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It’s a Shame I Can’t Write about This

By Karen Austin

Photo by Mythic SeaBass via Creative Commons

For over a year, I have been trying to write a post about shame, and I can’t find the right words.

Shame is the belief that we are fundamentally inadequate and incapable of change.  While others might seek to shame us, we do have the power to accept or reject that message, especially as we become adults.   To shame someone damns them from ever changing. If we accept these messages of shame, we damn ourselves.

If someone was shamed us a child, it might take a long time to unlearn thoughts and emotions rooted in shame. However, I believe that we can overcome shame with the help of supportive friends, counseling, and the power of the atonement.   I also believe we can stop shaming others.

The atonement does view people as fallible–but as capable of change.  The feeling that we can change is rooted in repentance-inviting guilt rather than broken-forever shame. A couple of years ago, I read M. Sue Bergin’s book Am I a Saint Yet? which contains this passage on pages 20-21 about shame vs. guilt.

Shame researcher Brené Brown defines shame as “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She distinguishes between guilt and shame, explaining that shame equals “I am bad,” while guilt equals “I did something bad.” As a researcher at University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Brown has studied shame for more than a decade. She says, “Recognizing we’ve made a mistake is far different from believing we are a mistake.”

But I can’t write effectively about shame.

I’m afraid of generating feelings of shame, especially if I relay narratives about myself or others who have been shamed.  I do believe that in order to solve a problem, some attention to describing the problem is required. In this case, the ratio of problem to solution should be about 5:95. I don’t want to create a morass of negative emotion. I don’t want to invite people to open wounds and fester. It’s not productive.

Also, I want to discourage people from shaming others. However, I don’t know how to do this without shaming those who shame.  The irony is too rich.  It makes about as much sense as yelling at my kids to quit yelling at each other.

Instead, I will just briefly repeat the four actions that help me overcome shame.

Enter relationships with supportive people.   I have tried to disentangle myself from people who give me a lot of shaming messages.   I do recognize that those who strive to shame me are actually suffering. Instead of fixing their own problems, they project their fear and anger onto me. Jesus’ parable of the mote and the beam speaks to this dynamic (Matthew 7:3-5).  But I don’t have to seek their company or accept their negative messages.  I also find that Thich Nhat Hanh, a zen Buddhist monk, speaks eloquently about this.  When I read his books, I feel more peaceful and compassionate.

See a counselor. At a few points in my life, I have sought counseling from professionals and from ecclesiastical leaders.  This has helped me reframe relationships, create boundaries, and rewrite self-talk.

Draw on the power of the atonement.  The atonement helps in multifaceted ways. First, I can accept that I am a child of God:  I have a Heavenly Father who loves me and has created me to be a force for good.  I have infinite worth. Second, repentance allows me the opportunity to change. Third, even if I haven’t fixed all of my flaws by this point, the atonement can fill the gap—as long as I am focused on my stewardships.

Cease from shaming others.  I, too, need to repent from shaming others.  Unfortunately, I have done this on occasion over the last five decades–out of fear or anger.   Instead of focusing on others’ faults, I try instead to celebrate their strengths.  And if I must address others’ weaknesses (it’s necessary as a parent), I try to separate their misdeeds from their self-worth.  As D&C 121:43 advises: “… showing forth afterwards an increase of love.”

Instead of writing about shame, I would sing the song of redeeming love. But I’m not an inspiring singer. I would just invite you to draw on the power of the atonement, especially as we approach the Easter season.  Seek the pure love of Christ so that you can love one another.  Accept God’s love for you. Love yourself within a divine framework.   And focus on the positive.

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

7 thoughts on “It’s a Shame I Can’t Write about This”

  1. Kristine & Teresa: Thank you for reading and commenting. It's a challenging topic for me. And if I don't keep shame under control, I fall into a dark pit. Right now, it's all boxed up with a giant rock on the lid, so I'm good! Thank heavens (literally). Have a blessed Easter season.

  2. Thank you so much for this. There is a situation going on in my life right now that would lead me to feeling shame as much as I resist it. I think your essay was exactly what I needed this sabbath morning.

  3. I don't believe we completely heal in this life when shame is heaped upon us as children. It seems to seep into our physical being with the fried potatoes and onions we survived on. I'm almost 62 and the older I get, the more I chafe at being told what to "do" in our lives. I'm coming to a conclusion that we can't "do" our way out of life's heartaches. We learn and we grow and we learn and we grow some more and Jesus takes care of the rest. For whatever reason, some of us were tasked to endure more as children than others and what we learn from it, well, I guess it will make us good guardian angels someday. Or Goddesses, for those who find that appealling.

  4. Stephanie & Cindy: Thanks for reading and commenting. All my best to you.

    Annegb: Hugs to you are you strive to overcome mistreatment from the past. That's a difficult path to walk. I do agree that for some things we will need the power of the resurrection to fully heal from the scars we experience in this world. Love and light to you.


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