Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Leslie Basham: Heather Nelson wants to help you be free from shame.

Heather Nelson: You have to acknowledge that shame is not actually natural to you. It is a foreign body. It is a substance that is not part of the identity given in Christ to you.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Choosing Gratitude, for Monday, July 17, 2017.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Can you think of a past experience that makes you feel ashamed? We all have those memories and that sense of shame can be overwhelming sometimes. But it doesn’t have to be. You can be free from shame. Today’s guest will show you how.

Heather Nelson is the author of a book called Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame.

My friend, Erin Davis, blogs for Revive Our Hearts at LiesYoungWomenBelieve.com. Not long ago, Erin interviewed Heather Nelson at a women’s conference hosted by the Gospel Coalition. You’ll hear some convention noise in the background, but don’t let that distract you from this important message.

Here’s Erin talking with Heather Nelson.

Erin Davis: So, Heather, the name of your book is Unashamed, and I feel like shame is the deep waters of a woman’s heart. That’s kind of scary territory. Tell me why you decided to go there and write about shame.

Heather: I work as a counselor, and I’ve been counseling for about ten years. I would say that even before that, I’ve always been someone who has considered it’s better to be in the deep waters than in the shallow. I feel more comfortable there. It’s probably what drew me to counseling.

I find that there’s so much change that happens when we are in the deep waters together. Shame is, as you said, the deepest of waters.

There were, certainly, moments when writing the book and in talking about it . . . It’s a conversation stopper.

“Oh, what’s your book about?”

“Shame.”

“Oh . . .” and then they walk away.

But I felt drawn to it as something that I’ve seen in the lives of a lot of my clients and in my own heart as something that needs to be talked about and addressed and brought into the light of the gospel of Jesus.

Erin: You give lots of examples in your book, some are of men and some are of women, so I think shame is probably universal to both genders. Would you say that?

Heather: Absolutely.

Erin: But do women feel it differently or stronger than men? Is there a unique way that women experience shame?

Heather: I think so. I think huge triggers of shame for women are appearance and beauty and I think performance—in terms of just to be stereotypical, it’s usually not as much performance around a job, but performance in the realms of: “Am I a good wife? Daughter? Mother? How am I doing in my relationships?”

Erin: Yes.

Heather: And so when you feel like you’re failing or less than perfect in any of those areas, those are the big shame triggers for women—“I’m not this in these arenas where I should be excelling.”

Erin: Yes. I think we’ve all felt shame. You say everybody has shame, that it's a universal emotion.

Heather: Yes.

Erin: But shame is a little bit hard to define.

Heather: Yes.

Erin: We’ve felt it, but I’m not sure I could define it well. So could you help us understand what you mean when you talk about shame?

Heather: When I talk about shame, I’m talking about a feeling, definitely. It’s a feeling that’s not always at the top of the surface of your heart.

I think it can be anytime something happens, and you feel, “I just want to hide.” It’s almost an impulse to hide. So a feeling that causes you to want to hide, to withdraw. It’s the sense that, “I am bad. I’m pervasively bad. I’m flawed, and I can’t get away from that.”

So, again, those are really general terms, but I think there’s a thousand of small examples when you begin to notice it. “Okay, what was it that brought the flush of shame or embarrassment to my cheeks today? Or what was it that made me suddenly clam up in a meeting? Or what was it that made me want to say: ‘Okay, don’t ask me questions about my parenting right now.’ Or, ‘Don’t go there in my marriage,’ because I want to hide it from you.”

So it’s any place of hiding in our lives.

Erin: Sure. I spent last weekend doing ministry to a group of girls who are institutionalized in my state. Their situations were pretty horrific. Most of them were there in an institution because of something that happened to them. Some of them are there because of their own choices. But they were unified by shame.

It’s not a Christian institution. It wasn’t a Christian event. But shame seemed to be the default posture for these girls who had experienced trauma.

Heather: Right. That’s a good way to put it.

Erin: First came trauma. Then came shame. Then came these destructive behaviors.

Heather: Yes.

Erin: So in light of the gospel and God’s Word and what we know to be true, why do you think shame is such a consistent response to trauma?

Heather: I think it’s the evil one.

Erin: Yes.

Heather: The evil one always is in the business of disconnection, stealing, killing, and destroying.

Erin: Yes.

Heather: And so there is no place like trauma where there’s been some evil on some great scale, to introduce this feeling and concept of shame that causes you to want to hide instead of to get to the place of healing and connection, which would be found in Jesus.

