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Dealing with shame

At eight years old Susan’s father came into her dark room, sat on the edge of her bed and began to stroke her hair.  What he did next has stayed with Susan all her life.  She knew it was wrong and her dad told her not to say anything about it, so she buried the secret deep inside hersel…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
At eight years old Susan’s father came into her dark room, sat on the edge of her bed and began to stroke her hair.  What he did next has stayed with Susan all her life.  She knew it was wrong and her dad told her not to say anything about it, so she buried the secret deep inside herself.
What she couldn’t bury and didn’t know how to deal with was the feeling of shame that dogged her as a teenager.  She felt somehow responsible for what happened.  She felt dirty and diminished for it.  Her relationships with guys seemed awkward.  To gain control of the situation and help cope with her feelings, she medicated herself by overeating and then purging.  This turned into a disorder and compounded her feelings – she hated who she was becoming.
Susan may think she’s unique but her situation is much more common than she realizes.  So, what can she do about it?

Uncover the Lies

The insidious thing about shame is that it opens the door for lies to take root and assert control.  Here are some of the more common ones:

1.     LIE: “I am responsible for what happened.”
TRUTH: “I needed protection, and that was taken advantage of.”
2.    LIE: “I’m a failure and unworthy of being loved.
TRUTH: “I wasn’t the one who failed and I still need the love of others.”
3.    LIE: “I shouldn’t talk about what happened.”

       TRUTH: “By sharing what happened, I realize I’m not alone and other people struggle with the same things.
Because we humans mess up with regularity, we have to develop coping mechanisms.  But the only way to truly come to peace is to embrace the truth.  If you’ve been dancing with shame, maybe it’s time to stop.  You don’t deserve the torment; and change is possible.  Here are some steps you can take to find peace:

1.    Decide to get healthy.
2.    Move towards truth – it really will set you free.
3.    Find safe relationships and places to share your stuff.
4.    Choose to forgive as much as you can.
5.    Consider going to a counselor
6.    Work on your story and share it.

7.    Repent of your own bad behavior – own it.

Ultimately, God has a redemptive purpose for even the most hurtful of experiences. When we feel shame it can help us see the hurt and ultimately lead us to a place of healing.  Shame tells you that something is out of alignment in the moral universe.  It’s an alarm bell ringing.  But once it has done its work, it must be turned off.  Only then can the deeper work of healing begin.

Comments (11)

  • Preach it my brother! I really feel this is a big part of where you are heading in ministry and life, Seth; to break the shame off a generation and expose the perversion of those that continue to choose death in this arena… I am with you!!

  • Hannah (Chuck and Selen’a kid) Day

    After working with abused kids over the passed two summers you really realize that this sort of stuff isn’t just occasional any more. A lot of kids are abused this way and need love through christ to help break off that shame.
    Good going with your ministry in this area.

  • The sad thing is that it’s not just girls anymore who are being molested & abused. I find more & more guys have & are being sexually abused.

  • Thank you, Seth, for bringing this subject, a reality for so many, into the light. Secrets aren’t secrets when we share them, and the burden of carrying shame and pain is lightened when brothers and sisters are willing to openly allow dialogue.

    Having been abused over a period of 4 years in my childhood, and healing over a period much longer than that in my adulthood, I can attest to the fact that a few things are of prime importance:

    1) Who I am in Christ: which is moving towards truth and taking it into my heart, mind, body and soul. If ever there is a reality check to depend on, this is it!
    2) Don’t keep silent! Shame is so toxic, talking starts the process of getting it out of yourself. The power of the secret is broken when silence is broken.
    3) Tom Davis wrote a brief statement in his new novel “Scared” that hit me as a truth for all who are processing shame and pain: no abuser is able to steal virtue. Maybe that seems evident to those who have not been abused, but to this one who felt all had been stolen and broken, this truth offered healing deep in my heart.

    An amazing thing has happened on the way to being healed: Romans 8:28 became true to and for me. He does work all things together for good. He is a God of redemption. He is my Father, I am His precious girl. Those are truths worth soaking in!

  • This is a message that is very needed. I also want to shed light into this darkness as I am finding freedom and hope in my healing. Shame comes from many sourses, and it can be devistating.

    One thing that has helped me the most has been to find safe people to talk to openly about my pain, and people that could take me back to the Word of God and replace the lies with truth. My own views of reality were very distorted by the lies that abounded in my mind, and the truth actually sounded like a lie to me. I am having to realign my thinking with reality, with God’s truth, and I am finally finding freedom. The truth really does set you free.

