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"Loving God, Loving Myself" Week Eight, Day Three -- That's Not What It Means"

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it,

but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea,

fails to give their . . . much needed feedback,

and is afraid to speak up in front of [others],

you can be sure shame plays a part.

That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled

and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking the

very risks required to move . . . forward.

 —Brene Brown

Some years ago we had a speaker conduct a weekend conference on destructive, toxic shame. While finishing his final talk, he passed out cards that were about six by six inches, and on these cards were the words “That’s Not What It Means.” The cards were to help us remember that whenever we were confronted with a potential shame message, we should avoid jumping to a negative conclusion.

You see, toxic shame has more to do with our core identity and our negative beliefs about ourselves than with anything we have actually done or not done. Yes, our wrong actions (or lack of actions) can cause us to feel ashamed—a better word would be “guilty”—but actions can be addressed and eventually rectified. We can seek to make amends and pursue reconciliation with the one we have hurt or offended. And even if that cannot be achieved, we can ask for and receive forgiveness from God.

Toxic shame, on the other hand, gives us no way out. It doesn’t just say, “You really messed up”; it says, “You are messed up.” It doesn’t just say, “That was a stupid thing you just did”; it says, “You are stupid.” Toxic shame attacks who you are, not just what you do.

The terrible problem with toxic shame is that those who are under its sway experience much of life through its filter. When someone tries to share something corrective in nature with such a person, he will probably have a very difficult time receiving it the right way. He may end up either berating himself or the other person, even if he only does so internally. Or maybe the next time he will work extra hard to be perfect so he doesn’t have to face the possibility of looking inadequate or inferior. His toxic shame alarm screams, “AVOID SHAME AT ALL COST.”

But the worst damage from toxic shame comes in relationships. We cannot even count the number of terrible marital conflicts we have seen as counselors that could have been avoided had one or both spouses simply believed the words “That’s Not What It Means.” For example, a wife feels hurt from her husband’s perceived lack of attention and interest in her when he calls to say he won’t be home for dinner. Based on that experience—especially when it occurs more than once—she then says to herself, “I’m not attractive or desirable. I’m not special. He really doesn’t care about me or my needs.”

Or a husband feels hurt when his wife expresses concern that he doesn’t spend enough time with the kids. From that experience he concludes, “I don’t measure up. I’m not good enough. I can never do it good enough.” In both of these situations, the assumptions made and the messages that are internalized are false. That’s Not What It Means. In the first situation, the husband may feel stressed out over issues at work, and his anxiety interferes with his connecting with his wife in a loving way. In the second situation, the wife may be legitimately concerned over her husband’s relationship with the kids. She hopes that by sharing her concern, a change may occur. Unhealthy reactions in these situations might range from shutting down and withdrawing to confronting and escalating, but the bottom line is that the real issue is no longer the issue—toxic shame has taken over and is controlling the interaction.

In my early years of marriage to Denise, I had a great deal of toxic shame, but I didn’t know it. The core lies and shame within me prevented me from being emotionally honest with myself and with others—including Denise. As a result, our relationship suffered until I let God deal with my wounds and replace the core lies—the toxic shame—with his truth about me.Now

I don’t have to fall into the trap like I did years ago, and I don’t have to always think about that card, “That’s Not What It Means,” to help me avoid the toxic shame trap. I can give and receive more from a place of honesty and vulnerability, knowing that I am not perfect and never will be, and I don’t have to force others to be that way either. Because of God’s grace and his loving commitment to heal my heart of toxic shame, I know “What It Really Means” to love God, myself, and others—especially Denise.


Lord Jesus, show me if there are “shame filters” that interfere with my relationship with you and others. Help me see if there are lies about myself that I have accepted as true, and if so, give me the grace to allow you to do whatever is needed to reveal their origin. And Lord, replace these lies with your truth—how you see me and what you feel about me. Heal me, Jesus, from the effects of toxic shame, so I can be secure in whom you made me to be and thus live more from a place of rest—with you, with myself, and with others.


To listen to this post, narrated by Jerry and Denise, click here:  LGLM - That's Not What It Means Audio File

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