Shame-based individuals are those who are driven by guilt, fear and an overwhelming desire to please others. Since that is what drives them they, in turn, act upon the world in the same way in which they perceive it. Thus they may characteristically use guilt, fear and withholding of approval as means to manipulate others.
Ministry Health’sSixteen Marks Of A Shame-Based Ministry (Article 82) details a number of very helpful identifying marks of the shame-based ministry. However, these sixteen marks can be traced to one or more of the following eight basic characteristics of shame-driven individuals.
Eight Characteristics Of Shamed-Based Behaviors
1) High Shame/Low Self-Esteem: Shame-based individuals cannot honor and respect themselves or others. Instead, they’re trapped by their self-consciousness, their sense of inadequacy, and their defense mechanisms which shield they from their own hyper-sensitive self-judgmentalism.
2) Distorted View Of Others: With anger too strong and frightening to admit, they tend to project these feelings outside of themselves. They often make themselves victims by characterizing others as angry, blaming, unfair, aggressive, judgmental, controlling or mean. Since the victimization needs must be maintained, the hostile or unfair feelings projected toward others tend to remain unchanged, too.
3) Distorted View Of Themselves: Unable consciously or unconsciously to deal with the shame-full awareness that they can and do make mistakes, shame-based individuals will engage in various self-distortions and denials. These may come in many forms.
Perhaps a common manifestation of this tendency toward self-distortion is when they are hard on themselves or when they see themselves as infinitely better than others. Such narcissistic tendencies may move them to “over-report” the good things they do while “under-reporting” their failures.
Others may not recognize their grandiose tendency toward “white lies.” Unfortunately, they may not recognize it either. Over time, the grandiose “white lie” can become the “Greatest Fish Story Ever Told.” As these shame-based individuals believe and live out their phantasmal grandiose image of themselves it is no wonder that, in their blind, shame-driven narcissism, they wonder how anyone can do without them.
4) Motivated By Fear: The greater their fears, the greater the need for their mental censors to protect they from their fears. As heightened fears raise the level of hyper-vigilance, their increased hyper-vigilance requires a rapidly increased defensive hyper-response. .
5) Black-And-White Thinking: Closely related to fear motivations is the practice of “splitting” or assigning people and their behaviors to rigid categories. Yes/No, Black/White, Either/Or, Safe/Unsafe, Good/Bad are all examples of the rigid categories they create. When they judge others, there is no “gray” area. Nearly always its “all or nothing,” “throw the baby out with the bath water,” etc.
6) Enslaved By Hyper-Self-Criticism: Those upon whom this judgmentalism falls may feel intense guilt. As if it were any consolation, shame-based individuals judge themselves even more critically, mercilessly and unfairly than they do others. As they have been taught, they are either good or bad, perfect or failure, saint or sinner, worth of love or unworthy of love, competent or incompetent, etc.
7) Fear Of Abandonment: Being abandoned is a fate worst than death. It must be avoided at all costs by behaviors such as people-pleasing, perfectionism, giving in, over-extending themselves to find love, putting up rigid boundaries to avoid relationships and thus abandonment.
8) Loneliness: Shame-based loneliness results from the strict detachment which characterized shame-based individuals. This detachment may be seen in their preference for isolation. This isolation can be accomplished in numerous ways including 1) physical withdrawal; 2) emotional withdrawal; or 3) putting on a subtlety-guarded “life of the party” facade.
The Shame-Based Facade
This facade is, perhaps, the most skilled and deceptive response of the shame-based individual. Their lively, enjoyable conversation (unknown to others) is not intended to befriend anyone or initiate or deepen relationships. Instead, the facade is intended to keep the conversation in their control. This accomplishes at least seven objectives.
First, it lets them control the topic of conversation.
Second, it lets them control the emotional distance and tone of conversation.
Third, it helps them feel good about themselves and receive positive regard from others..
Fourth, it prevents them from having to get involved in others conversations at anything more than a shallow level.
Fifth, used effectively, it help prevent any unexpected intrusions.
Sixth, it puts the environment securely in their control; and among other things,
Seventh, it gives them a sense of friendly positive affirmation without have to get involved with a more intimate friendship.
There are other variations of this “social” facade. Some shame-based individuals ramble incessantly never giving others a chance to speak. Whatever technique is utilized, the loneliness still remains. As long as they are dominated by the shame-based, they will seek to shut out the awareness of the lonely “dark night of the soul”…even if it means repressing this anxious awareness deep in the recesses of their unconscious minds.