  • There are so many kids having to deal with this, more than we realise. What concerns me at the moment is the other side of the coin so to speak, and thus this is more of a question than a comment. When children get abused by a trusted family member ie a father or grandfather, it doesn’t just hurt the abused, but it can destroy the entire family. The family dynamics are thrown into complete disarray when the head of the family turns out to be the one taken advantage of the innocent. When that person professes to be a born-again child of God it causes even more hurt and confusion, what a lie he has lived to mock God like this!! The anger and dissappointment of the rest of the children and the wife of that person…how do you deal with all of it and what is God’s way in handling a situation like this? We all know how to love the kids and that they are the innocent victims and that Christ’s love and grace will carry them through, but what about the perpetrator? How do we deal with him? Forgiveness – absolutely, but that does not mean condoning or ignoring biblical principles of discipline and the processes needed for receiving restoration, does it? Restoration – definately, but only God can truly restore and if we try and restore a person in ‘ungodly’ ways it will just fail, thus we need to follow the instructions God gives us, not true? And does all of this only apply to a truly repentant person – how do we know when someone is truly repentant of his sin if he does not completely confess to it?

  • Thanks Seth for venturing again into a hard area and one for which there are no lack of books or opinions. You know thirty years of walking in life together creates trust and I have it for you. It’s because of that I’ll push back on a few things.

    As someone who experienced both sexual and physical abuse I can tell you from this vantage point in the meandering journey there are no formulas or models that allow a person to be “fixed”. That is one of the reasons why I have to confess the linear approach including lists of action steps falls on deaf ears for me because it just doesn’t work that way except to have suggestions of a path that unfolds only as you walk it. We are a culture bound by time and performance and in my experience having worked with many of the major Christian ministries in America we celebrate power and secrets. If I can focus attention on the mess you are I don’t have to smell my own wafting odors of sin and sadness. It’s the classic case of deflection and I became a master at it for a season.

    And some of the known tactical steps like #3 “…find a safe place and people to share”…is really known only after you risk it–sometimes with disaster as the consequence. We both know that is the case.

    The fact of the matter is that there really is only one way to be healed. It’s not pithy inputs from people on the sidelines lacking more than curiosity about a suffering soul. It’s not from self proclaimed “experts” verifying their insights through a method or system you buy. And it’s not from family and friends who are lovingly desperate to see change and are bent on their own ways to make it happen even if they are yanking a pupae out of a cocoon and destroying the wet wings of a “not yet ready” butterly.

    And while therapists and pastors can be guides through the maze of externally and self inflicted damage from shame it will only take you so far. I say that with a brother I deeply love who is a pastor and a former therapist who is now a friend and interestingly enough the mother of Anne Heche the actress. That’s another story perhaps for another time.

    All I can do is testify to my own experience. It’s real for me. The putrid pus of shame has been cleansed from my heart by the mystical and white hot power of the Holy Spirit and the finished work of the cross. I don’t need books, novels, motivational sessions or cathartic songs to artificially draw me to a different reality.

    Father’s aren’t supposed to have sex with their kids. Mine did. Father’s aren’t permitted to beat up their children. Mine did. Those are facts.

    But the greater fact is that through the power of the cross I can and have forgiven my dad and gently told him so in whispering moments as he lay dying. That was real. And it’s done. And there is no looking back. He deserves honor as the man who brought me into this world and did the best he could in a sin filled world tormented by his own demons.

    And the experiences with my dad prepared me for others later in life where I would hurt people and be bruised and wounded again.

    But the steady and unmoving place filled with safety and love in the midst of the rocking tectonic plates of humanity’s vile drama has been– my “Abba”.

    And the words of Yeshua (not that of any human being) matter in the end. As Hebrews says God’s word is “alive and active.” The Shack was a great book. But the words were not “God incarnate.” I don’t need books to tell me my positional authority in Christ or what I mean to the Living God.

    I just look at a cross. Like the Catholic one sitting on the edge of my desk. Right now.

  • Shame is a liar and a bully. It tells you everything is your fault and turns you inward in your need to apportion blame somewhere. It isolates you and makes you feel like you are the only one who feels this way, it whispers in your ear that other people would reject you if they knew the truth.

    I agree with those steps you listed there, Seth. All superb, all necessary and what’s more they work. I have had some stuff to deal with and have done it this way. Someone told me something that messed you up doesn’t have to keep on doing it. Forgiveness is an awesomely powerful release. It doesn’t let anyone else off the hook for what they have done, but it stops what they have done to you keeping YOU captive to it. It frees you. Leave them to God – He can handle them better than you can. I found this SO hard to do but it really does work.

    Shame is something to leave behind at the first opportunity. There isn’t ANY condemnation for those who are in Christ…….none at all……..being in Christ is a place that allows you to hold your head up again because He says so. The only One who really knows and who could condemn you declares you not guilty.

