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  • Writer's pictureGreg Miller


Developing a Clinical & Theological Approach to Shedding Shame

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In Genesis, one of the descriptions of paradise is a place where the people “were naked and unashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) I believe God’s intention and desire is for people to be free from the lies and chaos of shame. Shame is both a therapeutic issue, as well as, a theological concept. When we seek to understand both, I believe we provide more effective care for the individual.

The initial message of shame is that “there is something wrong with me and foundationally, I am flawed.” When we ask the question, “What is wrong with me?”, how we answer that question becomes the specific message of our shame. “I am hopeless.” “I am an idiot.” “I am not enough.” Shame is triggered when we become more aware that we are being seen, and our fear is that others will see us the way we see ourselves. The voice of shame is powerful in each of us.

Donald Nathanson summarizes the experience of shame when he writes, “Most writers (Lynd, 1958; Wurmser, 1981) agree that shame follows a moment of exposure, and that this uncovering reveals aspects of the set of a peculiarly sensitive, intimate, and vulnerable nature. Wurmser (1981) summarizes the content of this complex emotion: “What one is ashamed of clusters around several issues: (1) I am weak, I am failing in competition; (2) I am dirty, messy, the content of myself is looked at with disdain or disgust; (3) I am defective, I have short comings in physical or mental makeup; (4) I have lost control over my body functions and my feelings; (5) I am sexually excited about suffering, degradation, and distress; … (pp 27-28). Kaufman (1985) points out that the interpersonal trigger to shame is a sundering of the ‘interpersonal bridge,’ alluding to the quality of the shame experience in which we feel shorn from our fellow humans; moments in which we wish a hole would open up and swallow us.” (The Many Faces of Shame, Ed Donald Nathanson p. 4)

In addition, John Bradshaw explains “Toxic shame, the shame that binds you, is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that signals our limits, it is a state of being, a core identity. Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of falling short as a human being. Toxic shame is a rupture of the self with the self.” (John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You, p. 10)

The theological construct for shame occurs in the context of our relationship with God. I believe the source of shame is the lies that we believe about ourselves and God. Our value, our identity, and our safety are ultimately found in the truth of who God is. Truth is not the accurate depiction of the facts. Truth is the personhood of Jesus. It is in a relationship with Truth that we are set free. It is not surprising that one of the descriptions of evil is the “Father of all Lies.” (John 8:44) The destruction that deception creates is significant. “I am unlovable.” “I am too much for God.” “Grace is for everyone else but me.” The lies of shame hold us hostage and keep us from becoming the men and women that God created us to be.

Whether approaching shame as a theological or clinical reality, one can easily see the chaos it creates for the individual. It becomes more complicated when someone’s theological tradition associates shame with an indication of righteousness. In research that I recently did using a survey as the measuring tool, it became evident that what may actually be driving compulsive and addictive behavior is shame. In order for there to be freedom, we must experience healing from the lies of shame that was created by the pain of the past. It is in that place of freedom that we are able to experience hope. 


Dr. Greg Miller

Dr. Greg Miller MDiv, DMin, is the Director of the Men's Journey Workshops and Co-Director of the Couple's Workshop. He also leads virtual men's groups and counsels with men struggling with sexual addiction. You may also recognize him as the host of the Faithful & True Podcast.

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