Healthy Shame. Is There Such a Thing?

If I were to grab some athletic shorts, throw on a jersey, lace up some shoes and go for it, would that seem crazy? I mean, it’s only 10 feet in the air, and I’m 6 feet tall. How could this end badly?

Well, the truth is, it very well could end up badly. You see, while I may be 6 feet tall, I don’t play basketball. I don’t have the athletic prowess to be able to dunk a basketball. That is reserved for an elite few in this world and I can’t help but feel I am not one of them. The shoes I lace up tend to be a little bit more formal and most of the jumping I do is back and forth between different windows on my computer from the comfort of the air conditioning in my home.

And the recognition that it could end up badly is due to me understanding my own personal limitations. It is due to my healthy shame.

Now some may read that last line and not read further. Is there such a thing as “healthy shame”? I understand that the word “shame” has quite a negative connotation. Let’s try and reframe the concept.

My self-awareness that I don’t have what it takes to dunk the basketball is what keeps me from hurting myself (both physically and my pride) and maybe damaging some property. It tells me that I don’t have what is needed for the task. It tells me I’m limited. Is it unhealthy to have this self-awareness and recognition of my limitations?

Now what if I were to come over to you on the bench and tell you that because I failed at dunking a basketball, I am a failure? You see the sinister difference between the two?

Healthy shame tells me I am limited. I don’t have everything together at all times for all people. It tells me I am not God. This emotional experience also tells me that you don’t have it all together either, and allows me to experience both empathy for you and partnership with you. While I cannot dunk a basketball, I can play a few instruments fairly well, and you may need someone with those skills.

When shame leads to insight of self and awareness of limitations, it leads to humility. Shame, when it is internalized, becomes a destructive force that invades every aspect of our lives. And I struggle with both.

It is possible that some of the reason, if not the entire reason, you don’t think healthy shame is possible is because the tendrils of toxic shame are so entangled in your daily living that you may not be able to separate yourself from its grip. You may feel “too broken” or “worth-less” and the shame may tell you that you don’t matter and are too far gone. It’s ok: you are not alone. There is hope. There is freedom from the vice grip of toxic shame and a full life that can be lived from embracing the gift of healthy shame.

If you would like more information on these two different types of shame, I would like to extend a few resources to you. Two books, The Voice of the Heart by Chip Dodd, and Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw are two great places to start. If reading is not the resource you need, however, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to reach out to The Refuge Center to spend time with a guide who can help navigate these murky waters between the toxic shame that leads to a life that only partially lived and healthy shame that leads to humility life to the fullest.