Shame-full vs. Grace-full Relationships

W. D. "Dub" Rogers, Ph.D

Recently, I overheard an interaction between a mom and her two teenage daughters. It went something like this:
Mom: "I can't believe you would embarrass us by dressing like that for church. Why can't you dress like..."
At this, Mom turned and walked away.
The daughters looked at each other, rolled their eyes and one stated, "Pack your bags, we're off on another guilt trip."

Although this type of situation is most commonly referred to as a "guilt trip," it is actually a "shame-full statement." Guilt is about behavior, while shame is about "personhood."

For example, if I came to your house and stole something you value, what would you want me to feel? (Well, besides a knot on the head.) Emotionally, you would hope I would feel remorse or guilt. Those emotions would be appropriate. Why? Because I am guilty. My behavior crossed the line.

Shame, however, is about diminished personhood. If I feel "less than." Somehow I am inherently flawed, and don't measure up. Behavior may serve as a catalyst, but the accusation or bony finger is pointed at the person. In the above example, the daughter may have chosen inappropriate dress from the mother's perspective, however, the message the daughters received was, 1) you are an embarrassment and 2) you are not as good as....

Like guilt, shame is a very painful emotion. Pain demands our attention and we may change behaviors quickly to avoid pain. However, with guilt that comes from wrong behavior, God has provided cleansing. "If we confess (acknowledge and turn from) or sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." I John 1:9 NASV. Shame is like a vague heavy cloud that determines your identity and it never goes away. The behavior or external appearance of a person may or may not look good. However, inside the person is a big empty hole. Intimate relationships between mates or parents and children begin to erode. Shame consumes the pleasant emotions.

Jeff VanVonderen addresses this in his books, Families Where Grace is in Place and Tired of Trying to Measure Up. He identifies ten characteristics that are found in a shame based system, whether it is a family, a church or a group where a person receives the message that somehow they are defective, inadequate human beings.

Those ten characteristics are:

Out-loud shaming. The message communicated is: "Something is wrong with you"; "You are defective"; "You don't measure up"' "Why can't you be like..."

Performance-orientation. The focus is on doing certain good behaviors and avoiding others as a means of earning love, gaining acceptance, acquiring approval, or proving value. Failure to perform results in shame.

Unspoken rules. Rules or standards that are seldom, if ever, spoken out loud govern behavior. In fact, sometimes the only way they are discovered is when they are broken. There is a "can't-talk-about-it" rule in effect - which means no one is supposed to notice or mention problems; and if you speak out about a problem, you are the problem. This forces people to keep quiet. There is also a "can't-win" rule in effect. For instance, children are taught never to lie; they are also told to never tell Grandma her meatloaf tastes bad. No matter how hard you try to keep these contradictory rules, you always fail to perform. And failure to perform results in shame. These rules tend to govern future relationships, unless they are realized and broken on purpose.

Communicating through "coding." Talking about feelings or needs leaves you feeling ashamed for being so "selfish." Talking about problems breaks the "can't-talk- about-it" rule and gets you shamed for being the problem. Therefore, family members learn to say things in code, or they send messages to each other indirectly through other people.

Idolatry. Family members are taught to turn to things and people other than God's acceptance as the measure of their value and identity. The measuring stick becomes how things look; what people think; religious behavior; acquiring possessions.

Putting kids through a hard time. Kids are involved in the messy and imperfect process of finding out about life. But the family cares most about how things look and what people think. Therefore, just being a kid becomes a shaming thing. Children must learn to act like miniature adults in order to avoid shame.

Preoccupation with fault or blame. Since there is such a focus on performance in this family, lack of performance must be tracked down and eradicated. Fault and blame are the order of the day. The purpose of the question, "Who is responsible?" is to find out who is to blame. That way the culprit can be shamed, humiliated, and made to feel so bad that he won't do the behavior again.

Strong on "head skills." Family members become experts at defending themselves. Blaming, rationalizing, minimizing, and denial are just some of the ways people try to push away the shame message - usually in vain.

Weak on "heart skills." "Can't-feel" is another rule governing this system. Feelings are wrong, selfish, or unnecessary. People in shame-based families don't know how they feel or how to respond to their feelings. These are emotionally reactive places.

Needy people. Because love and acceptance was earned on the basis of behavior, but never received apart from performance, shamed-based families are characterized by members who are empty on the inside, full-looking on the outside.

The response to these characteristics may be, "That's me! I've had that happen all my life." Or, "Oh, no, I do that and I hate it. How do I break out of it?"

