Dealing With Shame

Last week, Ruth wrote an AWESOME article in which she interviewed Leanne Brown about her book, Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day. In Ruth’s interview, the author talks about her research into the world of food stamp recipients, and the struggles food stamp recipients often go through as they work to eat within the food stamp budget they’re given and at the same time deal with the shame that often comes upon people surviving on government assistance.

Dealing With Shame

I feel like I’ve struggled with shame lots in my life. As a kid, we were pretty poor growing up, and that poverty escalated after my parents divorce. Our family spent 2 years or so on government assistance (which we needed even with my dad’s faithful child support payments) as my mom learned some office skills so she could get a job. I was ashamed of being poor. Ashamed of what we had, and of what we didn’t have. That shame transferred to other things during my adult years. I accumulated stuff – awesome stuff – in my attempt to not feel shamed anymore. But along with that stuff came a ridiculous amount of debt, for which I spent many years being (you guessed it) ashamed of. Often times I’ve felt ashamed of my Christian faith as other ridiculed me for it, or ashamed of home schooling when others reacted negatively toward the concept. As such, I’ve learned a few things about shame that I’d like to share today with others who may be struggling with this emotion. I believe that there is a way for everyone out of the destructive cycle of shame. Here are the tips I’ve used to overcome living with shame.

1. Refuse to let your identity be rooted in what others think. One of my favorite sayings is “Be proud of who you are; not ashamed of how others see you.” We humans need to stop working to find our identities in other people’s opinions of us. One of my favorite biblical sayings exists in 2 Corinthians, Chapter 10, vs 12. It says:

For we dare not class ourselves or compare ourselves with those who commend themselves. But they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.

In other words, to judge yourself by the success of others is a plain waste of life. I’m not saying this to make anyone feel badly, but the thing about “comparing ourselves among ourselves” is that it breeds jealousy, contention, self-pity and pride. Once we stop comparing ourselves to others, we learn to be happy for others’ successes and grateful (instead of prideful) about our own successes as well.  This mindset shift breeds confidence, which breeds continued success. It helps us to work to learn from and emulate others’ successes instead of being envious of them. And most importantly, it helps us to be confident in our own right, smashing shame to bits.

2. Set goals and walk with integrity. Sometimes shame comes because we face real and necessary convictions in our hearts regarding a lack of effort or proper behavior about things we want or need to change in our lives. For instance, regarding debt: if we haven’t really made a plan to reduce that debt, or if we have a plan but aren’t making a real effort at it, shame can come-a-knockin’.

The easiest way to deal with that type of shame is to commit to real effort to change the behaviors that are causing the destruction or hindrances in your life. With each step that you take toward making the changes that you need to make in your life, and with each step you take toward walking in integrity, your heart denounces shame. It denounces shame because it knows you are making a real and concerted effort at doing your best.

3. Commit to helping others. When we choose to set a percentage of our time aside to help others less fortunate than us, we get a real picture of how good we have it. All of us, if we look hard enough, can find people who are worse off than we are. By spending some time focusing on those folks and helping them get a leg up, we get a real picture sense of how good we truly have it, and we get the focus off of ourselves and our problems. When we take our focus off of ourselves, we give shame the boot at the same time.

4. Be grateful and have patience. When working on a big goal such as paying off debt or trying to find a job and get off of government assistance, it’s important to remember two things:

  • Be grateful for each and every step you take in the right direction. Be grateful for every job application you put in or every dollar of debt you pay off.
  • Have patience. Reaching the goal counts, but making the efforts to get there counts just as much. Don’t focus on how far you have to go; focus instead on the fact that you are moving forward.

Dealing with shame is a much better option than suffering from it. No matter what your problems are, you are a wonderful person in the sight of Almighty God. Don’t let the lie of shame convince you otherwise. Instead, press on toward that goal – whatever it is – and know that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other that you’ll cross the finish line eventually. 🙂


26 comments on “Dealing With Shame

  1. Shame is such a huge issue! It’s very hard, when you’ve felt compelled by shame to work towards change, to know where the truth (“You need to change to live the life you have the potential to live.”) stops and the lie (“You are fundamentally not good enough.”) begins. Confidence instead of that double-sided coin of pride/shame – that’s key. Thanks for sharing your own experience, Laurie, and for shining light on a problem that is both widespread and deeply ingrained.

    1. Great comment, Ruth! I think shame keeps so many people in debt and unable to start making changes. Once we get rid of it, we can start moving forward!

  2. I think a lot of the shame one might feel from using public assistance results from the judgement people pass onto someone using food stamps in a grocery store. We as humans are to judge in general. I was at Whole Foods and I saw a woman in front of me using food stamps. At first, the judgmental part of me was like, why is she shopping here where it’s pricey? But then I saw she was just buying some coconut oil and a small bakery snack (perhaps to hold her over for ride home), and you remember, everyone’s entitled to good healthy food. Not all stores sell coconut oil, and often the cheap stores that sell it either sell it really high in price or really sub-par quality. I used to live in NYC where I would see people using food stamps that I assumed were abusing them (with some cases making the news of wealthy immigrants from Asia/Eastern Europe who owned cash-only businesses and lied to get public assistance) so I still have that quick to judge mentality in me. But a majority of the people who have food stamps in our country need them and just because they might be dressed nicely or have a newish looking set of car keys in their hands doesn’t mean they aren’t in need of food assistance. The car could be borrowed from a friend and the clothes could be well-taken-care-of thrift store finds. There are always two sides to every story.

