7 Subtle Symptoms of Shame

by Frank Powell

When I started in ministry, I was clueless. I had passion, but no foundation. I didn’t tell the elders this before they hired me. I made them believe I knew much more than I did. I wanted the job, and I trusted my desire to learn. I would figure it out.

Part of figuring it out was sitting down with the senior pastor. I did this as often as I could. He taught me practical things, like how to interact with people at a hospital and how to prepare a sermon, things like that. He taught me about God, too, but he mostly trained me on the nuts and bolts of ministry. I do, however, remember one theological conversation with haunting clarity. I remember it because his words opened my eyes to the god of shame. 

It went like this. As we sat around talking about heaven, I asked him what he thought heaven would look like. He went on about pearly gates and shining figures and worship songs to God on repeat. I listened and nodded, but inside I wondered if heaven was really this way. I hoped not, if I’m honest. How many times can you sing I Can Only Imagine before you get bored? Five, six tops. He carried on for sometime, and then all of a sudden he stopped and stared out the window and took a deep breathe and said, “I just hope I’ve done enough to get there.” His demeanor shifted as he uttered these words, like a bully just stole his lunch money. 

I was bamboozled. Bewildered. Flabbergasted. I sat there in the kind of silence you might feel after seeing your mom naked. I couldn’t believe what he said. “I just hope I’ve done enough to get there?” 

There must be more to the Christian experience than striving and striving only to hope we’ve done enough to make it into Glory. I can tell you from conversations with many people and with the man in the mirror, the god of shame looms large in our consciousness. I left the g lower case. Did you notice that? That’s because the god of shame is no God at all. It’s evil masquerading as light, and for too long we’ve allowed shame to hold the brush and paint our image of God. 

We don’t have to settle for this, though. Shame derives much of its power from silence. It’s a covert, stealthy little devil that does most of its work in the sewers, in the bowels of our hearts and minds. We begin to overcome shame by talking about, by calling it out, like I’m doing here, and like I hope you will do in your corner of the world. Shame and God are incompatible, like peanut butter and any flavor of jelly besides grape. If you put strawberry or apricot jelly on your peanut butter sandwich, you’re a monster and need professional help. I’m joking. Kind of. 

I want to highlight some symptoms of shame we might not recognize in the hopes that we will tear down this false god and begin the necessary work of healing. 

Here are 7 subtle signs of shame. 

1. Perfectionism

Perfectionism stunts emotional and spiritual growth. Perfectionists fear mistakes, and they believe failure is an indictment on their identity. These people create an unattainable, unrealistic ideal for their lives, and maintaining this illusion requires of lot of mental and physical resources. Perfectionist rarely add anything new or meaningful to the world because they fear their contribution isn’t good enough. 

Perfectionism is hopelessly addictive, too, a vicious, snowballing cycle of shame. The cycle begins when you make a mistake. When you do, you feel small and unworthy. You beat yourself up, and to avoid such feelings in the future, you conclude you must try harder to avoid imperfection. So you double down on your efforts, and now the cycle is in full swing and continues gathering steam until you’re entire existence is riddled with blame and doubt and cynicism and low self-worth. 

I know this cycle all too well. I’m a recovering perfectionist. I struggle everyday with this little devil. And that’s one reason I write, to exercise my demons, to remind myself that good enough is okay. Good enough is more than okay. It’s courageous. It’s an act of worship, an acknowledgement that only God is perfect, which frees me to be good enough.

Perfectionism promises to protect you from rejection. It promises to keep the negative emotions away. But it never delivers on its promise. Never. 

2. Scarcity

Scarcity is a fear-based belief of not having enough. Scarcity says I must hold back some piece of myself, whether financially, emotionally or physically, because I might not have enough tomorrow. When scarcity is in charge, communities circle the band wagons and rally around likemindedness. They refuse to entertain new ideas or ask new questions. They hoard time and energy and resources, and they mistrust anyone who doesn’t look and think like they do. 

In relationships, scarcity says I can’t give everything to you because you might hurt me. Scarcity reveals a lack of trust, and it’s the enemy of healthy marriages. Intimacy, which is the ultimate sign of thriving relationships, is impossible with scarcity. 

