

A passageDealing with shame is not easy. It is a long, often dark and terrifying road. Walking through shameful feelings can leave us feeling alone and unworthy. It is often difficult to believe that there is anything better on the other side. Past abuse and addiction are often root causes of shame for most of the people I have worked with the past several years. In my experience, helping people to expose their shame and confront it head on has proved to be the most helpful way of overcoming shameful feelings. So often, we want to hide our shame because it is ugly, scary, and seemingly unforgivable. We want to keep it in the dark so nobody can see just how awful we think we are and how awful we feel. But bringing it to the light is the only way to shut out the darkness.

Healing Shame Involves the Redemptive Work of the Holy Spirit

Finding people or even one person whom you can trust to help you walk through shame is often a challenge. Christian counseling is one place where you can find someone who is trustworthy, and who will look at your shame with you in compassion and love, without judgment and further condemnation. Reaching out to a Christian counselor will give you the opportunity to see that shame does not have to keep you from enjoying your life, fulfilling your goals, and moving on from past hurts.

For many years I have said that shame does not serve a healthy purpose. While guilt can serve a purpose in enabling confession, redemption, and reconciliation, until recently I had not seen any positive effect of shame. However, I am reframing my thoughts on shame serving a purpose. From where I stand, the only helpful purpose that shame serves is that it can offer you a place from which you can see the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit healing your life in a way that may not have otherwise been possible. It’s amazing to me to see the Lord work in spite of shame and to break through it with extreme grace. Guilt rarely affords this opportunity because guilt can be dealt with rather easily, at least compared to shame, and is often resolved without the need for fierce compassion, grace, love, and community.

Christian Counseling to Overcome Shame

If you find yourself in the midst of shame and are unsure of where to turn, I urge you to reach out to a Christian counselor in order to begin to unpack the roots of that shame and to walk through it to freedom. As a Christian counselor, I am committed to walking through this process with you, to not leaving you alone in the midst of it, and to being a compassionate presence in the midst of the storm.

Photos
“I finally got my bed today,”
courtesy of Stephen Brace, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0), “A Passage,” by FidlerJan, morguefile.com

 

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