Why Grace Gets Angry (And Sometimes Starts a Fight)

The Wizard of Oz

Photo Credit: twm1340 via Compfight cc

All mature writers have a “voice.” Or so I’m told. I’ve also been told my “voice” is gentle, compassionate, and hopeful.

Several weeks ago, though, my writing voice changed for a paragraph or two. When I was explaining my shame and wanting to “kick it in the teeth,” my tone got a little angry. My language got coarse. The vibe got a little feisty. I started using words like “war.”

It wasn’t an accident.

In our rebellion against shame, we’re going to have to get a bit sassy, a little feisty. Act a little spunky. We might have to play a little rougher than usual.

The Wizard

In the words of Alice Miller, shame feeds on “weaker creatures.” This is a fundamental characteristic of shame, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. We have two options: we can deal with our shame, or we will pass it on to someone we deem weaker.

Shame has been passed down through the ages like an infection, and it is always transmitted from powerful people to those deemed to be “lower creatures.” You see, people in positions of power usually have plenty of shame—in fact, the powerful often strive for influence and control as a way to deny their own shame. (There are probably a few exceptions to this rule. Probably.) And so people with power shame the weaker creatures under their control: 

Parents do it to children. (Yes, I even do it to my own children.)

Bullies do it to the weaker kids on the playground.

Teachers dominate students with it.

But what does that same parent do when his boss is ticked? How does the middle school bully act when confronted by his victim’s parents? What do shaming teachers do when the principle calls a meeting with some upset parents? What does any shaming person do when faced with someone who has more authority?

I’ll tell you: the person who uses shame from a place of power begins to cower when there is no weaker creature to feed upon.

And the same is true of the shame that weighs down our fragile souls.

It’s dependent upon us remaining small and abdicating our authority to it. If we fight back, it wants us to do so quietly and politely. It wants us to remain dignified and serious and solemn—reverent in the face of shame.

Because our shame is like the Wizard of Oz. If it can keep us feeling small, it can retain it’s big and ferocious facade. It can dominate and intimidate with smoke and mirrors. Our shame is an illusion—it lacks substance and maintains its power by putting on a great show.

And as long as we remain in the audience, trembling and quiet, it can take more ground inside of us.

The Bank

After a decade as a psychologist, this is about as close as I can come to making a guarantee: when we get feisty and fight back, pulling back the curtain on shame’s blustering lie, we will begin to discover it is all bark and has very little bite.

But the curtain is a stubborn one. We can’t pull it back delicately. We have to yank it.

Swear at your shame, and I can almost guarantee you it begins to shrink down to its actual size.

Personally, when I’m battling my shame-ghosts, I prefer a combination of pissed-off-and-funny.

I remember the first time I yanked back the curtain on my shame and told it what to do. Someone had just planted a dagger in my heart—they had just said the one thing they knew would make me feel the most worthless. But suddenly there was a new voice in my head, and it had an edge to it. That tenacious voice said, “Sorry, the shame bank is closed today. We’re not taking any more damn deposits.”

Them were fighting words.

And the beauty of it was, I didn’t need to fight the person who had shamed me. After all, they weren’t the one who needed to hear those fighting words. I was. Or even more accurately, my shame was.

The Yellow Brick Road

We are all traveling the yellow brick road of our souls. Whether we like it or not, all roads lead to Oz—all roads lead us back to our shame. The question is: what will we do when we get there? Will we let the Wizard bluster, or will we yank back the curtain?

If we decide to yank it back, we won’t be alone. When we decide to fight the voice of shame, the voice of grace will be our companion—it is usually a gentle whisper, but the voice of grace will exercise its authority and do what is required to drive out our shame.

Sometimes, the voice of grace rebukes hypocrisy and tips over tables and starts a little trouble and it drives the shame right out of the sacred places within our hearts.

And when, in tandem with the voice of grace, we have pushed back our shame (for now), we will notice the voice of grace gets quiet again. It returns to its whispering reassurance: “You are beautiful and beloved.” And it won’t stop there.

It also reassures us of the beauty and belovedness of everyone around us.

