Sam Tielemans is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas, NV. He specializes in the area of addiction and shame, and he works with clients to overcome negative beliefs about themselves in order to find relief and happiness. He knows firsthand the impact of shame on spirituality and how negative beliefs and emotional weight can get in the way of feeling connected with God. After learning and apply the tools necessary to work through and heal shame, he’s found relief and a closeness with the Lord and now he’s excited to be able to share those same tools with other people so they can experience the same results. He has been married for almost 5 years and has a 2-year-old daughter, and he currently serves as the elders quorum president in his ward.
Members and leaders are talking more about the subject of shame, which is important because of its destructive nature. Shame has been around since the beginning and was a tool that Satan used to get Adam and Eve to hide from God, but shame is easily misunderstood. The more we understand it and the impact it has, the more we can help ourselves and others work through it without being overwhelmed by it.
What is Shame?
Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” The most common emotion that we confuse with shame is guilt, which is a feeling of remorse or sorrow as a result of making a mistake or doing something that goes against our values.
Guilt let’s us know that we’ve done something bad, and shame tells us we are bad.
Why does understanding this matter?
Emotion is the driving force of our behavior and all emotions lead us to act in certain ways. Guilt and shame move us to act in opposite ways: guilt leads us to be accountable, take responsibility, make amends, apologize, restore or repent; shame leads us to hide, isolate, blame others, deny, minimize, rationalize and justify.
If we don’t realize we are feeling shame, we might try to repent and make amends, but the feeling doesn’t actually go away when we do that. An “I’m sorry” alleviates guilt, but not shame, nor does repentance alleviate shame. It is crucial that we understand what we are feeling in order to take the proper course of action to resolve it.
The process of healing guilt and shame are extremely different. When many people make mistakes, they say that they feel guilty, but many times they feel shame but are unaware of it.
A recent convert said to me, “Baptism wiped the slate, but I’m still corrupt to the core.” This perfectly captures what someone feels like when they experience shame —there is something wrong with them, they are not good enough, they are unworthy and broken.
How Does Shame Impact Us Spiritually?
Many people will confess their misdeeds to their bishop, but still feel bad about it afterwards. They beat themselves up and have trouble forgiving themselves, which can be a confusing and frustrating thing for a loving leader to understand. Even though a member might go through the proper channels of repentance, they still can be hard on themselves. This is a result of shame and is not evidence of a lack of faith in Jesus Christ’s Atonement.
Shame extends beyond a misdeed, it is the negative view that we have of ourselves. This negative self-image makes it difficult for us to accept forgiveness and feel clean.
Shame creates an emotional block between us and other people, including the Lord. There is a disconnect between the mind and the heart when we sink into shame — in our minds we believe and know that the Lord atoned for our sins, but in our hearts we don’t feel it nor feel worthy of His grace. This can cause us to lose faith, hope, and feel distance from or ignored by God.
What Are Some Signs We are Feeling Shame?
The feeling of shame can be manifested in many different ways. As a result of not feeling good enough, we try to overcompensate and be perfectionistic. Some people rage, isolate, blame others, judge others, or never say “no” to things.
Other ways we can recognize shame is by noticing our inner dialogue or attitude. Am I critical and harsh towards myself? Do I frequently take on the role of the victim? Do I want to rebel and push back on people or rules? If the answers to these questions are yes, then chances are we are being influence by shame.
Ways to Counter and Diminish Shame
There are four components to successfully move through shame:
- Recognize when we are experiencing shame and identify what triggered it. Some of the physical symptoms include having tightness in the chest, lump in the throat, pit in the stomach, dry mouth, or tingling. Emotionally we feel inadequate, flawed, and a desire to hide.
- Practice critical awareness – challenge and reality check the messages and expectations that fuel shame. Examine situations that bring up shame and become aware of the meaning that we make out of them. For example, if I forget to do my home teaching do I feel bad and tell myself that I’m selfish and that there is something wrong with me, or can I be kind to myself and say I’m not a bad person but need to just deliberately carve out time earlier next month to do it? Shame causes us to turn everything inward and make negative meaning about ourselves out of situations.
- Reach out to others we trust in order to get support and strength from them.
- Speak our shame – being honest and transparent about what is happening for us when we are triggered, which leads to compassion and connection – the antidote to shame. So often we just need to hear that we aren’t the only ones who struggle and that other people have been there and understand. Asking for this reassurance calms and uplifts us.
What Can Leaders Do to Help?
A person in a leadership position can help ward members with shame by focusing on a few different things:
One of the most important is to develop a good relationship with the members in your stewardship. Without enough emotional safety, they won’t share things that are shameful, embarrassing, or things they keep a secret out of fear. We can create safety by loving, serving, and speaking with them on a friend-to-friend level, not from a position of being unequal or above them.
Normalize that nobody is perfect nor is someone bad if they make a mistake. Point them to Jesus Christ and that it is through the Lord’s sacrifice we are able to become whole and have our sins forgiven and our desires changed.
Be careful with the language used when teaching, admonishing, or counseling with members. If they get the message that they are bad or unworthy of God’s love because of what they have done, they’ll feel even more hopeless and further from the Lord.
Look more closely by helping them see if shame is at the root of some of the issues they are experiencing. It’s very easy to look at the behaviors and say stop it or quit being so sensitive. It’s easy for leaders to get caught up in the surface issue (i.e. a member getting offended and struggling) instead of helping them with their shame and supporting them on that level. Understanding the symptoms can give you more compassion and can help you change your approach to be more effective.
Shame is a major stumbling block to spiritual growth for many members. We as leaders have a responsibility to help, teach, and uplift those in our stewardship. As we help provide support in this critical area, they will feel like they aren’t alone. Empathy and compassion are antidotes to shame, and the more we extend our love and care, the more they’ll feel uplifted and inspired to stay on the path.