The Game-Changer in Healing and Recovery: Shame
he football season is in high gear. Fans across the country are relishing their chance to watch their favorite teams and hold onto high hopes of glory on the gridiron. Coaches speak of offense and defense, exciting player match-ups, and keys to victory. One of the keys to success in football that is a cliché is that the team that has the fewest turnovers and the most takeaways has the best chance of winning. While it may be cliché, it is proven over many years that teams who take the ball from their opponent more than they lose the ball to their opponent have a much better likelihood of winning.
It is a game-changer.
One of the clear game-changers in healing and recovery is the shame. It is not an unknown factor, but it tends to be a stealth opponent – often misunderstood – who works hard to undermine the efforts of individuals and families as they attempt to seek change in recovering from the weight of addiction, improving connection in family relationships, or managing other mental health concerns. Why is it so effective in hindering our progress? Why is it such a big deal? Isn’t it just an excuse for people who struggle to get better?
To gain a better understanding of the impact of shame, let me return to the football analogy. Visualize with me a gifted and successful quarterback who achieves celebrity status as a superstar on the football field. He feels on top of the world. In the biggest game of his career, as he is in the act of scoring the winning touchdown in the final seconds of the game, he fumbles the ball. The opposing team recovers the fumble and runs to the other end of the field to seal their victory. Suddenly, the superstar quarterback is face-down on the field in emotional agony. He feels intense shame for his mistake. But this mistake is more significant than that. His thoughts go beyond feeling the weight of an error. It engulfs him. He thinks that he IS a mistake. He is stuck forever at that moment. Regardless of his many other positive qualities and successes, he feels worthless. There is no hope. There is no motivation to go on. This mistake now defines him. He is broken. That is the essence of shame, and that is why it is a huge factor in healing and happiness.
The Epic Battle: Shame vs. Guilt
In reality, winning or losing a football game has nothing to do with our worth as individuals. In the same way, the behaviors and problems that we seek to overcome also do not define our worth. They don’t define us – indeed, they can’t define us – because we are, by our very nature, worthy human beings simply because we exist. Thus, no matter how sharp the sting of shame is, there is hope in our battle against it. Of course, we will (and should) feel the weight of negative consequences of our actions, but the difference is that we don’t define ourselves by the actions or the consequences. We define ourselves by owning our actions and doing something about them. This is where the player who has been sitting on the bench for years needs to come into the game: guilt. Guilt allows us to own our actions but not be owned by them. It encourages change as it motivates and empowers. It is what God wants us to feel as we recognize the need for change. Change is possible to achieve as we rely on the fact that we are always worthy, no matter what.
The Big Takeaway
Now that we understand shame a little more, the big takeaway is to figure out how to help each other overcome it. We often refer to the acronym B.U.I.L.D.E.R. to describe some critical components of empowering, reinforcing relationships. Let me reference those components again as you seek victory over shame.
• Be approachable. Don’t judge or criticize.
• Understand that challenges are typical to experience in life. We all do.
• Identify needs – yours and theirs.
• Love unconditionally. No matter what.
• Demonstrate acceptance and empathy. You don’t have to “get it” perfectly to feel with those you love.
• Expect questions and challenges. They will come. Roll with it.
• Reinforce the relationship. It can rise above it all if you want it to.