Do you struggle with feeling shame? Many of us do. Sometimes we are taught to feel shame by our parents, or at a childhood church. But often, our abusers plant a feeling of shame in our hearts. How is this possible? The following is taken from my book, A Journey to Healing After Emotional Abuse.
Abusers are adept at blaming their victims for their behavior. Because of this many victims believe his* behavior is her fault. This makes them feel shame for something they did not cause. In his book Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse,** Steven Tracy defines shame as “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.” He says God gave us the ability to feel healthy shame as a correct response when we violate one of God’s laws. This is a gift from God because it tells us when we are doing something wrong, and it lets us know we are moving away from our loving, holy Creator. It is a gracious call to repentance.
On the other hand, unhealthy, or toxic, shame can never redeem; it can only destroy. Tweet This
Toxic shame distorts our sin, our worth, and God’s grace so that we can do nothing but hide in the shadows. It gives a false interpretation of our sin that strips us of hope. Tracy points out that shame is not a reliable emotion. The Bible makes it clear that humans do not always feel shame when they are guilty, and they are tempted to feel shame when they are not guilty.
In his book, Tracy gives an interesting reason why an abuse victim often takes the blame of the abuse for the abuser. He says if the victim believes it is her behavior that is causing the abuse, this enables her to preserve a sense of meaning, hope, and power. If she is bad, her abuser is good. If she tries to be good, perhaps she can stop his abuse by changing her behavior. This allows her to have false hope that the abuse will eventually go away—if she can only be good enough.
How Can You Heal Your Shame?
Tracy recommends writing a shame history. Prayerfully construct a detailed personal history of the times in your life when you have felt the greatest shame, listing whatever created the shame. Then try to answer three questions about each event:
- Who is responsible for this shameful event? In other words, who “owns” the blame?
- What do you need to confess?
- What do you need to make right (make restitution for)?
You may feel ashamed about an event that was not your fault. However, you may need to confess to God actions you took afterward, such as taking drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or abusing others. Confessing your sin to God strengthens your walk with Him.
The final step is to make restitution for anything you were responsible for. This will look different depending on the circumstances. If you have emotionally damaged someone who is still in your life, you can write a note of apology, acknowledging what you’ve done and offer to pay for their counseling. If the person is dead, or out of your life, you can write a symbolic letter to them. You will never give it to them, but you maybe surprised how good writing the letter will make you feel. As a person recently coming out of abuse, you might find it difficult to discern the things you are responsible for and what things your abuser should own. If so, seek the help of a counselor, mentor, or friend during this step.
Accept God’s Judgment of Yourself
Once you understand what things you are responsible to own, and which things your abuser should own, you can begin to get rid of this toxic shame by letting God, instead of your abuser, or even yourself, define your worth. What does God say about His children?
- We are completely forgiven (Psalm 103:12).
- Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38, 39).
- He rejoices over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
- He doesn’t remember our sins (Isaiah 43:25).
- There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
Look up these verses and others that describe our relationship to the Father and prayerfully meditate on them. Accept them as truth. After all, God’s Word is truth. Exchange Satan and your abuser’s lies for God’s truth.
Prayerfully Hand Shame Back to Your Abuser
Steven Tracy says one of the most empowering things you can do to get rid of shame that belongs to your abuser is to symbolically hand the shame back to him. In many Psalms, the authors ask God to shame their abusive enemies. This had two purposes:
- to cause the abuser to be overwhelmed with shame for his or her sin so they would repent, and
- to bring utter destruction to the abuser if he or she didn’t repent.
Does this sound un-Christian to you? God is a God of justice. He knows we long for justice when we have been abused. In Romans 12:19, He tells us not to take revenge on our enemies, but to allow Him to avenge us. He knows we don’t have the power and authority to properly exact justice on abusers. His justice, however, will be perfect and inescapable. We may not see it in our lifetime, although we might. He will exact most of his justice in the afterlife. If we pray our abuser will be filled with shame, he may repent. If he does, his life will be completely changed. He will be ashamed of his treatment of you. He will stop behaving abusively to you or anyone else. He will try to make restitution to you and others he has hurt. If he does not repent, he will receive everlasting punishment.
Choose to Reject Shame
We live in a world full of sin. Because of this, we won’t be able to stop people from trying to shame us, but we can refuse to accept the shame they try to hand us from this moment forward. Jesus is our perfect example of this. He died the most shameful death known to man, crucifixion. People he loved abandoned him, betrayed him, or were embarrassed by him. The crowds that had lauded him a week earlier now jeered at him and stared at his embarrassment. However, Hebrews 12:2says:
For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
While hanging practically naked on the cross, Jesus prayed:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Shedding the shame of others, especially from your abuser or other family members may be difficult of you because you might be used to accepting other people’s judgment of you. If they treat you shamefully, you must deserve it, right? Wrong!
Shedding Your Shame Messages
How can you begin to shed the shame messages others send your way (or you find yourself thinking), either those actually spoken out loud or implied by their behavior? Tracy recommends writing down each shame message you receive, and then look for what is false about each statement, based on biblical truth. You might want to memorize Bible verses that refute the lies others tell you about yourself. For example, if someone says you are ugly, you can memorize Psalm 139:14:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
If someone says God won’t forgive you for leaving your abuser, you can memorize Romans 8:1:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Experience Genuine Community
Finally, finding a group of people you can be real with will help you heal from shame. This might be a support group, life group, Bible study group, or adult Sunday school class. The format of the group doesn’t matter, as long as each member feels safe to let others see who they really are. In the group you will hopefully confess your sins to each other (James 5:16), be emotionally honest about your joys and sorrows (Romans12:15), give and receive love (Romans 16:16), meet each other’s needs (Acts 2:45, Galatians 6:2), pray for each other (James 5:16),challenge each other (1 Thessalonians 5:14), and help each other if you fall into sin (Galatians 6:1).
You may need to search to find a group like this, but you will be blessed by it, and it will help you overcome your shame. It will begin to heal your relationship with God, others, and yourself. I personally recommend Community Bible Study (CBS), of which I was a member for many years. This is a structured Bible study with a lot of great fellowship built in. I recommend you try it if there is a class near you. (Go to www.communitybiblestudy.org to learn more.) If you can’t find a CBS class near you, look for a Bible study at your church or a church nearby, or a domestic violence support group.
God is the great healer. He loves you and wants to see you healed from the abuse you’ve suffered. Though you may at times doubt it, abuse makes Him sad and angry, and he wants to bring your abusers to justice. He also wants to have a close relationship with you. As you draw closer to God He will work with you to heal you from your abuse.
Isaiah 61:7 says:
Instead of your shame
you will receive a double portion,
and instead of disgrace
you will rejoice in your inheritance.
And so you will inherit a double portion in your land,
and everlasting joy will be yours.
Question: What shame messages have you been carrying?
I pray each of us will hand our shame back to our abusers, and come to truly feel God’s love and freedom.
Bless each of you today,
*In this blog, the abuser is portrayed as a male, and the victim a female. Note that both victims and abusers could be male or female.
**Steven R. Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan, 2005).