The Emotion of Shame (Part 1 of 3)

Shame is one of the most intriguing but also one of the most damaging of all emotions that human beings experience.  In a moment we’ll take a look at two sides of Shame but as we start to “unpack” and explore this emotion, have you ever considered how this particular emotion, which many of us have been taught is damaging to ourselves and to others, could actually be helpful to us? Lets take a closer look at the “healthier” side of Shame now.

Healthy Shame

Shame is intriguing in that we actually want to have healthy experiences with shame when the need arises or if the situation dictates, because healthy shame could be a good teacher that leads us to correct any personal behavior that we have engaged in that is damaging to another human being (or to other things that matter to that human being like their pets or possessions).

For many of us, an experience with healthy shame begins when we realize that we have done things that are contrary and outside of the value system we have chosen to live by (i.e., not treating ourselves or other people with respect, not allowing them their thoughts, feelings, personal space or even the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from then correct their behavior, which is normative for all human beings). Healthy shame informs and reminds us that our behavior is to have limits, and these limits typically begin and end with engaging in the healthy treatment of ourselves and others again, per our value system.

A “healthy shame experience” also teaches us when we ignore our chosen value system then we run the risk of crossing the spiritual, psychological, physical and behavioral lines or boundaries of other human beings, which conveys a subtle (or harsh) message that their life does not matter as much as mine because it can be intruded upon or violated when I deem appropriate. I call this behavior “dehumanization” because anytime I categorically treat a human being (myself or others) as anything other than the human being that they are, devoiding them of all of their inherent and intrinsic rights, privileges and freedoms that they deserve simply because they are human beings, then I have engaged in dehumanizing them or myself. We’ll revisit the word “dehumanization” and the devastating effect it could have in our lives later in this post.

Finally, healthy shame (like healthy guilt, another “in-sightful” teacher in this self-awareness process) helps me to not only become aware of the fact that I have engaged in a shaming and damaging process of treating someone as less than the human being they are, but it also prompts me to correct and amend my behavior. Corrected behavior that was at one point shameful or dehumanizing of myself and/or to others means that I now engage in behavior that brings value, worth, dignity, honor and respect to others or myself, which by description and practice is humanizing and respectful of their humanity. Ultimately, Love, and the practice of the 10 behavioral characteristics of Agape (To Love, to Esteem, to Cherish, to Respect, to Favor, to Honor, to Accept, to Prize, to Relish, to be Devoted to) is the humanizing response to any behavior that is dehumanizing to ourselves or to others. Hopefully, if healthy shame does its job in our lives, it will lead us to “reset” our mind and our behavior to practice these and other positive and humanizing values.  For now, lets talk about the other, more insidious side of shame.

Dehumanizing or toxic shame

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” – Psalm 139:14 (TNIV)

King David proclaims in this scripture the value, worth, wonder and awesomeness that comes with being God’s crowning achievement. As human beings we get to walk on two legs, we have higher-order reasoning abilities and we have the beneficial opportunity to receive, understand and experience the highest form of Love (Agape) from our God. We also have the opportunity (and intrinsic responsibility) to share and demonstrate this unique form of Love to others. This is one of the basic tenants of humanity and of being a human being.

Unhealthy Shame not only wishes to subtly or violently reverse these valuable processes of humanity, but truth be told, unhealthy shame wishes to steal, kill and destroy us and others, which is the epitome of dehumanization (John 10:10; John 8:44). As we continue to explore the emotion, thinking and behavior associated with shame, an important point for your consideration is that unhealthy shame is toxic in nature and the sole purpose of toxic shame has to do with dehumanizing ourselves or with dehumanizing others.

Dehumanizing others is a simple description of the complex process of failing to recognize and treat others as fully functioning human beings in the 7 Core Areas of their life and existence. Unhealthy shame, whether in thought, feeling or behavior declares you don’t matter, you are not valuable and you don’t deserve to be treated with worth, simply because you are a human. Sadly, if we are not aware of and if we do not combat the poisonous impact of unhealthy shame in our own lives, we may become susceptible to engaging in dehumanizing behavior as well, with the ultimate and literal expression of dehumanization being homicide, suicide or genocide.

