One of my favorite stories is told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32, “The Prodigal Son.” Before continuing, I invite you to follow the link below; enjoy the story.
This parable depicts the ultimate example of a loving father. One who, by the standards of most, had every right to reject his son and shame him for his actions, yet he responded with only love and compassion. Excitement regarding the return of his wayward son.
The son admitted his mistakes and acknowledged his feelings of shame, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be your son” (v.21). The impetus for the son’s return home was his physical hunger and the epiphany that his father’s servants lived better than he. You could say he hit “rock bottom” when he was wishing for the pig’s food. His shameful reality did not allow him the dream of returning home as a son. He made a decision to admit guilt, not hide, and ask his father to return and live as a servant. Shameful feelings did not allow him to expect full forgiveness and total restoration to his role of son.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have a story that ends with total compassion and love like the one above. Parents or family members like this, exist only in parables. In the reality of humanness, we are more likely to be shamed for our mistakes, and in acceptance, settle for less than who we are. Those who are stuck in shame are unable to move toward positive change, becoming dysfunctional and self-destructive. This leads to the fear of rejection. I hear it in my office daily: “If you really knew me and all the bad things I have done, you would reject me.”
For those who are ready for change, I call for them to STS! Meaning, STOP THE SHAME!
Below is a simplified, but not necessarily linear, outline of the process:
- Develop a willingness to look at oneself for the purpose of identifying shame and its origins. Stop hiding.
- Declare weariness of repeating destructive behaviors. “I am finally done with . . . I don’t want to . . . anymore.”
- Engage in positive, non-judgmental relationships–separate oneself from those who shame.
- Talk therapy–employ a therapist with whom you feel accepted and safe.
- Determine to recognize and STS! during periods of digression.
- Stop projecting feeling of shame onto others–assuming that others believe that you are “never good enough.”
- Choose to live a healthy life, rich with self-care and value of self.
- Grieve the loss of a shameful past. Allow your therapist to guide you through this necessary step of letting go.
- Return borrowed shame–accept the humanness of family members and lovingly give back their shame.
- Become aware that changing a shame-based life is a process, a lifetime of growth and kindness toward self.
Forgiveness, acceptance of humanness, and hope can replace dysfunctional shame. Positive goals, “I am” statements, and an honest effort to learn from mistakes encourage healing. In the story of The Prodigal Son, verse 24, “So they began to celebrate.” This implies that the son accepts the father’s forgiveness. Furthermore, I like to think that he chose to forgive himself and replace shame with productivity and happiness, restoring his role within the family. In absence of a “parable father,” the compassion must be found in the “loving father” within ourselves.
The following quotation is taken from the book Letting Go of Shame by Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Effron, a valuable resource that I have used for many years:
“Shame must be replaced rather than just removed. We can replace shame with honor, dignity, self-worth, and realistic pride. We can treat ourselves and others with respect. We can see the beauty and goodness in every human being, including ourselves.” ~Potter-Efron
Next week we begin a month-long look at love.