And this is the great irony of battling our shame: when we begin to fight it—to kick it in the teeth—we no longer feel the need to fight anyone else. We no longer need to pass on our shame to a weaker creature. We are more compassionate to those around us. We reconcile with our communities. We forgive our enemies.

By tenaciously exercising our authority over shame, we gain the power of belovedness, which allows us to be weak and vulnerable with everybody else.

In the end, the war on shame is, indeed, the war to end all wars.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the young lady who stopped me in the gym and challenged me about the “war on shame” verbiage. You know who you are. I went home and wrote this post. Without dialogue like that, I would have nothing new to say.        

How do you get tenacious with your shame? Share your experience or any other thoughts at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. Click here to subscribe, and the subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame.

Preview: My next post will be next Wednesday and is tentatively entitled “How Pain Can Lead Us Home.” 

Other Posts Related to Shame and Grace:

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kim

    As you know, I’ve been fighting my own little war over here lately…and it’s been a war against staying small, against staying quiet when I need to speak up, against fear….and really, at the root of all of that, against shame. The battles are smaller than I expected, kind of like your internal “sorry, the shame bank is closed today”. I don’t have to be loud or aggressive to fight this war, but I do have to believe in my OWN WORTH, and in the fact that I deserve better. I have to let a little bit of anger be there (or sometimes a lot) and allow myself to speak my truth. I have to stop making myself small. It’s a learning process. And it’s worth it.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kim, Your posts were a huge inspiration for me in writing this. I love what you’ve said here. They are definitively battles, they’re small, they require us to trust our strength, it’s a process, and it is so important. Keep fighting and keep writing, Kim.

  • Carrie

    I am so here right now. The thing is, I’m waiting for shame to rear it’s ugly head so I can bite it’s head off, but I don’t want to keep myself riled up in the meantime. I don’t know how to rest and trust myself that I will be able to stand up to it when it shows up again. Yet just reading your post and writing this helps.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, the young lady who I referred to in the Acknowledgement would, I think, suggest we use the in-between times to nurture forgiveness, for those who shamed us in the first place, and for ourselves. I think she’s right. May the “down times” between battles be times of forgiveness.

  • Riz

    There is a lot of truth to this post. I grew up with a mother who displays perfectly, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Their game is shame. I was shamed my whole life and she wouldn’t stop because she felt it was her right to treat me however she wanted and it was up to me to ‘honour my mother’ no matter how abusive she was. Point is, what I like about this post, is that those who shame others are weaker. And sometimes it happens without the intent to harm, however, I grew up with someone where it was her intent to harm and when confronted more times than I can count, I dismissed myself from her life. It took me years to realize that I have the power to act tenaciously, to not put up with it or believe it (and it took years to overcome that belief that I was a walking bag of shame.)

    There is a shame that can lead us to repentance – to make things right with God or with others. There is also a shame I grew up with which was designed to manipulate and degrade – and as a child and young person, it did. It made me feel worthless. After years of healing and overcoming, I have discovered this beautiful thing about not letting someone else needlessly shame me over things I should never feel shame over.

    We have the power to not let shame keep us down. it took a long time for me to realize that shame (even her infliction of false shame) does not define me. 🙂

    • Jennifer Koski

      Riz, I love this: “There is a shame that can lead us to repentance – to make things right with God or with others. There is also a shame I grew up with which was designed to manipulate and degrade..”
      I think we need more words in our language to describe it – I agree that there is a kind of (true) remorse that is cleansing & helpful & can even lift us, and then there’s shame that does nothing but seek to destroy (whether it’s coming from another person or our own voice). I think the difference is (when I have felt true remorse) that I may feel bad about things I have done, but I do NOT feel worthless or degraded. It’s a liberation instead of a prison/limitation.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Riz and Jennifer, thank you. Jennifer, I think the first kind of shame you describe (e.g., that leads to repentance) could be described as guilt instead of shame. I have a post coming up in a few weeks that will talk more about the distinction.

