The Pain of Shame

Dr. Brian Allison

When I was in Grade 13, the English class was assigned the book, The Scarlet Letter, authored by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This book is a masterpiece of American literature. Part of the book's brilliance lies in Hawthorne's ability to capture and portray the reality of shame. One of the main characters in the book is Hester Prynne. She is accused and convicted of adultery, and her punishment is to wear the letter "A" upon her chest in plain view. She was to be publicly recognized as a sinner, and her crime was to be publicly acknowledged. Hawthorne herein conveys that shame is a painful experience from the public exposure of one's sin or wrongdoing. For instance, he graphically writes, "Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she [Hester] feel the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal. Clergymen paused in the street to address words of exhortation, that brought a crowd, with its mingled grin and frown, around the poor, sinful woman....She grew to have a dread of children; for they had imbibed from their parents a vague idea of something horrible in this dreary woman...first allowing her to pass, they pursued her at a distance with shrill cries, and the utterance of a word that had no distinct purport to their own minds, but was none the less terrible to her, as proceeding from lips that babbled it unconsciously. It seemed to argue so wide a diffusion of her shame, that all nature knew of it; it could have caused her no deeper pang, had the leaves of the trees whispered the dark story among themselves – had the summer breeze murmured about it – had the wintry blast shrieked it aloud! Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new eye. When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter – and none ever failed to do so – they branded it afresh into Hester's soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, and yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand. From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture" (pp. 85f.).

Shame – many people are racked and riddled with it. The power of shame devastates, demoralizes, and defeats many people. The experience of shame accounts for much of the loss of joy and peace in life.

The pain of shame

What is shame? Shame is a painful emotion. The poet William Langland, the author of Vision of Piers Plowman, says, "There smites nothing so sharp, nor smelleth so sour, as shame." It is the emotion that constrains one to bow his head, to blush, to seek a hole in which to hide. Shame compels one to seek aloneness; to seek some cover; to seek a place of seclusion. As Willard Gaylin aptly writes, "Shame begs for privacy" (Feelings, p. 55).

The Christian community regrettably remembers the tragic moral fall of the charismatic preacher Jimmy Swaggart, a moral fall which remains a monumental reminder of the pain of shame's exposure. The Sunday (February 21, 1988) after his sexual immorality had been exposed, he confessed his sin before his congregation of 7,500 strong, and before a wide television audience. Swaggart paced back and forth on stage, obviously a broken man. He profusely wailed and sobbed. Those expressions of tears were the visible demonstrations of the pain of shame.

Shame is like a cancer which consumes the soul; it emotionally erodes and bleeds away one's vitality. It may result from different situations: the shame of losing one's temper; the shame of lying; the shame of humiliation; the shame of rejection, etc. Now, as mentioned, the actual sting or power of the pain of shame is felt in the very exposure of the wrongdoing or sin to another. The painful experience of shame requires an audience, and that audience may simply be an invisible God.

Shame follows guilt

Shame is the sour fruit of guilt. Guilt is the sense (and feeling) of violating a moral standard, either real or perceived. Guilt is the sense (and feeling) of doing wrong or being wrong or being wronged. Let me highlight this last aspect of guilt – being wronged. Those who have been sexually abused have been wronged. They have not committed a personal wrong; they have not personally sinned. They have been sinned against; but because of their forced personal involvement in another's sin, and thus feeling that they too have sinned, they, of course, feel (false) guilt. Regardless of whether you sinned or you were sinned against, you may still feel the pangs of guilt.

