Shame on You

By: Dr. Greg Popcak


Shame, guilt, embarrassment.  Emotions that are as universally experienced as they are universally unwelcome.

Elizabeth Duffy recounts her experience with such emotions in an article where she describes what it was like to discover a stack of Playboy magazines left out by a childhood friend’s father:

“There were no particularly Christian reasons to feel shame at that time in my upbringing. We slept in on most Sunday mornings of my early childhood, and no one had inferred to me in any way that sex was bad. But looking through the magazines was something Marcy and I definitely did under cover of darkness, regardless of how boldly they had been left in our path. We both knew that there was something inherently wrong with two little girls looking at grown-up naked women.”

Click here to read entire article.

Personal, poignant, and thought provoking.  But I thought I would chime in to offer some additional insights from Pope John Paul II. In Love and Responsibility, then Karol Woytyla, wrote a great deal about shame.  He argued that shame is a protective emotion that warns us that we are being treated as an object, not a person.  I think Elizabeth’s example of discovering her friend’s dad’s Playboy magazines is particularly apt.  Looking through the magazines, she saw plenty of examples of people treated as objects, and she felt a sense of shame.  God has hardwired us to expect to be loved as persons and not used as things.  Shame is the feeling that warns us that we are in proximity of a situation where people—and possibly even I—might be used.

A Second Look at Shame

Shame is a protective emotion like fear (which warns us about physical harm) and guilt (that warns us about harm to our integrity) or even embarrassment (which warns us of potential threats to our social well-being).

Like any emotion, protective emotions like shame, fear, and embarrassment can be healthy or unhealthy.  They are healthy if  they help us identify a threat, take corrective steps, and move on.  They are unhealthy if, instead of protecting us, they paralyze us and stop us from doing things that would be good for us to do.  Fear becomes anxiety when it stops us from taking healthy risks.  Guilt becomes scrupulosity when it stops us from receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Embarrassment becomes social anxiety when it stops us from engaging with others.

We shouldn’t be afraid or resentful of these protective emotions, but we should be careful to use them as they are intended.  They aren’t supposed to paralyze us.  They should move us to solutions that resolve the problems to which they bring our attention.  And if these protective emotions are more suffocating than helpful, we should seek help, because that is not how we were created to be.


For more information on overcoming unhealthy manifestations of shame, guilt, and anxiety, check out God Help Me, This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!  

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