  • I have debated adding anything more to this discussion. I choose to do so now because of the trust I have developed for Seth. I applaud him for opening this subject, and commend him for making suggestions that can act as guides for people just starting out in the healing of the injury. And I do it for a couple women who have read this blog post and have emailed me with questions about healing from sexual abuse.

    Not every “step” will work for every person; and there is no prescribed “order” to allow healing. I didn’t read Seth’s words as a pat little answer to such deep injury. I believe he didn’t mean that either.

    I do believe the reality is to “move”: towards God, towards other people, towards yourself, towards reality. Shame and pain have a way of blocking that movement; some pain can be so deeply embedded as to block a person from reaching out in trust to a Heavenly Father when their earthly father failed so miserably to protect. Living inside the shame is a crazymaking place, where reality is distorted and lies are embraced.

    I think we do a disservice to any person who is taking steps, even baby steps, in courage mixed with fear and trepidation, when we say the way we walked the journey is the way to do it. We are uniquely created by Him and will find our journeys towards Him (the source of healing, reality and our identity) to be as individualized as each of us are.

    Is He at the core of it all? I absolutely believe He is. But in the moments of not trusting any “Him”; in the moments when there doesn’t seem to be any fabric to stand on that won’t rip out from under you; in those moments when trust is the last thing you are willing to lean on; in those moments, for those times, the other suggestions Seth made are valid.

    In truth, if anyone had come to me when I lived in the darkness of the shame and pain and had continued to tell me that all my healing would come through Jesus or Abba, I would have spat in anger and railed against being spoken to in what I call “Christianese”.

    But in truth, I can say healing did come through Him, in the form of His Body that came into my life in the dear friends and counselor that taught me what it is to be “welcome”. It was their presence shining His presence into my life that allowed me to trust.

    And so for any person just starting out in healing, growing and becoming the woman or man He created us to be, I pray to be able to encourage them: the pain sucks; you will not break open and die; you are much braver and stronger than you realize; you can’t go around the pain, you have to go through it to get to the other side, but oh! It is so worth doing! Because you are His beautiful child……..

    The post made by Lucia has been on my heart and mind these couple of days, so this next part is my response to her:

    One of the sad and frustrating things about abuse is the associated injuries to others: the family members of the abused as well as the abuser. I know that many in my family have had to face issues of pain and anger: my Mom, my sisters and brother, but no one more so than my husband. Abuse leaves scars on the heart and mind of the abused, which in turn impacts how that dear person can participate in relationships with others.

    The man who abused me was a teacher. Very recently, I learned he was still teaching, so I reported the abuse to the school board. It was far past the statute of limitations of the state in which the abuse occurred for me to pursue criminal or civil action, but I felt very strongly about him not having access to children in school.

    He was confronted by school administration officials and readily admitted to the abuse. He also was very clear that he had no regrets and that he didn’t need professional counseling. Through the wonders of the internet, his wife was able to find a way to make contact with me. I received two emails accusing ME of being the one who was abusive in reporting his abuse of me, with the recommendation being I should move on and forget about it.

    I cannot answer the questions Lucia raised about the abuser and the family of the abuser and how to know whether repentance is true. That is something that is hard to reckon in any situation and none more so than this. None of us have the ability to make a person accept their responsibility, express regret, turn away from their sin and walk the other direction. For the family members of the abused, I would think it very important for them to not get enmeshed, but rather stay clear and firm in their own boundaries. I also believe those family members should be encouraged to pursue healing utilizing similar suggestions as Seth made.

    I know God did not cause the abuse to happen to me. I am also aware that He allowed it. But now I can finally say He has used it for good. The pain is redeemed. He is still in the business of miracles!

  • Wow, Deb, this is great stuff you’ve added to Seth’s blog and all the other good comments – it is full of insight and Holy Spirit power. Thank you for sharing such a good word. Everyone’s personal journey is indeed unique. For me, I have found the step of identifying and breaking free of the lies that were birthed from sexual abuse – (which then led to wrong behavior that hurt myself and everyone around me) – the most challenging of all. I’m not minimizing the huge matter of forgiveness and what that looks like in different situations – it is unbelievably hard. But my struggle has been elsewhere – and I am committed to pursuing healing. Wherever that takes me.

    Thankfully, over the past few weeks and months it has become crystal clear that God has led me to where I am now and it has made me able to step a little more confidently into exploring the shambles of relationships in my life. The body of Christ – in the form of old friends, new friends, complete strangers, books, blogs, counselors, and more – have wrapped around me with such beauty and grace that I stand truly amazed. I KNOW it is God at work answering my cry to be made whole, and to somehow redeem every hurt and pain to His honor.

    Not there yet – but definitely on the way to seeing a full-fledged miracle! And praise God, i can already see how mine is going to help many others find His freedom too.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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