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If I asked you to think of some event or experience where you felt shame, I’d bet your mind would almost instantly think of something. For some of you, it might even instantaneously think of the “worst” thing you’ve ever done or your deepest, darkest secret. If we think of Scripture, it’s possible to say that shame was the first emotion Adam & Eve felt after eating the fruit. 

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?” So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:6–10, NKJV). It is clear, according to this passage, that they both experienced toxic shame. What is toxic shame, though? Is shame only toxic? Is there any healthiness to shame? 

John Bradshaw goes on in his book to say that toxic shame is a shame that imprisons us in the sense that “I am flawed and defective as a human being.” Shame is no longer an emotion that points to our limits, as in how healthy shame teaches us true humility. Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being. A person whose ridden with shame will hide their true selves from being exposed to others. Moreover, a person will guard against exposing himself to himself because it is excruciating to look in the mirror of perceived failure. Toxic shame is an inner torment that is paradoxical and self-generating; there is a shame about feeling shame.

Toxic shame unchecked is a tornado let loose, destroying everything in its path and leaving havoc in life. In Healing the Shame that Binds Us, John Bradshaw states, “to be shame-bound means that whenever you feel any feeling, need or drive, you immediately feel ashamed.” He goes onto say that shame becomes automatic and even the cause unnoticed. “Once internalized, toxic shame is functionally autonomous, which means that it can be triggered internally without any attending stimulus. One can imagine a situation and feel deep shame. One can be alone and trigger a shaming spiral through internal self-talk. The more one experiences shame, the more one is ashamed, and the beat goes on.”

If we are going to grow in life and find true meaning and connection, we need to learn how to be set free from shame. The antidote to toxic shame is vulnerability. Brene Brown, a well-known researcher on shame, states the following in her book Daring Greatly. “Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to think that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living. Our rejection of vulnerability stems from connecting it with dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment—emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead. Most of us fail to understand that vulnerability is the cradle of the emotions and experiences we crave. I know this is hard to believe, especially when we’ve spent our lives thinking that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous, but it’s true.” So then what is vulnerability? Brene Brown defines it “as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” 

Only when we allow ourselves to be truly seen by ourselves first and foremost, and then others, can we live authentic lives. I say ourselves first and foremost and not God because we can hide our true selves from God or think we are at least. Just as Adam projected on to God and Eve after eating the fruit, we often project our shame onto someone or something else in an attempt to save ourselves. Being vulnerable with yourself is truly one of the hardest things we will ever be asked to do. If we are not vulnerable with ourselves, how can we be genuinely vulnerable with God and others? True freedom from shame comes from genuinely being vulnerable and honest with ourselves, even if it’s painful.