Shame & Narrative Therapy

Humans are the only creatures who tell stories about our lives. We are made in God’s image, and a significant component of God’s character is acting, and then judging those actions.  

When God created each part of our world, He acted (created) and then judged his actions “it was good” (see Genesis 1). He told a story about His life works.

We do the same, but without the perfect actions and judgement of our Creator. We experience hardships, tragedies, testing of our character, times of weakness and failing, triumphs, and successes. And then we try to make sense of it all. We build a life story. And although we may not consciously know it, we carry that life story around with us every moment of every day. In fact, it drives many of our future actions. 

Shame Festers

Unfortunately, many of us have incorporated shame into our life stories. By shame, I mean… the sense that I am bad as a person, or bad in a certain role (parent, spouse, child). Some of the prime breeding grounds for shame include: 

  • ◌Divorce
  • ◌Being abused
  • ◌Conviction of crime
  • ◌Parental alienation
  • ◌Trauma (especially in childhood)
  • ◌Mental health challenges (i.e. anxiety, depression)
  • ◌Relationship with judgmental/critical person
  • ◌Rejection/ Abandonment
  • ◌Unemployment 
  • ◌A rigid rules-based environment (church, school, etc.)

The Fruit of Shame 

When someone has incorporated shame into their life story, it is often apparent in these ways:* 

  • ◌Frequent bragging/boasting about self (to soothe insecurities)
  • ◌Overwork/ driven
  • ◌Perfectionism
  • ◌Fatigue/Depression
  • ◌Self-Condemnation or- conversely- blaming others
  • ◌Judgmental attitude (harsh judgment towards self often becomes harsh judgement towards others)
  • ◌Lack of boundaries
  • ◌Choosing poor quality relationships
  • ◌Living behind a façade (inauthentic, unable to admit failures) 

*Many of the above are also influenced greatly by physical, brain components such as neurotransmitters and sex hormones.  Shame has been written into every element of our being since our separation from God in the garden of Eden. We can expect shame to attack our spirits, souls, and bodies. 

Shame is Finished 

So how do we defeat shame, and eliminate it from our life story? Thankfully, shame has already been defeated. When Jesus said, “It is finished” on the cross- he was speaking directly to shame.  Lewis B. Smedes puts it this way, “The healing of shame begins best, I am convinced, with a spiritual experience- to be more specific, a spiritual experience of grace” (1993). But what does that even mean? How do we manufacture a spiritual experience? It starts with belief. We all have the freedom to choose what we believe. Do you believe the following things? 

  • ◌We are imperfect humans, and Jesus is the only perfect human to have ever existed- because he was both man and God.
  • ◌We are forgiven from every wrong we have done, past, present, and future. This is a gift given to us through Jesus.
  • ◌We are accepted and treasured by God, as we really are (without any changes required)
  • ◌We can’t lose our treasured status by God. There will never be rejection. 

If you believe the above things (even just a tiny bit!), it’s time to begin retelling your story to reflect those absolute truths. 

Retelling Your Story

Grace (Jesus)-based narrative therapy is a great starting point for incorporating the core belief that “I am good, because of Jesus”. Narrative therapy “emphasizes a person’s life stories and considers problems to be created out of different contexts, not as the result of who the person is” (Murphy, 2012).  What is the problem? The problem is we are human. It's a universal problem (all humans have it!). As a result, we frequently do things and say things and believe things that fall far short of perfect love. There was only one human who was capable of expressing perfect love. That human was also God.  

Our expectations from here on out should include space to be human (flawed). It's a universal problem that we can't fix. We only know what we know when we know it. We may learn great wisdom… but almost always after the fact.  

Step 1: What is the life story you are currently telling about your past and present?
If you are a writer by nature, write your life story down. It may feel self-indulgent to spend time on something so "me-focused", but once you've got your foundational beliefs in order- the fruit will spill out into everything and everyone you come across. Grace is a powerful, beautiful thing.

When examining your life story, include all significant events and what you now view as poor decisions. Here's a fictional scenario: 

I got a divorce because I was immature (young) and wanted a quick fix to my unhappiness. I was unhappy in general, and thought the flawed relationship was the problem. I actually ended up even more unhappy, and deeply regret the divorce. I wish I had been more patient and less selfish at the time. A lot of my problems today are a result of that choice. I am lonely, financially unstable, and don’t have good relationships with my children (who blame me for the divorce). 

This person blames herself and her poor choices for her current unhappiness. She knows now that divorce was the wrong choice… but she didn’t know it then. She only knew what she knew at the time. If she had had better self-understanding, she would have made a different choice. But she didn’t, and how could she? A grace-based narrative might look like this: 

At the time of my divorce, I didn’t have the knowledge to make better choices. It could not have gone any differently, and God didn’t expect it to.  Today, I have learned to be more patient and less self-involved. I could not have learned that without experiencing the consequences of my divorce. I am frequently in a position to advise others to be patient in their marriage, and to avoid what seems like a quick fix. God has taken my poor choice (to divorce) and woven into my character a deep reverence for marriage and restraint. I would not be who I am today, in God’s Kingdom, without my mistakes and His unfailing love. He is never disappointed in me. I can look back on my life and say, “I am good, because He is good.”  I will use every ounce of the knowledge I have now to love others the best I can, imperfectly.

Step 2: Share your life story with someone you trust to reflect back unconditional love, acceptance, compassion. 
Admit poor decisions (it's O.K. to be flawed). Accept God’s forgiveness (you already have it). And explore how He is weaving His own story of love even through your mistakes and failures. There is power in sharing our stories of shame, and shame recovery. We will spend a lifetime unwrapping the gift of grace, and letting it have its way over areas of shame.

Everyone has a story, and if you believe in God's love for you- your story is a beautiful one.


Bottom line: Shame has no place in your life. Only grace.


References

Murphy, Stacy N. (2012). The Power of Story. Counseling Today. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2012/09/the-power-of-story/ 

Smedes, L. B. (1993). Shame and grace: Healing the shame we don't deserve. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 

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