Erin: Yes. I saw in these girls that shame became such a cage. It was amazing, because when we gave them some language and some tools to lift the shame, it was like the door to that cage was opened, and they could suddenly hear truth and experience freedom.

That’s an extreme example. Most of us haven’t experienced the level of trauma that they have. We’re not in institutions. But you give some practical and maybe a little bit more relatable examples in the book.

A woman who walks into a party and feels shame or inadequacy. Or a man who feels shame because of the criticism of his wife. Can you give us some of those ways that shame pops up in our everyday lives, what that might look like?

Heather: Yes. I think it’s when you stumble into that habitual sin that you feel like you cannot overcome, again.

One way the Lord’s really working on me is my anger toward my kids when they get in the way of what I want, of my agenda. Every time I get angry with them, immediately afterwards, there’s not only conviction of sin, which is good—it leads me to Jesus—but, I have to fight against that sense of shame which makes me say, “This is too bad to pray about, and this is too bad to talk to anyone about.”

That’s an example. It’s like: I’m trying not to gossip. But then you gossip again, and you kind of feel like, “I failed again. I messed up.” And, yes, we’ve sinned against God, but then the only remedy for that is to talk to God about it, to confess it to someone else and ask for prayer.

Other common ways that shame shows itself is looking through a magazine cover. You’re waiting in line at the supermarket, and you’re just scanning and gazing because it’s there, and you immediately begin comparing yourself and feeling less than and feeling ashamed of, maybe your post-partum weight gain—I’m raising my hand on that one—or, whatever it is, the ways you’re not as perfect as these airbrushed models.

It could also be social media. You go on social media. You’re enjoying a great vacation. You go on social media, and you see your friends having this really fun party that either you weren’t invited to or you couldn’t go to, and you just feel, like, “They’re having way more fun than me,” or “Wow! Their kids are so much cuter than mine,” or “Their job looks better than my job.”

I think comparison is a way where we end up shaming ourselves—a ton.

Erin: Yes. I’m hearing you talk about the difference between shame and conviction. I’m glad you made that differentiation. Would you say shame is something that tells you to hide and conviction is something that encourages you to tell or confess?

Heather: Yes.

Erin: What’s the difference between shame and conviction?

Heather: I would think conviction and guilt are the same. Guilt would say: “Okay, I did something wrong, and there’s a way to make it right because Jesus has made me right before God.”

Shame says: “I did something wrong because I am fatally flawed, without help, and so I must get away from everyone else and hide from everyone else.”

So I think your summary is a good summary. Guilt is actually a good and beneficial thing. Even secular researchers, as they look at child development, would say the development of guilt is very healthy for children, but the development of shame is very unhealthy and very destructive long term.

Erin: Yes. I’m thinking of a story of a woman that I once interviewed. She sinned sexually as a young woman, and she was sort of outside of her biblical community, which allowed her to step into a sinful, sexual relationship without accountability.

She ended up getting out of that relationship, but then she felt so much shame that she stayed isolated for twenty years because she felt, “I can never tell.” She would go to church. She would sit on the back row. She would never really plug into a community again.

She ended up getting into a Celebrate Recovery program where she finally acknowledged that shame and spoke that sexual sin out loud for the first time in twenty years.

The sin was one thing, but the shame was really what kept her locked up for so much longer than that initial sin. I’m sure you see that in your counseling office.

Heather: Absolutely. I am often the first person someone tells about whatever is shameful to them.

It could be, “I had this abortion when I was sixteen, and I’ve never told anyone about it. And I wonder if that’s why I’m having infertility problems.”

We make these incredibly awful connections in our minds when you don’t deal with the shame. 

I’ve had people tell me, as I’m asking, “Okay, has there been any abuse in your past?”

They say, “No.”

And then three or four sessions in, they’re, “Well, there was this one time.”

And the story comes pouring out. Usually, the response after that first session where they’ve come into the light with me is a sense of freedom.

I always ask them, “What was it like to talk about that last week?”

And they say: “It just felt so good to get it off my chest, to finally bring it into the light.”

It’s also scary. Sometimes they’ll mention, “Yes, I kept having doubts. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” And that’s what we work on.

And, of course, counseling is convincing them, “Talking about it is the only way that you’re going to be healed of it.”

Erin: That reminds me of James 5:16, which is, “Confess your sins one to another and pray for each other so that you can be healed.”

I think that’s one of the examples of Scripture where we can look at that and think, God is not good. Why would He ask me to say this or do this? And then, it is good; it’s for our good. Now there’s healing.

