Two More Wrong Ways to Handle Shame

Two More Wrong Ways to Handle Shame May 30, 2023

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Americans are talking about shame far more than in the past. Shame is not a new problem. Instead, people are simply more aware of its presence and power.

Unfortunately, we’re still struggling to respond to it. To be sure, we’ll never get rid of shame, because we’re sinners who do things that are worthy of shame. Also, shame is a basic aspect of godly living. It is a fundamental moral emotion.

My concern is that common ways of dealing with shame today are actually making the problem worse. Previously, I highlighted two problematic ways of dealing with shame. In this post, I note two more mistaken strategies that people are you using to handle shame.

Each misguided approach to avoid shame concerns identity.

1. Idolize Identity

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Shame and honor inherently are relational concepts. Neither exists in a social vacuum. Accordingly, shame and identity are integrally intertwined. When is a person publicly shamed? Why might an individual feel ashamed?

Put simply, it’s often because they feel their identity is being threatened. A person wants to have this or that identity, with its assorted virtues, yet something challenges that identity or exposes that identity as false or less valued.

Therefore, many in our society today have begun to idolize identity. They choose a certain social identity and then absolutize it.

Keep in mind that an individual’s identity is always a composite of social identities. I am a husband, father, friend, employee, author, theologian, missiologist, and athlete. I am also white, American, Enneagram 1, INTJ (or ENTJ?), an abuse survivor, and the basτard son of a poor 16-year-old single mom. But none of those identity roles ultimately defines me… nor you.

Rather, Galatians 3:26-29 explains,

… for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Nowadays, some people forget this or simply don’t realize the ultimate source of human identity.

So, they take one aspect of their social identity and virtually essentialize themselves with it. Perhaps, this tactic is often taken with gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, and occupation. Each of these things is critical to forming and understanding personal identity.

But when we idolize or absolutize one single dimension of our social identity, we make it sacred. And we are not ashamed of what we regard as holy.

On the surface, this is an appealing strategy. You can’t easily shame a person who absolutizes their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, or nationality. However, there’s always something else that a person might feel shame about. And let’s not forget, such sacralizing of social identity only creates more problems. It generates a virtual holy war when diverse groups are idolizing their respective social identities and so become offended by others who did not share their identity.

2. Change Identity at Whim

A second strategy seems to be the inverse of the above approach. A person tries to avoid shame by claiming that they can change his/her identity at a whim. There are individuals, known as “otherkin,” who identify as not fully human. Some people identify as animals (commonly called “furries”).

Most controversial today is the claim by many that they are a particular gender (often untethered to biological sεx). One website lists 105 gender identities; another mentions 112 genders.

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The point here is not to engage again in gender debates. Instead, consider how fluidity in identity claims can affect how we interact with shame. If we want to shun shame or, perhaps, we seek certain honor, it is often allowed for a person to simply change their identity based on little more than personal preference.

Nevertheless, numerous parts of our lives and stories simply cannot be changed, no matter how much we don’t like them.

These are merely two popular but unwise strategies for dealing with shame. Ultimately, they all fail. At best, they present an illusion of a solution.

  • Are there other approaches that you would add to this list?
  • Which of these approaches are you most likely to be tempted to use?
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