What are some helpful tips for overcoming shame? How can shame negatively influence your thoughts and behavior?
Shame is an incredibly unhelpful feeling, leading to self-consciousness, a lack of connection with others, and even depression. Overcoming shame and getting to the root of the problem will improve your self-esteem and personal relationships.
Here’s the best advice for Christians for overcoming shame.
Overcoming shame is essential, as this negative emotion can shut you off from relationships with other people. Before learning some tips for overcoming shame, here’s why it’s so damaging.
Shame leads you to behave self-protectively by generating an illusion of self-enclosed autonomy. Some typical thoughts associated with shame include the following. Look for these in your own mind:
- People would run if they knew how badly I’ve failed.
- I’m not a people person. I enjoy being a loner.
- Other people just don’t get me.
- Nobody wants to hear about my problems.
The best advice for overcoming shame is to embrace community, a relationship of open, heartful connection with God and other people. The truth that explodes the lie of shame (and the key to overcoming shame) is that God made you not to go it alone but to be seen, known, and loved.
Shame’s basic lie is that you can “do it on your own,” that you can live your own life and solve your own problems. This lie is generated and fueled by the shame described above. We’re each burdened with a deep-seated fear that our true selves are shameful, that other people would reject us and abandon us if they really knew our thoughts, actions, and true identities
Shame produces the following dysfunctional behavioral pattern:
- It leads us to act self-protectively by refusing to ask for help. Under shame’s spell, we think of asking for help as “bothering other people with our problems.” Letting other people “in” feels threatening when shame is dominating us.
- So we push others away with harsh words and defensive behaviors, leaving us alone in the toxic swirl of our own thoughts.
- Then our self-created isolation amplifies our sense of worthlessness and shame by “confirming” it. So we’re caught in a self-fulfilling mental and behavioral trap.
Ironically, the current generation has actually made an idol out of this dysfunction. We worship and promote absolute independence from others as if it’s a virtue, when in fact it’s the very thing God is calling us away from.
Advice for Overcoming Shame
The best advice for overcoming shame is to choose community. In other words, choose to know and be known by others. In this endeavor, it’s important to remember that God’s Spirit lives in you. Trust the Spirit to be with you in reaching out to others.
You can find vivid descriptions of ways to achieve real community and advice for overcoming shame in Philippians 2 and Colossians 3. According to Paul in those books, creating real human community may look like:
- Showing brotherly affection
- Trying to “outdo each other” in showing honor
- Living in harmony with others
- Comforting others and seeking peaceful interactions
- Denying your own sinful desires and serving others
- Being kind and forgiving
- Being grateful
- Worshiping God together
Along with the Holy Spirit’s help, you require two additional things for successfully reaching out to others for community and overcoming shame: awareness of what you need and the courage to seek it out. Here’s some specific advice for doing this and successfully overcoming shame:
- Find and connect with healthy people. Look for emotionally healthy people, those whose lives show they’re truly following Jesus. See Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11:1 to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” Look for people who show authenticity, openness, peace, and a willingness to share, listen, and grow. Remember that you’re called to cultivate this kind of emotional health in yourself, too, and to share it with others. This is the key to overcoming shame.
- Confidently ask for human connections. Drop the discomfort of thinking you’re bothering people. Practice asking until it doesn’t make you cringe. Examples include: asking someone for help with a chore, asking for creative input on a project, asking people out for coffee and conversation.
- Learn to “bother” others, and let them bother you. Be the friend you wish they’d be for you. For example, if you notice that a friend or family member seems “off” or not herself, straightforwardly “bother” her until she opens up. Offer to pray, ask her to lunch. “Bug” her into community.
- Also learn to accept the same bothering from others. Open up. Risk getting hurt. Theologist Jennie Allen says her closest girlfriends at various stages of her life have shaped her, elevated her goals, refused to let her “settle,” and helped her in all kinds of ways through their friendship.
- Learn to say “yes.” Say yes to requests for companionship, help, and so on, even if they’re inconvenient or unexpected. Also remember to retain your wits. Learning to say yes isn’t about flinging the door wide open for toxic people but about welcoming healthy friendships and overcoming shame.
- Show your authentic self early—including, especially, your annoying quirks and weaknesses—so that your real friends will become evident. Doing this and refusing to make yourself look “better” will scare off the wrong people (those you don’t need) even as it brings in the right people (your true tribe of friends and allies). Jennie Allen describes some aspects of her own “messy” personality as examples of what to share early: She’s forgetful, she’s flighty in conversation, she laughs at inappropriate moments, she asks intrusive questions.
- Finally, share “the last 2 percent.” This refers to the final, deep thing that you tend to hold back from family and friends even when you’re otherwise being open and authentic. It could be a long-ago mistake, anger issues, or something else that you feel you need to conceal. Airing and sharing such things creates healing for overcoming shame. Bringing your dark struggles into the light breaks their power.
A Christian friend of the author’s demonstrated this principle when she confided that she had been strongly attracted to another man (not her husband) at work and had even started texting him. She told Allen that when she shared that “last 2 percent” at an IF: Gathering, the attraction immediately evaporated.
The Negative Spiral of Shame
Here’s a visual showing the negative spiral of shame and how you can reverse it by choosing community:
Exercise: What’s Your “Last 2 Percent”?
Jennie Allen talks about the liberating value of sharing things that you hold back from others in an attempt to protect yourself from shame. You don’t really help yourself through this act of concealment. Instead, you actually empower the hidden things to poison you and dominate you. It’s only when you bring them into the light of community that they can be healed:
- We all know of people who have suffered for refusing to share their “last 2 percent.” There are also notable examples in literature and film. Think of a “real-life” example or, if you prefer, one from a book, movie, or television program. Name them in the box below.
- What was the person’s last 2 percent, and why did they conceal it? What were they afraid would happen if they revealed it to others?
- How did their refusal to share their last 2 percent affect their life?
- What’s your own “last 2 percent”? Why do you hold it back? What are you afraid will happen if you share it with someone else? If you prefer not to write your answers, just reflect deeply.
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- Satan’s master plan for poisoning your mind with toxic thoughts
- How to replace ungodly lies with scriptural truths
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