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Shame: Exile and Return


Of all the difficult emotions shame is the most painful. Shame is the blanket appraisal that evaluates oneself as defective. To further complicate the issue, shame becomes entangled together with the other emotions. When shame fuses with sadness, it can takes one’s experience of grief to the level of depression. When anger is fused with shame, anger can become externalized to verbal or physical excess, or it can be internalized, manifesting in passive aggressive forms. One more example of shame fused emotions – shame fused joy. This phenomenon can take several forms, such as a knee jerk reaction to feelings of unworthiness when feelings of happiness arise, or it may manifest as a narcissistic hunger for joy in the form of addictive behaviors.

Shame is an emotion that most people want to rid themselves of, and those of us in the helping professions want to alleviate if not eradicate within those in our care. But what message is shame screaming within each one of us? What is the subtext to the message of worthlessness? Blaise Pascal once described the human experiences of misery as the miseries of a dethroned monarch. Shame shouts, “There’s something wrong with you”, but it whispers, “You once were glorious.”

Humans react to shame by hiding. Sometimes humans physically retreat, being sent into exile from close and meaningful relationships. A more common manifestation is to hide in plain sight by concealing oneself behind a façade, a false front presented to others. We all do this to some extent, and we all do it for the same reason – to stay safe from the painful judgment of others who would see what we already believe about ourselves, “There’s something wrong with you.” This hiding is precisely what keeps a person trapped, enslaved to a façade in the exile of shame.

The whole story of humanity is one of exile and return, and shame is part of this larger story. How does one return from exile? Here are a few thoughts.

The first step of return is the step towards safe and sacred community. When someone returns from shame to glory, they never return alone. It is always in relationship with others who exude love and see the glory hidden in the shame. Secondly, people share their stories. This is a slow process, but a necessary one, sharing how regal glory has been taken, given away, and lost. Thirdly, atonement is made. Etymologically, atonement breaks down to made-one-with or unite. Atonement is how a returned exile is made one with glory.

There is no way around shame, but there is a way through the exile and enslavement back to glory. Christ has overthrown the powers that hold judgment over us, he has announced our forgiveness, and left us an example to follow. It is as we follow Christ in the community of sojourning believers that we begin to travel home.

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