A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Navigating Through Negative Emotions (by Jeff S. & Megan C)

On the heels of Megan’s post about waves of false guilt (found here), she and I (Jeff S) began a discussion about the various permutations of internal negative feelings over our behavior. A therapist I heard once categorized these into three categories, which we think are helpful to define and identify: Embarrassment, Guilt, and Shame. These progress from surface level to very deep in the core of who we are. Below we split “guilt” into two types of guilt true and false, giving us four different categories.

Embarrassment (Jeff S): Embarrassment is negative feelings about our actions that sit right at the top of who we are. If negative emotions were an iceberg, these would be the tip that you would see (with guilt and shame being the emotions below the surface that are hidden from external view). Embarrassment is momentary and often involves a very outward reaction (flushing of the cheeks, a sheepish smile) and is quite noticeable to people who watch us. Embarrassment is what happens when you are caught in a lie or something you’ve done that you wish people did not know about is exposed. While these things can lead to guilt or shame, embarrassment alone is not something that will generally lead to a change in behavior or long term ill effects. We are caught, we flush, and we move one hoping everyone has forgotten about the moment.

False Guilt (Megan): False guilt produces feelings of shame when there actually is no sin involved. As a girl and on into my young-adulthood, I was over-loaded with false guilt. When I was 19, one of my sisters said this to me: “You’ve changed. I used to look up to you. Now, you’re all different . . . the way you dress is different. I don’t know what’s happened to you.” Now, I realize that what had happened was that I was blooming into young womanhood and this sister seemed to have a problem with that. But, I felt guilty. I asked her forgiveness . . . . for . . . what? These kinds of conversations went on for years. I could never pinpoint what it was I had done but the guilt was overwhelming. What kind of person must I be if I was constantly doing the wrong thing but did not know it? Abusers are particularly adept at using false guilt to control a victim. Manipulators are very dialed into the conscientious man or woman. Making one feel guilty for no good reason is an under-handed, sneaky sort of sin. False guilt can arise when a spouse makes a husband or wife guilty over anything to do with the children, guilty for not caring enough for the abuser’s pride or ego, wanting to get out of a marriage that is abusive, defending oneself against abuse, standing up for oneself, and so so many other scenarios. The worst kind of false guilt is when one person uses/twists Scripture to control another. Of course, we know this as spiritual abuse. The best defense against false guilt is to remember to put on the belt of truth. Ask ourselves, “Have I really sinned against the Holy God? Am I guilty before God?” And go from there. We must protect our minds from the lie of false guilt. Sadly, it is almost everywhere.

True, Moral Guilt (Megan): True, moral guilt is felt when we actually do sin before the Holy God. A follower of Christ will feel this genuine guilt keenly. It is not confusing. Repentance will come quickly as we realize that we have offended the One who died for us. And then a fresh rush of determination as we fight against the sin that had momentarily overtaken us. We love Jesus; we want fellowship with Him; we cannot live continuously in sin — we just cannot. When we are attacked with false guilt, the question must be, “How have I offended God? Or have I even offended Him?” We do not offend God by defending ourselves against abuse. We do not offend God by divorcing an abuser. We do not offend God when we make moves to protect our children. Or when we fall to pieces because we are being brutally emotionally abused. We do not offend God when we are exuberant Christians. Or when we bloom and grow. We offend God when we fail to love Him . . . and others. And leaving your abuser is not failing to love your abuser. Leaving your abuser is loving God, yourself and your children.

Shame (Jeff S): What is the difference between guilt and shame? In the definitions we are using, guilt is a negative feeling about actions that we have committed, whereas shame is a negative feeling about who we are. Or to say it differently, guilt is feeling like we’ve made a mistake while shame is feeling like we ARE a mistake. This is a huge distinction, because as a Christian there is no true shame- we may rightly feel guilt for something that we’ve done, but if we understand truly who we are then we know that we are people who are worth being loved by a holy God so much that he died for our sins and transformed us into new creations. Of course that is the way it is supposed to be, yet so many survivors deal with feelings of shame. I think that part of dealing with that false guilt is saying “no” to the shame and saying “yes” to the new creation God has made us to be. This means recognizing that there is nothing to feel negative about in our identities and that Jesus has dealt with it all at the cross. Easier said that done, though — and I wouldn’t want to “should” any survivor about feeling shame. But even if it’s hard to get on an emotional level, we can take comfort that for the true Christian, shame is a lie — we are not intended to feel negatively about who we are.

