Shame. The word itself carries so much weight, so much baggage. Before the fall, Adam and Eve were described as “without shame,” and since the fall, humanity has struggled with shame.
When speaking of shame, I believe many are addressing what I call toxic shame. This shame locks us into our problems, and often keeps us from seeking help. At its root, shame appears to be a lack of forgiveness of ourselves. We reduce ourselves to our worst faults, and believe ourselves to be unforgiveable. We can become fearful that no one could love us if they knew our darkest parts. Toxic shame is exemplified in scripture when Judas, having betrayed Jesus, hung himself.
However, there is another, healthy form of shame. This shame says that an act is beneath our dignity, and invites us to be more. This is exemplified in the story of the prodigal son, who, longing to eat his fill from the pods used to feed swine, remembered his father’s home and returned.
St. Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, warns against wrath towards self. Rather than berate ourselves for our faults, he recommends a gentler approach:
“Poor heart! So soon fallen again into the snare! Well now, rise up again bravely and fall no more. Seek God’s Mercy, hope in him, ask Him to keep you from falling again, and begin to tread the pathway of humility afresh.”
The approach of St. Francis guides us away from toxic shame and into this healthy shame.
If we approach our failings with gentleness, we can shine a light into the darkness of our shame and start to see a path forward. When we are not filled with self-hatred and despair, we can begin to see more clearly our weak spots. We can identify and challenge unhelpful trains of thought. We can disrupt harmful patterns of behavior and interaction. We can begin to forgive ourselves, to approach our wounds with curiosity, and to take steps towards healing.
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