  • Val

    I have a very similar story to Riz. My mother displays a lot of NPD (learning about that made my childhood click in to place for my mom the same way learning about autism did for my biological father. Oh, psychology!), and she also spent my childhood criticizing and belittling everything. I got accepted to interview at a prestigious college, and her response was, “Why do you deserve to go? What makes you so much better than someone else that you deserve to go and they don’t?” and then she refused to pay for the plane ticket to get there. Thankfully, one of my teachers stepped up and got me there, but that is just one example among many. I went into a deep depression after my wedding that I’m still shaking off the tail end of because of the fits she threw, not to me, but to everyone else, and then both my brother and my dad called and shamed me and yelled at me for not making my wedding focus more on my mom. None of the stuff I bent over backwards and spent months of planning making sure happened for her counted, because of a laundry list of things she was upset about.

    Reading through this the first time, I was seeking a connection, but it didn’t come through until I read Riz’s post. My current life, with my husband and his family and my amazing career, has no shame (aside from sometimes wishing I’d cleaned the kitchen or the bathroom before company came over, but that’s a different story). My family often wonders why I will never move back, and while I’ve known in my bones that it wasn’t healthy, I couldn’t put a single word on it. Now I can. Shame.

    • Debbie

      Val,
      I feel your pain in trying to deal with your mother. Sometimes we take on those characteristics that our parents passed on to us without realizing it, so please be watchful and careful. I had to overcome a very critical parent, and one day woke up and realized that I was being critical too, just in a different way. This may not make sense to you right now, but the first step in getting the shame out of your system is to forgive your mother.
      Good luck. I wish for you a peaceful and joyful life.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Val, thank you so much for sharing, and I would second that, Debbie. Working toward forgiveness, if not full reconciliation, is an important part of the process that was underdeveloped in the last part of today’s post. I appreciate the grace with which you stated that, and it all makes me want to write another post about the forgiveness piece.

        • Val

          I do appreciate the advice and will take it to heart. My sister just visited, and I found myself returning to some old, unhealthy habits. After she left, I got really obsessed and upset about the food my husband and I shared at dinner not being split exactly in half, which is how she treated me all growing up to the point of abuse if I ate “her” bite of food. Our relationship has improved in the past few years, but it’s difficult to break old patterns. As soon as I realized I was back in that head space, I explained to my husband what was happening with me, apologized, and stopped.

          Forgiveness seems tricky to me. How do you intertwine forgiveness and boundaries? I don’t hate my mom, I love her very much and there are many beautiful things about her that I try to emulate in my own life, but there are also some things I hope that never become a part of me. Forgiveness seems to be used to mean acting as if no bad stuff happened and moving on. Every time I have tried to do that, it has backfired and the cycle continued. Letting it go and forgiving in the sense I hear it used so often has only led to more pain and more abuse and more ruined visits home. How do you balance forgiveness and self-preservation?

          Right now, I feel like forgiveness is more understanding than wiping the slate clean. My mother is not a malicious, hateful, horrible person. She is ill. She doesn’t process things the way I do. She has a lot more going on than I can possibly imagine, and I try really hard to understand that. That doesn’t mean I want to continue to put myself in situations to be humiliated and shamed and belittled. It’s impossible to get away from it completely, which makes the whole process challenging. I go to visit? I’m not a good enough guest. She comes to visit? I’m not a good enough host. I communicate less? I’m not a good enough daughter. I communicate more? I’m needy. I resigned myself long ago to the fact that there is no winning, no matter what I do, but I have to play the game. If I try to stop playing the game? My siblings shame me for upsetting Mom.

          You write about this situation frequently, and one thing that works so well between my husband and me is that we’ve always naturally tried to lose to each other even before I’d ever read any of your columns. However, what do you do when you make yourself vulnerable, you voluntarily lose, and the other person kicks you while you’re down? Where is the line between resignation and forgiveness and delusion? I feel like I can have that understanding, have that empathy for my mom, and still be angry about how she treats me. Is that forgiveness? I have no idea.