I write a blog to young women, and frequently that’s where they test the waters. They will confess these big scarries to me because I’m anonymous, and they’re anonymous. I always direct them back to the local church because, while I’m happy to speak truth to them, there’s zero accountability.

Heather: Absolutely.

Erin: But I’m interested in what you’re seeing about how people are confessing sin or dealing with shame using social media.

Heather: I think social media looks like a really attractive place to deal with shame, but it’s a double-edged sword because it can be the source of shame as much as it’s a source of, “Oh, hey, I just confessed this. I don’t feel like I have to be in hiding anymore.”

I think it’s hard to do social media well. At times it becomes a false refuge and a false substitute for real-life, face-to-face relationship where you’re able to see the person’s response to you when you’re confessing something that’s deeply shameful.

I think, particularly in the area of shame, there is no substitute for being able to be across the table from someone and seeing them look at you and not turn away.

Erin: It’s been several years now, but there was this thing called “post secret.” You remember that?

Heather: Yes.

Erin: It was a website where people could write in their secret or send the postcard. And it turned it into these books. Beyond them being very disturbing, a lot of the times, I would read them and just think, How tragic it is that somebody put that out there into the world only to have it published for somebody to make a buck.

There was no empathy. No sharing of truth.

Heather: No.

Erin: So I would imagine that just getting it off your chest is probably not enough to get you free.

Heather: Right. It’s not just getting it off your chest. It’s being able to talk about it with someone who then listens with empathy, connects with you in the middle of your shame, and points you to the one person who can heal you of shame at its source—which is Jesus Christ.

Jesus, who took all of our sin, who was shamed in ways that we will never have to be, who was actually cut off from God the Father, which is, I mean, talk about disconnection. That’s the deepest disconnection that underlies all of our fear of disconnection.

So we’ve got to talk to someone who can then embody, a very small—very small—reflection of Jesus back to us and point us to the true source of healing, which is Jesus Christ.

And that can’t happen if you’re just publishing your shame story on the Internet with no response for connection.

Erin: Right.

Heather: Now, they’re a great place for talking about your shame story after you’ve worked through it and have sought healing from it. But I wouldn’t say that’s the first place to go.

Erin: I think, also, the Internet somehow frees us to shame people in ways we would not do otherwise.

Heather: Yes.

Erin: You’ve probably experienced this as a writer. I’ve experienced it as a blogger: People shaming me in ways I know they would never do in person. I’m sure I’ve done it, too. (I’m probably the pot calling the kettle black there.) So it is not the best place to confront our shame.

Heather: No. Start with face to face.

Erin: Yes. So, you talked about how important it is to be free from shame, and we’ve both seen what happens when somebody who’s been sort of oppressed by shame suddenly calls it out and is free.

If the shame is as a result of sin . . . For example, a woman’s listening, and she’s post-abortive. I think there’s probably in every church, sitting in their pew, a post-abortive woman, and they think, “I can never tell.” Or, post-divorce, or post—any number of sins—wrestling with chronic sins. They feel like they will never be free of either the sin or the shame that comes with it. If she was sitting in your counseling office, what would you say to her to help her take some steps toward freedom from the sin and the shame that comes with it?

Heather: Yes. First of all, I want to affirm what she is already doing. She’s in the counseling office, and she’s talking about it with someone, and she’s seeking help.

You have to acknowledge that shame is not actually natural to you. It is a foreign body. It is a substance that is not part of the identity given in Christ to you. And so beginning to treat it as that.

And shame specifically from sin that you’ve done, what part is Jesus not big enough? Is Jesus not big enough for that abortion you had? For the divorce you feel ashamed of? For the addiction you can’t seem to shake?

Of course He is! Of course He is! But to hold on to the shame, when it’s because of sin that you’ve committed, is essentially to say that God’s work is not enough, that you actually have to do penance.

So shame in some cases can be a way that you’re doing penance. You’re trying to do penance for the sin that haunts you, whether in the past or whether it’s something you’re continuing to struggle with.

So acknowledging that it’s foreign to you, that it’s actually against what God wants for you, talking about it with someone else—talking about it with a pastor or a women’s ministry leader, with a counselor, with a trusted friend—and then seeking accountability if it’s something you’re still struggling with.

Talking to them about it and saying: “I want to be free of this, and I want to do whatever it takes to be free.”