Scarcity will make your world shallow and your God distant. Give up the lie that you don’t have enough. You have everything you need, right now, to love your spouse and your kids and your church and your God. You have an abundance, in fact, because you serve a God who freely gives. 

3. Legalism

Legalistic and rigid Christian communities are built on shame. Legalism would have you believe that you must get it right, and if you don’t, you’re in big trouble. In a culture like this, you can’t change. You can’t ask questions. The ultimate goal is conformity, not freedom. God can’t exist inside a culture of conformity.

Just the other day, someone sent me a message and said they were concerned for my soul because of something I said on Facebook. They shot me verse after verse trying to convince me to change my thinking, so I wouldn’t burn in hell. This is typical of legalism. Any view that doesn’t align with theirs is threatening. 

You can’t grow spiritually when you paint reality in black and white. God is found in the grey areas, outside the gates of our certainty.

4. Hurry

I’m convinced we’re addicted to going fast and never slowing down because we’re trying to outrun our insecurities. We think if we stay busy enough, for long enough, we will never have to reckon with the realities resting just below the surface of our souls. What are those realities? I don’t know. But I do know they’re all tentacled to shame. 

God instructs us to be still, so we can know him. But we’re afraid that in our stillness, we’ll discover that we’re angry or unworthy of love or terrified of disconnection. So, we choose to go faster and pretend those emotions don’t exist, and this is exactly what shame would have us do.

Yes, if you slow down, you might have to wrestle with some demons. But here’s the thing you realize: demons derive their power from distance, and once you become intimate with them, you have the power to defeat them. And on the other side, you find peace and wholeness.

5. Refusal to establish boundaries

One of the best lessons I learned from my chronic illness was the importance of saying no. The Sacred No is a holy and courageous act in a culture where saying no appears selfish. 

Christians are especially vulnerable because we’ve been taught to serve others, even at the expense of our own well-being. It’s okay to give until your gone. You’re following in the footsteps of Christ, are you not? 

No, you’re not. Jesus had boundaries. He retreated from the crowds. He told people no. Jesus never sacrificed his values for others. Refusing to establish boundaries comes from the fear of disconnection and the belief that you aren’t important. 

God isn’t glorified if you serve the whole world but lose yourself in the process. The man in the mirror is the greatest gift you have. Take care of this gift. 

6. Lack of integrity

Brene Brown says, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” 

Many Christians mistake rules and loyalty for integrity. We sacrifice our integrity on the altar of the institution. We refuse to speak to truth to power, and the casualties are the marginalized and the oppressed. 

True integrity brings with it the risk of disconnection. That’s why most people subtle for a cheap alternative, like rule following or morality, a proxy for integrity without the fear of loss. Cheap substitutes, however, are just that. They don’t give you the benefits of the real thing. People who live with real integrity are vulnerable and joyful and have an authentic connection with humanity and a deep desire for wholeness. People who settle for cheap substitutes are often fearful and resentful and close-minded. The disconnect between their core values and their life choices forces them to numb their hearts and minds. Numbing is a red flag that you’ve sacrificed your integrity for some lesser god, like comfort or fitting in.

If you pursue integrity, you will experience pain and loss. But you will also experience transformation and a deep connection with God. 

7. Co-dependency

Co-dependency is the inability to define yourself apart from another person. It’s the by-product of low self worth and fear of disconnection, both of which are offsprings of shame. In our culture, even in Christian cultures, we seem to champion this sort of behavior, two people who are inseparable, who have no idea who they are apart from the other. If you don’t know who you are without your partner, you’re in a parasitic relationship, not a healthy one. 

True love grows inside a relationship between two independent people who could live separately but choose to live together.

True love grows inside a relationship between two independent people who could live separately but choose to live together. Relationships like this can flourish because both sides are free to express themselves. Inside a relationship like this, you find authenticity and transparency and accountability because neither person fears disconnection. Neither person forces the other to conform to their own expectations, but each side gives freedom to allow the other to become the man or woman God created them to be. 


Shame is dangerous. It erodes our souls and keeps us small. But we don’t have to settle for shame. We can overcome it. We can choose a better way forward. Though shame will always exist because it’s part of being human, we don’t have to allow shame to run the show. We serve a God who’s greater than shame. May we have the courage to do the hard work of healing. 

Grace and peace, friends. 

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