Let’s take a look at how toxic shame harms and dehumanizes us and eventually could cause us to harm or dehumanize others who per our value system, we strive to love.

First, we need to remember that toxins are poisons. Toxins don’t give life but in various doses toxins could damage if not kill off parts of the host that they are injected into. Toxic shame works in similar fashion in that when it is injected into the body, mind, spirit or in a relationship, it desensitizes the host to the point of not being fully human or functional in his or her 7 Core Areas (Spiritually, Cognitively, Emotionally, Physically/Biologically, Sexually, Socially/Relationally and Environmentally).  This infusion of toxic shame could cause dire consequences with the host (us) and with others we interact with in our environment.

Practically, this means that if my values, that is, the way I think, feel and act toward myself or with other human beings is impacted and compromised by something toxic, then my ability to demonstrate and live by my healthy values will be compromised and contaminated as well. Just as a pen that repetitively drops black ink into a glass of clear water taints everything in that container, toxic thinking that others do not have intrinsic and inherent worth is a poison that facilitates behavior that is toxic which is dehumanizing to me and will begin to envelop and inhibit my ability to live by my values.

This is dangerous because if we become toxic in our 7 Core Areas, we may not become as Spiritually attuned nor empowered by our God and subsequently not be as spiritually inspiring in our encounters with others. Our Cognitions may distort, deny, delude or deviate from reality and think that any of the “Killer D’s” are permissible in our engagement with others. Our ability to empathize, hurt, be compassionate with and experience other Emotions (or any of the “Empowering E’s”) that humanize us and prompt us to be caring with ourselves and others could be undeveloped if not deadened altogether. You see where this is going. Our ability to operate in health with any or all of our 7 Core Areas will be negatively impacted. But unfortunately it gets worse.

“And you will be like God” – Genesis 3:5 (TNIV)

“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” – John 8:44 (TNIV)

Toxicity begets toxic thinking which begets toxic behavior which by description is dehumanizing, no matter how slight or strong in its appearance or impact. When we dehumanize by allowing unhealthy shame to permeate us we not only become stunted in our ability to treat others as humans but an even more insidious process occurs. We run the risk of deluding then elevating ourselves into a “God-like” stance with others. Remember, healthy shame teaches me that I have limits as a human being. If we cease to live and operate within the limits of being a human and do not treat others humanely, then what are we?

For me its simple.  If I don’t operate within the limits of my humanity, then I unwittingly or profoundly delude (lie to) myself that I’m in charge now, I’m running things, I know what is best for me and others around me, which is very dangerous because it is like God. But therein lies the truth; If I delude myself, then I am toxic. If I am toxic, then I will reflect this in my behavior. Since I am not God, then my behavior will reflect something that is less than Godly or God-like, which is the exact deluded principle that the Enemy of Humanity wants me to embrace (please read the 2nd point in  “Head Games: Come On Now” Part 1 of 3 for more about his scheme). To supplant God reflects self-deluded and toxic thinking and if given the opportunity to enthrone myself, my behavior would quickly and unfortunately devolve into characteristics that do not reflect nor are in the nature of a loving, healthy, Higher Power, which among His many characteristics and attributes is to restore me to sanity (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” – Step Two of the Twelve Steps).

Before looking at additional scripture about Shame, I need to remember that Healthy Shame is one of the last “auto-correcting” self-messages breathed into me by my God who informs and reminds me when I am approaching or have crossed boundaries and limits, internally within myself or externally with others, and that I need to pause and remember my position, role, responsibility, value system and course correct with my thinking and my behavior. To not listen to God’s message that I am not God sets me up to have painful, humiliating and paradoxically shameful experiences that are depicted in the picture above, where my attempt to live beyond the limits, values, realm and productivity of my humanity has failed again. The Enemy of Humanity does not waste any time in disgracing me (or any of us) and relishes to humiliate me by rubbing my face in my decision to embrace his deceit and my self-deception.

