Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of shame

This month, I’m continuing a series about removing obstacles to emotional and spiritual growth.  The idea is this: we’re all built to grow and mature, and we will naturally carry out that purpose when we roll away the stones that hold us down.

Last time, I talked about how perfectionism blocks growth.

This time around, I want to talk about shame.

Shame seems like a normal response, when we’ve failed in some way.

I did something wrong, so I’m ashamed of myself. 

Shame may even appear to be helpful at first.

I did something wrong, I’m ashamed of myself, I never want to do that wrong thing again.

But shame, it turns out, is like Dr. Seuss’s Oobleck.  Shame doesn’t stay where you put it, attached to that one thing you did wrong, that one failure, that one thing you want to change.  Shame grows and multiplies and oozes all over the place, generating so much pain in the process that it requires self-medication, in and of itself.

Paul Young (author of the The Shack) says that shame destroys our ability to distinguish between an observation and a value statement.  We can’t differentiate between our behavior and our identity.  When something goes wrong (and that’s pretty much the entire state of life on this planet: things are wrong), we think the problem is not what went wrong.  We think the problem is us.

Shame says things like:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).

Letting Go of Shame, Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron

Why do we have shame, anyway?

  • Perhaps our parents needed us to be perfect in order to feel okay about themselves: when we failed, did wrong, or were just children, they felt deeply ashamed and projected their shame onto us.
  • Perhaps we were taught by a toxic religious background that God is ashamed of us.
  • Perhaps our culture taught us that we should be ashamed if we aren’t manly enough or pretty enough or thin enough or smart enough or athletic enough or enough, enough, enough.
  • Perhaps we think we need shame to punish us enough so that we’ll finally quit doing the bad things.  (Try that idea and see if it works.  Bookmark this post for later use when you’re ready to test another hypothesis.)

It’s really, really good for us to look at where our shame messages came from so that we can dismantle the mess and rebuild.

But wherever the judgment comes from, any time we pronounce judgment on ourselves, shame comes along for the ride.  In Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd talks about this very thing:

“Our fundamental sin is that we place ourselves in the position of God and divide the world between what we judge to be good and what we judge to be evil.  And this judgment is the primary thing that keeps us from doing the central thing God created and saved us to do, namely, love like he loves.”

When we judge ourselves, we can’t love ourselves as he loves us.  We won’t love others the way he does, either. Those of us who are hypercritical of ourselves are also hyperjudgmental of others. We may look nice and kind, but underneath we’re ready to rumble.

Most of us, if we’ve been around Christian circles for more than 10 minutes, have heard all about our value and worth before God, have read a book or a whole library full of books about our identity in Christ When we dig into the truth of God’s love for us, we know that shame isn’t our story.  We know—in our heads, anyway—that Love is our story.  That no matter what we’ve done, Love has done all the work that needs to be done.  It is finished.  That is our reality.

The problem is that many of us functionally believe what our shame says about us, rather than what God says about us.

We will “Yes-But” ourselves to death:

“Yes, God loves me (I’ve read all the books), BUT I need to fix this one thing in order to be truly worthy of full fellowship.”

When we trust our shame instead of God’s Love, we remain the god of our own lives, capable of rising only to the level of our own bootstraps.

And we know all this!  We are fully aware!

When we know the truth, why can’t we just believe the right thing about our identity in Christ and let shame go?

Richard Rohr hits the problem right at its heart:

“God’s freely given grace is a humiliation to the ego because free gifts say nothing about being strong, superior, or moral.” Richard Rohr

At the root, shame is all about ME.  It’s my ego that holds the whole sad structure in place.  My sin, my shame, my need to work hard to make it all go away, outweighs the work of Jesus on the Cross.

My sin is the Big Story because, deep down, I truly believe that I am the Big Story.

Rolling away the stone of shame means releasing my own sin and shame as the ultimate preoccupation, releasing my self as the center of the universe, and instead turning toward the True Story: God’s love and grace, freely given.  Ours to receive.  Or not.  We get to choose.

Ego is the difference between the two sons in the prodigal story.  The younger son ditches his ego in the pigpen.  The older son clings to his ego with both hands, pouting on the porch, refusing to join the party.

There’s a wonderful story about Thomas Keating, a teacher of contemplative prayer.  After a session of prayer, one of his students came and complained, “In 20 minutes, I failed over and over again!  My mind wandered ten thousand times.”  Father Keating replied, “How wonderful!  Ten thousand opportunities to return to God!”

I think that story demonstrates what it looks like to rid ourselves of ego.  We stop worrying about our own strength, superiority, and morality.  We release judgment–ours or anyone else’s.  We just turn back to Love, over and over and over.

This is what rock bottom does for us: it kills our ego.  But rock bottom, our brokenness, in and of itself isn’t the story.  The Big Story is this: get up out of the slop and GO HOME.

Brene Brown has done a bunch of research on shame.  Interestingly enough, her findings echo what Father Keating and Richard Rohr and the Prodigal Son all say: vulnerability is the cure.

“Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.” ~ Brené Brown

Not our strength, not our perfection, not our ego.


Turning back to Love, ten thousand times.

This is the invitation we all face, daily:

Reach out.

Love is here.

It’s safe.

Be vulnerable.

Roll away that ego and all its shame.

Just come Home.

And when we stop looking at our own mess and our own failure and our own shame, and when we just show up again at Home, the change we were hoping for actually happens.  We’re connected to the Vine, and Life lives itself out in the branches.  Goodness has nothing to do with what we can muster up in and of ourselves, and only what we receive in relationship. We simply live out the truth of the Love that we live with.  The blind man who came into contact with Jesus put it this way: “I don’t know how this happened!  I was blind, and now I can see!”  (John 9:25)

“God does not love you because you are good; God loves you because God is good. And then you can be good because you draw upon such an Infinite Source.” Richard Rohr


That’s a great ending to an inspirational blog post, right?

“Yes, BUT!”

“It sounds too simple!”

“It can’t be that easy!”

If you’re hearing that response inside of yourself, that’s the ego, pronouncing its need to be strong, superior, and moral.

Oh, did our ego intrude?  

How wonderful!  

Another opportunity to turn back to Love!

This is the practice we must engage, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day:

roll that stone of shame away, accept the sunlight and rain down into the seed that is our hearts, and open to the unfurling of Grace.

“Stay faithful to your practice.  Grasp the whole thing through the heart, in a way that grows slowly.”  Cynthia Bourgeualt


Recommended Resources

Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff Van Vonderen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Brene Brown Listening to Shame TED Talk

Brene Brown The Power of Vulnerability TED Talk

Paul Young’s story of how shame worked in his life, and how he found healing: a must-watch

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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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