Can Shaming Really Motivate? 4 Thoughts About Shame, Guilt, and Change

waylandheat asked a question:

Hi J.S. Park! I’ve been reading your book What the Church Won’t Talk About because I am currently struggling a lot with stuff and on top of that feeling a very dry season with God. I honestly love reading through your thoughts and stories on Tumblr, and reading through this book has brought me a renewed perspective on things- so thank you J.S. Park for being a light in so many lives! I don’t know if you have written anywhere on it before- but have you ever shared your thoughts on shame?

Hey dear friend, thank you so much for your encouragement and your kind words. I really needed them today. Also the book you’re referring to is here for anyone interested.

Here are a few thoughts about shame:

1) Shame is a very poor motivation for long-term change.

Shame is that sick physical feeling of being washed through with a debilitating shiver; emotionally it can be an internal bomb of embarrassment, grief, anger, or regret; psychologically it feels like losing self-worth and value. We try to escape this feeling as much as we can—it’s an awful, nauseating, dizzying flush that your entire body recognizes on impact.

Shame is socially weaponized to coerce others into “doing the right thing.” Other times, it’s just to make someone feel like a terrible person, like they could never do any good. In the best case scenario, “shaming” would create the desire to reflect and change your ways for the better. It provokes a sort of social conformity in which you must fall in line for the common benefit of everyone else.

You can see shame tactics being weaponized everywhere. Think of every “public shaming” blog, made famous first by Tumblr, that calls out your fave celebrities for being problematic or mocks the guy who uses the entire four-chair table at Starbucks. Think of books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother or movies like Whiplash. Think of the model who was recently charged for “fat-shaming” (the actual charge was invasion of privacy, and rightly so). Think of this recent method to help quit smoking, in which if you relapse, you donate the amount of money you’ve saved off cigarettes to a campaign that you hate (this combines shame with aversion). Think of a typical evangelical preacher, who uses fear, shame, and fire-and-brimstone to manipulate you into “getting right with God.” Think of terms like “slut-shaming, virgin-shaming, gay-shaming”—and the list goes on.

In the short term, some studies show that shame can make change. However, other studies show that shame is destructive and does permanent long-term damage.

I believe that shame doesn’t really work as a motivation for long-term change. All it does is modify behavior to look like it’s conforming, without actually getting to the root of the issue.

For a great talk about shame and vulnerability, watch Brene Brown’s TED Talk, the most watched TED Talk of all time. Her research is the absolute seminal work on this topic.

2) Shame and guilt are two entirely different things.

You’ve probably heard this by now, but guilt is saying, “I did something bad,” while shame is saying, “I am bad.”

It sounds like splitting hairs, but our approach to both can have entirely different outcomes.

If we can adapt to guilt—”I did something bad”—then we can focus on the how and why of the behavior and even internally change our motivations.

If we adapt to shame—”I am bad”—then there’s no room to look at how and why we do things, and instead can only use punishment and external deprivation to make change. This in turn only makes us craftier and more likely to suppress our true motivations without changing them.

We’ve all seen this before. You can have two people who attend church sit side-by-side who look exactly the same: they show up on time, they donate to charity, they bring coffee and donuts, they read their Bible everyday, they mow your lawn for free. But one is motivated by the anxiety of possible punishment and always compensating for a terrible gap inside them, as if they’ll always be found out. The other is motivated by doing good purely for the good in itself.

Of course, our motives are very messy and never this clear-cut. We could be a blend of both. But the next time you mess up, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Do you feel guilt or remorse or even anger about the thing you did? That’s more or less normal. Or do you disproportionately beat yourself up and wish you could disappear for a week? There’s probably buried shame that’s been carved into you by condemning voices over a lifetime—and really that’s no fault of your own. Many of us have been indoctrinated since birth to only respond to shame, and so we’ve become maladaptive.

3) Shame, despite its damage and ineffectiveness, still points to something deep and true.

I believe shame points to something very real about our human nature: that we know something is desperately missing inside, and we need no less than the divine to be made whole. Underneath our attempts at glamour and glory and prestige, we’re dreadfully naked underneath. The feeling of shame, whether that feeling has come about by right or wrong methods, points to our constant imperfection, that visceral longing that we’re always reaching for something just outside our reach.

So when someone says, “Don’t shame me!” or “Shame doesn’t work,” they’re absolutely right. Shaming doesn’t address the actual need. It only bludgeons someone into good behavior, and only works as long as the bludgeon is there. When it’s not, the behavior just regresses and reverts. The human spirit is a rubber band, always trying to snap back into place.

But to say “Shame is a lie” is actually false. When someone shames someone else, they’re not creating a feeling, but exposing a feeling that points to a human truth. We fall short. We’re incomplete. We’re not whole.

