Dennis and Stephanie* shared with me that their relationship had slowly grown cold over the last nine years. They couldn’t pinpoint a reason, but they agreed that their intimacy was all but nonexistent. They explained that nine years earlier Dennis had been unfaithful, but Stephanie forgave him for the affair. They had both attended counseling, and he even regained his position in ministry.
Neither Dennis nor Stephanie could understand how — or why — their marriage had deteriorated to the point of being roommates instead of a loving married couple.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize that although Stephanie had forgiven him, Dennis had failed to forgive himself. He suffered from shame.
His shame grew so strong that it stole his joy, continued to damage his marriage and nearly cost him his family. Subconsciously, he told himself, even in the face of forgiveness, that he didn’t deserve intimacy with his wife and that he definitely didn’t deserve sexual pleasure.
People often mention shame and guilt together, but there is a significant difference between the two: Guilt is feeling bad about what you did; shame is feeling bad about who you are.
Shame can originate from a variety of sources — from personal failures such as addiction, bankruptcy or infidelity, or from childhood traumas such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse. Shame often makes the person want to hide. In marriage, this only serves to distance the couple from each other. But God has provided the perfect antidote: forgiveness.
Three steps to freedom
In order to heal, Dennis needed to realize that shame resided in the mind and that change could come with practice and self-awareness. Past experiences remained deeply embedded in his memories and could be triggered at any moment in various ways. When thoughts of failure or regret sought to drag him down, he needed to remind himself that these thoughts did not define who he was.
Both self-forgiveness and self-compassion are the keys to overcoming shame and must be practiced so frequently that they become an automatic response. If you’re suffering from shame, I recommend a three-step process I call the “R3 Factor”:
Acknowledge that the shame is real and has played a part in your life. Reveal that shame has hurt you and has caused some degree of self-hatred. Identify where the shame comes from — pinpoint the specific events or people. You cannot change what you won’t first acknowledge, but healing begins when you reveal your shame.
To rewrite the shame and replace it with healthier emotions, it will be necessary to see yourself — and those who have hurt you — through a different lens. To heal, you will have to look through the lens of compassion.
Life without shame is true freedom. Adam and Eve lost their freedom by disobeying, but then they compounded the issue by hiding from God because of their shame. Today, you can stop hiding. You can renew your life by filling your mind with the truth found in God’s Word (Luke 12:6-7, Romans 5:8, 2 Corinthians 5:17).
It’s as simple as that when it comes to forgiving ourselves — or forgiving those who have hurt us. Dennis had trouble embracing the truth that he had been redeemed in Christ through the power of grace and forgiveness. Instead he continued to view himself through the eyes of shame.
The positive results of the R3 Factor come from confessing what is true and making a decision to rewrite and renew.
It reminds me of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). This woman probably looked at the ground, head hung in shame, as she awaited her punishment. Jesus said that He would not condemn her. But rather than merely offering her kind words of affirmation, He gave her an action plan: “Go, and from now on sin no more.”
What happened to Dennis? Well, shame tried its best to destroy him, but with the help of a marriage intensive counseling experience — and more importantly, through God’s grace and the compassion of his wife — he was able to overcome his shame. They remain happily married today.
Self-forgiveness: When you’re a victim
When shame arises from something done to you, such as sexual abuse, self-forgiveness becomes even more challenging. Many child victims of sexual crimes carry shame and self-blame long past childhood. They believe the event must have been their fault. To convince a victim otherwise is incredibly difficult. The memory that the inappropriate touching actually felt good physically is one of the points of greatest shame that victims experience and is a high hurdle for them to get over. In this case, self-forgiveness plays a huge role. Touch, especially sexual touch, is meant to feel good. Touching is supposed to be natural, not at all “dirty.” The victim who felt those “good feelings” from inappropriate touching needs to be released from the guilt that he or she did something wrong as a child. Those feelings are natural and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s important that the person understands that he or she is truly a victim. This will take gentle, delicate counsel because the victim must not only forgive him- or herself for the feelings that later turned to shame, but he or she must also forgive the perpetrator.
When your spouse is the one struggling
How can you, the spouse of someone struggling with shame, be a warrior next to your husband or wife? There are several ways you can actively participate in this fight. Be compassionate while understanding that this is your spouse’s inner battle and everyone has to face his or her own issues. If your husband or wife shuts you out, don’t take it personally. Fight the shame, not each other. If your wife loses her way, help her regain focus. If your husband falters, forgive him and fight together alongside — not against — him. When a husband or wife knows your love can endure whatever comes, he or she will have the extra strength needed to overcome shame, especially in the low times when the battle seems hopeless. Community, even a community of two (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10), can be the difference between success and failure. Don’t be too proud to seek professional help together. Counseling and intensive workshops have proven useful for others in your situation.
*Names have been changed.