          • drkellyflanagan

            Val, I appreciate the way you are thinking about this. Your comments are helping me to form ideas about a post around forgiveness/boundaries/reconciliation. At the same time, I should emphasize that the ideas expressed here at UnTangled are entirely theoretical and aren’t meant to be customized professional advice. With your thoughtfulness, you would likely benefit a great deal from talking with a counselor who could walk through this with you in a personal way. I’d encourage you to explore it!

            • Val

              Another bit of advice I think I will take to heart. Thanks! I’m glad to hear my somewhat frantic commenting is giving back even a little bit.

              • drkellyflanagan

                Val, you’re comments are fantastic; keep them coming!

          • Jennifer Newell

            All I can tell you is from my experience forgiveness is good for your health. Hanging on to all that ugliness only messes with your own life. Forgiveness is not forgetting. And more importantly it does not mean you need to opening up your heart to be hurt again. I had a conflict with my parents for over 5 years, we eventually had a conversation that resulted in a reconciliation. However, I will tell you that I struggle with protecting myself and opening up. As time has passed and the treatment of my family within our extended family has changed, I am able to open up a little bit more each time we are together. I think you go slowly. I spent Christmas talking to myself in my head while with my extended family. Families are messy and I talked myself through the visit remembering that no one does it perfect. But because life and families are messy, I am grateful for forgiveness so that we are able to have 2nd chances.

  • Debbie

    I have just recently realized that many of my reactions to life have been based on shame. This post was very timely for me in my search for answers in conquering shame. I like your ideas and your reference to passing shame on to those who are weaker. I am thinking that we need to be strong enough to face shame, and when we do it will diminish. I have found that as soon as I realize that I am feeling shame and try to trace it back to where the shame came from, it diminishes. And I become stronger. Wee also need to be strong enough to not pass shame on to others. This was a great post. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Debbie.

  • Jennifer Koski

    Kelly
    Great blog. Thank you!
    I’m having trouble understanding “all roads lead us back to our shame.” Wouldn’t this mean that we’re not on the real and true road at all? The road to shame seems to me to be a false road – a lie. Sometimes my best (most helpful) response to shame has been to just let it go, release it, maybe laugh at it, but not to entertain it or give it more attention than it deserves by engaging it. Sometimes it’s simply but firmly saying “No. Halt. Stop.” to it & then immediately spinning around and walking the other way. Am I missing something?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good question, Jennifer. I don’t think I meant anything by that other than the fact that we can’t ultimately avoid our shame. It will keep popping up like a game of Wack a Mole. We eventually have to deal with it. It is so encouraging to hear about the way you deal with it. I couldn’t agree more that not giving it any more attention than is necessary is right on!

      • Jennifer Koski

        Oh I like the Wack a Mole analogy. Funny enough, it seems like my pride is also this way – endlessly rearing its head. I seem to vacillate between pride and shame – but both are lies (& both are crooked comparisons of myself to others). Funny enough, the same “Halt. Stop” method works for both (for me). The hard part is recognizing pride or shame as the lies they really are. Thanks for the insight Kellly. You always give me lots to think about!

  • Cheryl

    I get your post…i do but the reason I read this particular post is because I am at the end of my week where I was the shamer. Your post and others that i have read over the years deals with the “shamed” and not the shamer. I prayed on weaker folks this week and when I get in this mode I just hate myself. I become like this at work mostly and with my husband. I become this way when I am feeling “maxed out”…when I feel that my plate is too full and others do not live up to my expectations (not pretty but honest) and when I am in this mode it becomes like a runnaway train and I find myself alone and no one wants me around (don’t blame them). Truly there are some good reasons for me to be upset, but i rarely respond appropriately. God it has been a rough week for me and some very innocent people. I keep finding myself in this space. I realize what i have done, I agonize, I make ammends, people forgive (don’t forget) go on my way for a while and bammm…i always end up right back to this spot. There are times that i have come to a very dark place when i get here and i am afraid some day i won’t be able to come out. Please help me…

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Cheryl, Unfortunately, in this medium, there is not a lot I can do to help. I would highly recommend you seek some counseling with a therapist who can help you to discover an experience of grace for yourself and others. Blessings to you as you seek it.