In other words, The person who does the shaming is in the wrong and it won’t work. The person who feels the shame should recognize that this feeling points to a deep human need for wholeness and goodness, and should not ignore these implications.

4) As a Christian, I believe that Christianity both exposes and solves our shame problem.

On one hand, it’s too easy to say “shame is bad and evil,” as if the feeling itself must be banned from culture. The thing is, a world without any shame would be a dang shame. If you swing the pendulum too far this way, then there’s no accountability or justice—and in my opinion, I think it’s become harder to find people who can genuinely admit, “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I hold myself accountable to doing better,” and then following through. Socially and politically, it seems almost impossible these days for anyone to embrace their shame as a reality which must be confronted.

On the other hand, everyone lives with shame, and it’s a terrorizing, anxious burden in the basement of our hearts, often filling us with such dread that we 1) over-work ourselves to death, 2) hide our true selves under a mask of smiling conformity, 3) reinforce our pride to avoid any self-correction, or 4) stay terrified in the dark of making any moves at all. All these options end in spiritual implosion.

In the Christian worldview, shame points to my sin, and sin is the human condition of both my selfishness and emptiness. When I feel shame, it’s simply one more thread that traces back to the very real problem of humanity.

In a perfect Garden, we once had no shame at all, because we had all the wholeness and validation we could ever want. But ever since our disconnection from God, we’ve all been clawing back to Eden, and sometimes, someone points at us and laughs. The pointing and mocking are wrong, but the clawing is our very real struggle for the divine love we once had. It is, like Genesis 3 says, a kind of curse, or perhaps a poisoned sickness, in which we’re trying to find the remedy. And culture says, Do this and that and the feeling of shame will stop. But it never stops. It only changes the behavior and not our nature.

When Jesus died on a cross, he was exposing the high cost of our sin. This is what it takes to claw back to Eden—you’d have to beat yourself up to the point of bloody shreds. Jesus placed himself under the cost of our curse, so that now and eternally, we’d know that our shame was revoked. He did this out of love, but even better, out of grace, a costly love. When Jesus resurrected, this was showing he didn’t just pay a cost, but he also wants an eternal relationship, a relationship without shame. Think of that. He not only died for sin, but came back to live with us, walk alongside us, love us into who we could truly be.

Think of every other relationship you’ve ever had, whether it was with a person, with money, beauty, reputation, sports team, housing association, government, church, career. If you fail those things, they will shame you, and even if you change for them, they have you by the neck, and you’ll still feel unfulfilled. It’s a constant balancing act with unstable, unpredictable forces. These idols promise wholeness, but crush you the second you fail.

With Christ, if you fail him, he’s already taken the shame. He’s already forgiven you. And when you follow him, he actually fulfills you. There’s not an ounce of punishment or penalty in him towards you. He is purely grace. His love is such that, if you mess up, he already knew it was coming, and so instead of compensating for all the mess before, you can actually become who you are meant to be in Him now. No other person, philosophy, system, or interaction offers such grace when you fail.

And only grace, in the end, is the pure motivation that causes true heart transformation. It may take longer, but that’s why it’s grace. Shame is like laying down bricks that never grow, but only keep shape. Grace is like planting seeds, that push through the dirt to the sun, so that your whole being is different. With shame, you only change for what it looks like. With grace, you change because you want to, because you can’t help but look at a savior and be tenderized and galvanized towards His goodness.


Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras, CC BY-SA 2.0

5 thoughts on “Can Shaming Really Motivate? 4 Thoughts About Shame, Guilt, and Change

  1. I remember reading about how in honor/shame societies, innocence and guilt can become skewed. But as a member of a guilt/innocence society, it’s honor and shame that often end up skewed. If anything dishonorable is shameful, then anything honorable is innocent and any means it takes to restore honor is guiltless. At least guilt/innocence is internal. I know if I did something bad or if my conscious is clear. But honor/shame are external – it takes another party to confirm that a person is honorable or shameful. Because we’re social creatures and crave belonging, we enjoy what it is to be honored. But shame – being cut off and isolated, being rejected and despised from the group is something that’s hard on us even if we don’t understand why. The real motivator is doing whatever it takes to have one’s shame erased so that they can be honored as a part of the group.
    It’s only when you truly understand the honor/shame dynamic behind Jesus’ death – “cursed is anyone who dies on a tree” how he bore not just shame – but the most dishonorable and shamefulness of shame can you understand the honor accorded to us as believers.


    1. Thanks for sharing that, Jamie. Great thoughts. In many honor/shame societies, it seems people do the right thing on the surface. For example, when Japan was hit by a tsunami, almost zero looting occurred. But a lot of that was because people wanted to “look honorable,” and the Yazuka (Japanese mafia) was essentially guarding storefronts to “earn honor” and perhaps gain protection money. I’ve wondered what a true shame-free society might look like, and I guess that’s impossible. Shame is so relationally driven.


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