Depending on how entrenched it is, if it is an addiction, that may take some really serious treatment. It may take going away somewhere. It may take—I mean, who knows what that will take—but it’s worth talking to someone safe first and then saying: “Will you help me fight this?” Which may involve a professional at some point.

Erin: I live in rural, rural Missouri, where there’s not an abundance of Christian counselors, but what we have is the church to meet those needs. So to a woman who, for whatever reason, doesn’t have access to a good, godly, professional counselor, but is trapped in the cage of sin and shame, give her some practical people that she could go to today.

Heather: It’s hard to give a list because every church is different, and often the people that should be safest—which I would say is the pastor, small group leader, women’s ministry leader—sometimes they’re not the safest.

If you have a friend that you’ve known for a while, and you trust that she’s going to listen to you—even if she might appear shocked, or whatever—but if you know her and can trust her care for you over the long term, start there.

And maybe you start by sharing a tiny bit of what feels the most shameful. I mean, I think there’s nothing wrong with testing the waters a little bit.

Erin: Sure.

Heather: Clearly, ideally, you should be able to go to your pastor, to go to a small group leader, to go to a women’s ministry leader, and preface it by saying: “This is something. . . Talk about what you’re afraid of. Say, “I’m afraid that when I share this with you . . . and name your fear. Say, “I'm afraid you’re going to cut me out of the church, or you’re going to think that I’m so terrible.”

I think people respond to hearing your fears, and that helps prepare them for what’s coming.

And maybe ask the question: “Do you feel prepared to hear me get this thing off my chest, that I need to bring into the light, or is there someone else in the church I should talk to?”

Nancy: Erin Davis has been talking with Heather Nelson about shame and, more importantly, the freedom from shame that we can find in Christ.

You see, when Jesus went to the cross, He took the shame of our sin on Himself so that we could be covered in His perfect righteousness.

If you’ve been overwhelmed by shame, and you want true freedom, placing your faith in Jesus is the only true solution.

If you’re ready to do that for the first time, we’d like to send you some free information about what that new life looks like—free from shame; alive in Christ. Call us and ask for the free information about knowing that Jesus has taken your shame for good. The number to call is 1–800–569–5959.

Now, our colleague and good friend Erin Davis recorded this conversation at the Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference, and we’ve been able to bring it to you today thanks to the generous support of our listeners.

When you support Revive Our Hearts with a gift of any size, we’d like to send you the book by Heather Nelson that we’ve heard about today. It’d called, Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame.

Be sure to ask for Heather’s book when you call to make a donation of any amount. The number to call is 1–800–569–5959, or you can donate online at ReviveOurHearts.com, and request the book there on the website.

Now, do you ever feel like you have to keep up performances to avoid feeling shamed? Tomorrow Heather Nelson will be back to show you how to escape that performance trap.

Heather: I honestly don’t know if there’s an area where I don’t struggle with performance shame. I’ll give this as a really silly example: We have a car that has a gas mileage per mile meter on it. And I realized a few years ago that I was trying to get that number higher and higher. Like, “Oh, last week it was eighteen.” That’s a terrible mileage per gallon. I was, like, “This week I can do better.”

Erin: You’re trying to win the gas mileage.

Heather: Yes. That’s ridiculous! We were driving around the town. I am, like, picking up my girls from pre-school, and we’re going to church, and I’m trying to beat my own gas mileage. There is never a time where I let myself off the performance treadmill. I can turn everything into that.

That’s the trivial. And then I’ll say, the more intense would be—this is a huge cause of burnout for me—trying to serve in the church, out of a good heart, wanting to love people well, wanting to use my gifts, but then it gets twisted into doing enough to get enough approval and to get enough love and to get enough accolades and not say “no” when I should have.

Erin: Sure.

Heather: The two truths that God speaks into our hearts is: First of all, we have been living for the wrong person.

And then, secondly, we have been seeking approval through the wrong means.

So, the wrong person is pretty obvious. We need to change our audience. Stop living for the people around you or for yourself, trying to be the version that you think you can be. We need to be living for God and looking at Him. And when you’re doing that, when you’re living for Him, then that does change.

Well, then, how do you get God’s approval? It’s not through anything that we’ve done, but it’s through resting in Christ and being saved and redeemed by Him. That’s the only way that we’ll be approved—to abide in Jesus.

Erin: Yes.

Heather: So our work is to abide, which seems very countertuitive, particularly for someone who struggles with perfectionism and performance.

Nancy: Be sure to join us for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you find freedom, fullness and fruitfulness in Christ. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.