Guilt itself is the cause or source of shame. William Wordsworth aptly wrote, "From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed." The emotional dynamics of guilt and shame often go hand in hand. Both indelibly characterize the human condition. Gary Gilmore, who was executed by the State of Utah in 1977 for murdering two men, after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituted capital punishment, provided us with a commentary on humankind which is haunting, and perhaps universally revealing. In a letter he wrote to his girlfriend, Nicole, he stated, "It seems that I know evil more intimately than I know goodness and that's not a good thing either. I want to get even, to be made even, whole, my debts paid (whatever it may take!), to have no blemish, no reason to feel guilt or fear....I'd like to stand in the sight of God. To know that I'm just and right and clean. When you're this way, you know it. And when you're not, you know that, too. It's all inside of us, each of us." Paul Tournier, a psychotherapist notes, "If I look honestly into my own heart, and into the tragic situation of humanity, which my vocation as a doctor allows me to do day after day, I see that behind all 'personal problems' there lies, quite simply, sin" (Tournier, 1965, 225).

Shame is a loss of dignity

Shame is the feeling of disgrace, dishonour, or disrepute, once the sin or wrong doing has been made known. Shame makes one feel small, inferior, insignificant, or unworthy. One has the feeling of being morally stained, dirty, or unclean. In short, shame means the loss of the sense of dignity or self-worth. The Bible story of David and Bathsheba pointedly reveals the reality of shame. Having committed adultery with Bathsheba, David tried to cover his sin. David, no doubt, knew the guilt of his sin, but he had not yet experienced the shame of it. After Nathan the prophet exposed his sin, David wrote Psalm 51 – a psalm that starkly captures his deep feeling of shame, that is, the feeling of moral filth. He pleaded in prayer, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin...Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me...Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, let the bones which [You have] broken rejoice...Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (vss. 2,5,7,10). I believe that shame is God's built-in punishment for our sin.

Dealing with the shame

How does one deal with the devastating effects of shame? Recall that shame ensues from the experience of guilt. Hence, in dealing with shame, one must first admit and express his or her guilt. Hannah Arendt, the German-born U.S. philosopher, wrote, "It is quite gratifying to feel guilty if you haven't done anything wrong: how noble! Whereas it is rather hard and certainly depressing to admit guilt and to repent" (Eichmann in Jerusalem, ch. 15). The experience of shame dissipates when personal guilt is confessed, and forgiveness and pardon are received. Leslie Weatherhead correctly states, "Confession is the pouring out from the soul of all its conscious repressed and hidden sins and poisons and burdens and grief and sorrows. And it is a necessity for spiritual health...Unless sin is confessed it produces a brooding disposition characterized by great depression....Suppressed sin, like suppressed steam, is dangerous. Confession is the safety-valve" (Weatherhead, 1929, 88).

Only with the confession of personal guilt and the experience of forgiveness, can one be freed from the crippling power of guilt and shame. Karl Menninger, a well known psychiatrist, affirmed that if he could convince his hospitalized psychiatric patients that they could really have their sins forgiven, that he would have 75% of his patients walk out of the hospitals the next day. There is emotional and personal freedom in the experience of real forgiveness. And one must ultimately feel forgiven by God.

Further, because the power of shame entails the matter of personal exposure, one must have his or her shame covered. The Holy Scriptures plainly teach that God's antidote or remedy for shame is that it be covered. The Bible story of Adam and Eve who took of the forbidden fruit is apropos in this regard. When the eyes of Adam and Eve were 'opened', they recognized that they were naked and they experienced guilt. Their first response was to sew fig leaves together in order to cover their loins – their nakedness now epitomized shame. Figuratively speaking, one must move again from the public exposure to the private sphere, having resolved the issue of sin or wrong doing. He or she must be 'covered' again.

The Holy Scriptures are of crucial importance at this point. Jesus Christ taught, "I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments, that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see" (Rev. 3:18). God provides the covering for those who desire it. 'White garments' symbolically represent righteousness. The covering is the righteousness of Christ. The Christian faith teaches that Christ's righteousness spiritually covers the guilt and shame of sin. Yet one must realize that he or she really receives the righteousness of Jesus Christ from God, through faith in Christ's name. The Scriptures read, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins [that deals with the guilt] and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [that deals with the shame]" (1 Jn. 1:9). God really makes us people of dignity.