Well, I'm not going to tell you. You have to come in for counseling and spend a whole bunch of money. No, actually the solution is found in "grace-full" relationships. It is simple yet like changing any system, it can be demanding.

In the previous article shame was defined as the painful emotion that is experienced when I feel "less than". Somehow I don't measure up or I am inherently flawed. It is about diminished personhood.

Again, the ten characteristics Jeff Van Vonderen identifies that typify shame-based relationships are:

  • Out-loud shaming
  • Performance orientation
  • Unspoken rules
  • Communicating through "coding"
  • Idolatry
  • Putting kids through a hard time
  • Preoccupation with fault and blame
  • Strong on "head skills"
  • Weak on "heart skills"
  • Needy people

God's grace has been defined a number of ways, the acrostic God's Riches At Christ's Expense or "unmerited favor". Charis is the most common New Testament word. T.H.L. Parker states, "It's basic significance is to be found in joyfulness, whether in regard to the appreciation of things or of people."

In contrast to shame-full relationships, Jeff Van Vonderen defines grace-full relationships as those where individuals receive messages that they are loved and accepted, valuable, and not alone in life.

Ten characteristics of grace-full relationships are:

Out-loud affirming. The message communicated verbally is: "I love you"; "You are so capable"; "I'm here for you when you need me"; "I'm glad God put you in our family"; "I enjoy your company." Use the person's name often.

People-oriented. Members of grace-full families separate people from their behaviors. David Seamands says, "We all need an environment where we feel our needs are met because of who we are and not because of what we do." I might not like the actions of my child and say, "(Name), when you hit your sister, I don't like that behavior, but I do like you." Sometimes God is not real pleased with how I live but he does love me. Romans 5:8 says, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

Out-loud rules and expectations. Families need rules. They are there to serve the family members rather than family members serving the rules. For this to work everyone must know the rules. Often times in a shame-full family when one identifies the problem, they become the problem. Where as in a grace-full family, if the truth spoken reveals a problem, the problem is addressed rather than attacking the person whom reveals the problem. Have a family time where the preconceived family rules are identified and also some rules that the family would like in place.

Communication is clear and straight. Zechariah 8:16 says, "These are the things which you should do: speak the truth to one another: judge with truth and ... let none of you devise evil in your heart against another, and do not love perjury; for all these things are what I hate, declares the Lord." Truth is the absence of the intent to deceive. Some times what one says is true but the way it is said or what is omitted deceives the hearer.

More commonly people hint at what they would like or desire but do not ask directly. Then they are offended when no one responds. The first person might say, "It sure would be a nice day to go for a drive." To which the second person's reply is, "yes, it is," and then continues to read the paper. The first person becomes upset. This is coding and it doesn't help.

Also, don't triangle or run messages for people. Some one once said, "If you don't have a dog in that fight, stay out of it." If someone gives you a message for someone else in the family or complains to you about another, suggest that they go directly to that person. It is best that you stay out of the loop.

Children are enjoyed. Children are free to act like children, consistent with their age appropriate development, rather than expected to act like adults.

Responsibility and accountability. Fault and blame are used in a shame-full family to punish for lack of performance and are used as tools to attempt to control others. People are responsible for their choices and it is appropriate to hold them accountable for behavior. This may involve discipline but it does not mean punishment. It means helping the child learn from the incident. This might occur through consequences received, or it might happen just by talking together.

"Head skills" are used for learning. The key word is "learning" vs. "defending". "Why did you do that?" which usually triggers a defensive response becomes "Help me understand your thinking." Since the other person is already "pre-approved" the focus is on learning or growth. If the thinking is faulty, it can be changed, the behavior will change as well, thus learning or growth occurs.

Feelings are valid and useful. Feelings are not right or wrong, they simply exist. They act as signs that let us know something is going on between us. The choices we make in response to our feelings may be right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, damaging or helpful.

It's okay for "outsides" to match "insides. In grace-full families what is real is more important than how things look or maintaining an image. Life is viewed from a progress or process perspective rather than an event perspective. I rejoice in progress. God is not through. Behavior is changing. Unacceptable behavior is about poor choices, not about our value and acceptance as people. Therefore, grace-full family members don?t have to fix one another in order to fix themselves.

Don't become overwhelmed with the above list if it is not characteristic of your family. God and growth are involved. Philippians 1:6 says, "He who began the good work in you will bring it to completion." In everything there is a learning or growth curve. I can choose an area, educate myself and determine before God some practical growth steps. Growth will occur.