Scriptural Insight (Zodhiates, 1996)

Adam and Eve: (Genesis 2: 25): The Hebrew word is “BOS,” and it means to not only feel shame, but also to be ashamed, confounded, disappointed, and/or disgraced and to deceive and act shamefully. This word often occurs in the context of humiliation, public disgrace and shattered human emotions, especially when things do not turn out as expected. This word also conveys that there is a strong connotation of guilt or disillusionment as well as a broken spirit. Although Genesis 2: 25 reveals that Adam and Eve felt “no BOS” as they were naked, it is assumed they felt BOS in 3: 7, after they realized they were participants in one if the most devastating attacks against humanity (and God’s creatures, us) in history.

Shame (2 Corinthians 4: 2): The word is “AISCHYNE,” and it means shame, humiliation, disgrace and embarrassment. This word also refers to those things which one hides out of a shameful awareness of their nature and origin (that is, taking part in certain activities that are not morally right or proper as a believer). This word is also related to…

Shame (2 Peter 2: 2): “ASELGEIA,” which reveals the actions that cause the shameful feelings – the licentiousness, wantonness, lasciviousness, and readiness for all worldly “pleasure.” The word conveys that which is wasteful extravagance, excessive squandering, morally outrageous conduct and a moral tone referring to behavior marked by abandonment and a lack of restraint.

Shame (Revelation 21: 27): “BDELYGMA,” which means “to stink, to turn oneself away from a stench; an abomination, or the “abomination that causes desolation” (inside the places where the Jewish people went to worship – read: inside the heart).

Signs and Symptomatic Shame-based behavior that is unhealthy or toxic (“What will I notice in the person who is dehumanizing in the 7 Core Areas?”)

  1. Spiritual: A hardening or deadening of one’s ability to be inspired, enlightened, encouraging, uplifting and does not lead to the facilitation nor engagement in behaviors that are value-oriented, promote life, nurturance, safety, care nor a connection with God, self or others.
  2. Cognitive: As mentioned above, self-delusion that leads to a disconnect with reality, as evidenced by thinking that is selfish, irrational, compulsive, victim-based, narcissistic, inconsiderate, mean-spirited, manipulative or predatory with others.
  3. Emotional: The display of emotions that are shaming, insensitive, explosive, cold, indifferent, rageful, debilitating, fearful, damning, critical and condemnatory, and are intended to or result in the damaging or breaking of the spirit of another.
  4. Physical/Biological: Encounters with self or others where the practice of sloth or irresponsibility, lack of self-care or over control, abandonment or the engagement in processes that are stressful and serve to be a pathogen to disease(s).
  5. Sexual: Behaviors that are violating or inappropriate, controlling or threatening, explicit or manipulative, disconnected or invalidating, harmful and manipulating, addictive and not loving.
  6. Social/Relational: Behavior where withdrawal or detachment, brokenness or strain, possessiveness or control, codependence or trauma, suffocation or neglect, loneliness or engulfment, rigidity, violence or chaos are allowed to proliferate.
  7. Environmental: Experiences and encounters that dampen or extinguish the vision, purpose, creativity and effort of another person to be a positive and altruistic agent of change in the lives of others.

The beauty is that the road with unhealthy experiences with shame does not have to end unhealthily! In The Emotion of Shame (Part 2 of 3 and Part 3 of 3) we will look at how the first 7 Steps of the Twelve Steps of Emotions Anonymous could be helpful in “reseting” our thoughts, feelings and life experiences that could be marked by unhealthy, toxic, dehumanizing and hopefully unwanted experiences with Shame.

Thanks for visiting and please visit the other blogs written by Dr Ken McGill: Dr Ken McGill’s blog and “3-2-5-4-24” for additional information that could be helpful. I welcome your comments below or via email and your favorites, your retweets and your “+1’s” if you have a brief moment and find the information helpful. Again, it is my desire to provide the very best info for your consideration.


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