    1. Smart comment, Tara! As a child who grew up spending some time on welfare, I felt those judgments first hand. Having spent lots of time helping the needy, I can testify to the fact that there are many people who abuse the system, but there are also just as many who use it wisely and truly need it.

  3. Isn’t that weird that most of the feeling of shame is us self-diagnosing ourselves. Meaning, like guilt, we cultivate that feeling…the good news is we can un-cultivate it as well with mind training. Comparing…man isn’t that the WORST. Stopping the comparison trap is so easy in theory, but so hard in practice.

    1. LOVE that, Tonya!! It is difficult to stop comparing ourselves to others; we’ve been ingrained to do it via society and advertising. It’s a nice way to live once the cycle is broken, though. 🙂

  4. Yes! Being grateful is so helpful when it comes to dealing with shame. You can’t just look back and say, no more shame, no more shame. Instead you have to latch onto something bigger and better.

  5. It took me years of dealing with shame and not being proud of me before I could get to the point that I could follow, “Be proud of who you are; not ashamed of how others see you.” It was a lot of work, and it’s still an easy feeling to slip back into, but I notice it way quicker and have the confidence to kick it to the curb now.
    I found that being grateful and reminding myself to be grateful and help others really does help keep those feelings at bay. It’s sad to think I have to “remind myself” to be grateful, but it’s so easy to get caught up in petty everyday things in life like commute, work, the yard, errands, etc… It takes me being forceful to step back and remind myself, “the commute might not be great, but it takes me to a job. My job is awesome, and pays well. It affords me the yard to maintain and let the kids play in, and the errands are part of everyday life, and things can always be worse.” I’m grateful they currently aren’t.

    1. Oh, I can SO identify. I think it’s easy because in this country we are often focused on material gains. It’s easy to look at the people who have more instead of those who have less, which breeds extra shame. Great comment, my friend. 🙂

  6. Great, honest look at a feeling we all have sometimes, and great biblical perspective on our unshakable identity in God’s acceptance. My husband’s story of feeling shame while growing up is very similar. Luckily he learned from that how to be frugal and now views driving an old car, trash-picking from tree lawns, and wearing great thrift store threads as reverse-status symbols he finds fun and resourceful! And I feel the same way. I think one thing we can do with shame feelings and let them change the way we view others. We certainly don’t want to make others feel ashamed, whatever their financial or other habits may be.

    1. Wise words, my friend! I hear you on the reverse status symbols. I think it’s our way of saying “screw ya’ll” to the Joneses. 🙂

    1. It is interesting, isn’t it! We often think they wouldn’t have struggled with those same things, but Paul tells us that they did! I wonder what their Joneses’ items were? 🙂

  7. When I first moved to Portland I (reluctantly) went on food stamps. I was making $10 per hour and it made sense at the time. I felt so ashamed to be on food stamps, after everything I worked for. But it wasn’t a reflection on my worth. It was a rough patch and food stamps helped me immensely. Thanks for this beautiful post!

    1. “it wasn’t a reflection of my worth”. SO glad to hear you say that, my friend. You are one of the hardest working people I know, as my mom is, and I’m sure there’s many more food stamp recipients that work their tails off but are just going through a rough patch.

  8. Awesome post Laurie! I’ve felt shame in my life for dealing with aspects of my depression. But I know that I am not a weak person and feeling shame for something that is not my fault, will not help me to thrive and succeed in life. XO

    1. Oh, I have SO been there, Mackenzie. Depression is another one of those things that society often shames people about. SO glad you recognize that you are not weak, but wonderful. You deserve the best, my friend!

  9. I have definitely dealt with shame a lot in my past and the sad thing is is that shame is almost the absence of self-love and self-worth. None of us are perfect or lead perfect lives, but we are worthy of love and acceptance and we need to start by loving and accepting ourselves first and foremost and that involves accepting your life and life choices. I have only recently gotten better with this because I think like most things, self-love gets better with age.

    1. “shame is almost the absence of self-love and self-worth”. EXACTLY, Shannon. We need to view ourselves as God tells us in the Bible we are: “perfect in His sight”! Love what you said about self-love getting better with age. This is true too, I think. My confidence now is much higher than it was in my twenties and thirties, when I still cared what others thought about me and my life. Now that I don’t care about those things, I’ve freed myself to be able to focus on sharing love with others instead of worrying about whether or not they accept me. Wonderful freedom in that.

  10. I always say that as long as I can look myself in the mirror everyday and be proud of what I see, then I’m succeeding in life. I find that I experience the feeling of shame much less when I strive to live life with integrity and values.

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