As I moved into middle and high school, shame became a familiar companion (though I couldn’t name it as such). As I feared exposure of weaknesses and social rejection, I began to withdraw. I presented as shy and quiet in the halls and classrooms of my high school. I didn’t date, not by choice but because of lack of opportunity. I distanced myself from my parents, believing that they were “uncool” and that I needed to create some space between me and them to socially survive high school. I tried to stay small and inconspicuous in high school. Don’t have the best grades, nor the worst; figure out what everyone else is wearing and copy it; do your work quietly, speak up only if necessary.

Social shame, as I label it in my book Unashamed, had a firm grip on me. I define it as follows: “Social shame is when you feel ridiculed or excluded by a group or person to which you want to belong. Its opposite is being fully known and accepted as you are, for who you are.”

I found an oasis from shame in my church’s youth group. It was like I was a different person there. Not shy or quiet or in the background, but very much up front and involved. The difference was community – a community with shared values and a community who accepted me as I was. I had a strong group of friends, many of whom I am still in contact with today, and we were emboldened to do silly/crazy things together. We also prayed with and for each other, studied the Bible together, wrestled through hard things together – the death of classmates in a car accident, for example, and the opposition we faced as Christian high school students in public schools.

When I look back at high school, I cringe at the way shame held me back in many ways from living out of my confidence in Christ, especially in the way that I distanced myself from my parents. Yet I also am deeply grateful that I had a taste of the “unashamed” experience through youth group. This was a hint of more redemption that would come in later years.

A few things that I’d reflect on from this season as it relates to shame’s development:

  • Shame comes in the wake of some type of relational pain and brokenness. For me, it wasn’t connected with my own sin but it was more of a result of living in a broken world where middle school girls can be mean and high school halls can be unkind. I’ve counseled many women whose relational pain was more severe, arising from a spouse or parent’s rejection or abuse, and this type of shame can be much harder to overcome.
  • Shame resilience happens through community. This community of my youth group strengthened me to be myself when I was with them, and to remember who I was and the strength God had given me through faith in Christ. For me, the risk was relatively low. But for you with your story, risking your way into safe community may feel much harder. Take courage from Jesus, “the one who made the way for us to return to God – who repaired the sin-broken trail of relationship to God through his life, death, and resurrection on our behalf. Jesus was excluded by all and abandoned by his friends in a time of need so that we could always be welcomed into relationship.” You may very well be the first one in your community to risk vulnerable honesty about your struggles. But you are not the only one struggling. The only hope of connection – which fights shame’s lies – is that you step out of isolation, and by doing so, invite others to follow.
  • Shame can often only be named upon reflection. I had no category for “shame” while in high school, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle with it. Any place in your life where you tried to be small and inconspicuous probably points to the presence of shame. Because shame wants us to stay in hiding, it is imperative to identify it and to name it. Identifying shame’s development in your life is crucial in your journey to becoming free from shame. If you’re intrigued and would like to know more, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of Unashamed, and if you’re feeling especially brave, invite a few others to read and discuss it with you.

Questions to ask in reflection: 

-Are there seasons/aspects of your life where shame was present although you didn’t see it then?

-Were there tastes of community that helped fight shame? What was true about these communities?

-How can your small group, Bible study, church, etc., be a community that’s an oasis from shame?

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