Shame Wears a Mask

(This post is from a previous blog posted on ACAC’s blog posts in 2014.)

I recently asked someone how an event went for her—she had told me about an upcoming speech she was to give, and had had some anxiety about it. She replied, “Oh, I don’t know.  Some people seemed to like it.”  With further discussion, it became evident that she was unsure how to receive a compliment when people told her she did a good job after the speech.  She observed that she has struggled all her life with accepting compliments, and admitted she didn’t know how to do that.  She also astutely proposed that she was confused about humility, that her belief that acknowledging a good performance (for example) was tantamount to being prideful was suspect.  And I agreed.

I think the years of legalism in Christian circles have had such a deleterious impact on how we live and think as Christians. I often find people are very confused about things like humility.  Questions like: “Is it wrong to say ‘Thank You?’” or “If I think I did a good job, is that prideful?” indicate confusion between humility and false humility.  There is a balance to everything, and in truth, taking credit for a job well done is nothing like pride.  It is reasonable to acknowledge and even be pleased with something you have accomplished.  Enjoying that is part of the satisfaction of the task.

Taking such credit, like anything else, is not in itself a wrong, sinful, or bad thing. When we take such credit to an extreme, and let it play with our self-assessment, then we get into sinful territory.  So for example, if I began to think of myself as exclusively the best therapist who can help people with anxiety, I would be living in the land of pride.  Humility carries with it a heavy dose of the truth of our frailty and dependence on God.  If you don’t see yourself as dispensable, then you might be dealing with pride.   That’s a far cry from accepting someone’s compliment, or being pleased with the job you have done.

So what about shame? My title to this blog takes this discussion beyond merely an issue of humility versus pride.  I find that often people struggle with compliments because of a subconscious, internalized shame—likely a shame learned in the system of your family of origin, often unintentional.  With a distorted sense of value, you might not believe anyone when you are told, “Hey, you look great!” or “You did a wonderful job!”  Many people feel so unlovable that they could never believe these statements for a million years.  Such shame is akin to condemnation, and can be so destructive to your spirit.

Although there are families in which children are told clearly and forcefully they are bad, no good, stupid, etc., I think there are more families where shame is unintentionally bestowed because of the shame carried by the parents. I think these situations are examples of the ‘generational sin’ scripture refers to.  You can keep handing down the bad with the good until something breaks—often in the shape of a struggle, event, or even tragedy.  And of course, in my little world, it’s a terrific opportunity for God to intervene and help someone end that family trend!

So shame can look like humility, especially in Christian circles. And since we now see it is false humility, it isn’t even what glorifies God anyway.  It is not only fine, but it is healthy, to acknowledge a compliment, a gift, an endorsement, or an encouragement with, “Thanks, I appreciate that!” and let it go.  Affirmation is a good thing.  Just don’t let it take you to a place of “I am all that and a bag of chips!”


Priscilla Ortlip MSW, LCSW
Founder and Executive Director
Christian Counselors Collaborative

Disclaimer: I am a professional, licensed clinical therapist in the states of PA and NH, but this blog is not a therapeutic venue—anything I state here is not for treatment or to address anyone’s specific emotional or mental health need. If you are experiencing immediate and emergent distress, call 911. If you would like to consider counseling at the Christian Counselors Collaborative, please call 1.855.222.2575 to speak to our intake coordinator.

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