If This Describes You And Your Ministry…
First,admit those areas in their ministry that are shame-based, externally-driven, or motivated by approval or disapproval. Sometimes this means they have to recognize that other’s criticisms of us may not be intended to destroy but to help. As it is said, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
Second,recognize that the world is not black-and-white. It’s a mosaic of innumerable shades of gray. Nothing in this world is totally fail safe. Success and failure both occur and seldom is either final. The healthy response is not to avoid success and failure, but to welcome them as opportunities for growth and continued spiritual transformation.
Third,have the courage to deal with a “gray” world. Learn to overcome the pain of understanding the complexity of emotions, choices, and behaviors. After all, life is not so much an event as it is a process. Seldom are mistakes ever final unless they regard them as such. That is why persistence and faith in God’s plan for their ministry are so vitally essential for effective ministry.
Fourth, don’t think in inflexible terms of “good” and “bad.” Instead, develop a deeper awareness of seeing the good in the bad. Become aware of things which may not necessarily be apparent. Sometimes it is those things of which they are initially unaware that are the key to overcoming the dilemma. The search for these keys can be painful and tiring. Do it anyway. Discover the joy of God’s “secret” mysterious working.
Fifth, avoid those “quasi-virtuous” behaviors. You don’t have to pretend you have it all together. You don’t. Nobody does. You don’t have to be stuffy. You don’t have to be rigid, self-righteous, judgmental, and unapproachable to maintain that appearance. These behaviors are just a “false self” which disguise their anger and their inability to form mature, open, and trusting relationships. Instead, do their best to be faithful and passionate in their ministry and let others assist they in their areas of weakness so that they, too, may find joy. (cf. Ministry Health Article, “Real Self-False Self: What’s The Difference?”)
Sixth, recognize the sources and evidences of deep-seated shame-based items to which they are especially susceptible and affect their ministry. Learn how to accept these items and work through them. It will be painful. But without learning how to deal constructively with the anger, they will never experience the full joy of ministry. Instead, it will always be “haunted” by a shadow of a shame-based influence.
Seven, recognizing your inability to really forgive and let go of the hurts is probably the most distinctive sign of a shame-based aspect of ministry motivation. Indeed, this is the greatest indicator that their ministry may be too dependent on fulfillment of toxic shame-based needs. The fact that it is so difficult to wrestle and resolve these issues is simply a reflection of how much aspects or complexes of shame-based factors control you.
Eight, begin to expand your perception of the parameters of possible choices. Before making impulsive “black/white” decisions, take time to reflect on other options. Seek the opinions and response of other trusted leaders. Ask others to help you explore options and alternatives. Ask for assistance to help sort through the overwhelm and confusion you may experience when you begin to be overwhelmed by the numerous options and choices available.
Nine, seek professional support. The things listed above are essential self-esteem issues. Shame-based individuals did not become shame-based overnight. It is likely a deeply-entrenched, cyclical pattern. Old habits die hard, especially when they have apparently “worked” so well. But they really haven’t. These dysfunctional shame-based behaviors just bring you back to the same old hole. (cf. Ministry Health Article #5, Autobiography in Five Chapters).
Ten, accept yourself as a sinful human being, forgiven and accepted as a Child of God. God knows you’re human. He knows that you make mistakes. He knows you’re not perfect. He knows the “bad” side of you. He loves you anyway…unconditionally! The greatest news is that, in Christ, He did something about it. He forgave you. Why can’t you accept this forgiveness and release yourself from the shame that His blood has already released you from?
Leave The Shame Behind!
As individuals begin going through the pain of realizing how their shame-based behaviors affected them, others, and their ministries, they will need guidance to help show they what is healthy and “normal.”
Discovering that their ministry may be shame-based is a painful, eye-opening, and traumatic recognition. But, through it all, perhaps their search may bring they to a greater appreciation of how greatly original sin has affected not just their parishioners, but the preacher, too.
Connecting with others able to give the honest, genuine affirmation that it’s OK to feel anger, disappointment, loneliness, etc. is essential. Carefully seeking out someone with whom to reflect during the painful searching and reorganization of your self-esteem base.
Most important, however, is that this experience can bring the shame-based individual–and the congregation–closer to the complete realization of a healthy, grace-based, grace-motivated ministry rooted in the confidence and victory of Jesus’ undeserved and illimitable forgiveness.
Thomas F. Fischer
* For further reading see Joan Borysenko, Guilt is the Lesson,
Love is the Teacher (Warner Books, 1990), Chapter Two, pp. 26 ff. and Dennis Wholey’s book, Becoming Your Own Parent (1988).
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