We feel it is important to be able to differentiate among these feelings. Whether we are “in the thick of it”, in the “fog”, having just left an abuser, trying to leave one . . . we are hit with emotion after emotion. Navigating through these emotions can be wearying. They were for us. As we reflect on the descriptions above, hopefully we can see that these are very different emotions, and that while guilt and embarrassment are closer to the surface (and therefore more manageable), shame is something that is VERY deep. When people take actions to shame us they don’t just cause us to flush and have a momentary hickup- they are attacking WHO WE ARE. They may pass it off as a slight embarrassment that we should “get over”, but it is a far greater assault than that. In fact, shame is one of the major underlying roots of some emotional/personality disorders- this should tell us the stakes are high when it comes to identifying and dealing with shame.

Hopefully, this will help us all to realize what is truth and what is not, thereby clearing up the fog a bit, and relinquishing the lies to the pit, back where they belong. 

10 Comments

  1. Pastor Crippen had a message on how God “rolled away the reproach (shame) of Israel.” It was one of the most helpful pieces of information God used to help me deal with the shame that had been heaped and layered onto me for years and years…still healing.

  2. Anonymous

    The silence is deafening. (insert crickets chirping!)

    Not many responses here and my guess is that the paragraphs on “False Guilt” and Shame”, have all of us realizing how deeply entrenched we are in both of those – even if it is false guilt or shame, because that is what abuse does – it guilts and shames us.

    Thank you Jeff S & Megan C., for sharing the truth and nailing it on the head.

    • MeganC

      Thanks, Anon. I have been wondering the past few days why this post was frequented but left somewhat “comment-less”? But, we recognize that God is using every post we write for a purpose, regardless of how it might look. I know how much I have struggled with false guilt and shame in my life — it is much better now but there is still so much that lingers. And all it takes is one trigger . . . and I plummet back into the world of shame. We are over-comers, though, and I must believe that we will all land safely in the land of esteem as God’s beloved children one day.

  3. Thanks Meg and Jeff S for this post. It has been percolating in me and I’ve found myself reflecting on the differences between these emotions. And remembering moments of embarrassment. :( I feel so fortunate to be mostly over the sack-of-potatoes of shame that weighed me down for years. And to have shed the false guilt that kept me entangled in my first marriage for so long.

  4. The effect of shame is one of those deep, deep subjects that takes a while to sink in. I believe it is a weed with a deep taproot and it can take a long time to pull it out and replace it with the assurance that God loves us the way we are, and we don’t need to twist ourselves into tight, perfect shapes in order to please Him.

    Thank you for this post! It’s a good, good thing to think about.

  5. Now Free

    When I first read your post 2 days ago, I wasn’t sure how to word my reply. I wanted to say: Megan and Jeff S, you both write so beautifully and clearly.. you both “should” write a book, (or books)…

    I’d really like to read more of your thoughts on these subjects if you would care to expand on them some day. Megan, I especially relate to false guilt. Like virtually everyone who has been abused, I’ve experienced this in spades. My heart broke when I read about one of your sisters laying it into you, and at such an emotionally vulnerable age.

    I’ve told very few people this, but I was emotionally and physically abused quite severely as a young child. I think abusers have a sense of their victims and move in for the kill when they see that we have the kind of vulnerability and trust that makes it so easy to harm us. It makes the abuser feel powerful to have this control.

    • Now Free, I’m so sorry to hear you were abused as a child.

      It seems that childhood abuse makes one somewhat more vulnerable to being abused as an adult. As one writer said recently (I can’t remember where, and I’m paraphrasing) “My red-flags detector was broken — or never able to develop — because of all the abuse I was subjected to as a kid.”

      But that doesn’t make it our fault.

      And it doesn’t mean that all victims of abusive partners were abused in childhood, because research shows that is NOT the case. A person can end up in an abusive relationship as an adult, even though they had a good (non-abused) childhood.

      Research shows that if a girl was abused as a child, she is somewhat more likely (but not destined) to end up in an abusive relationship in adulthood. I’m not sure what the research says about abused boys being any more likely to be abused in relationships as adults (sorry fellas!). But I have read that boys who are abused in childhood, or who witness their father figure abusing their mother, are somewhat more likely to become abusive to their female partners in adulthood, but again, it is not predestination, and about two thirds of boys who grew up witnessing domestic violence do NOT go on to be domestic abusers themselves.

      The choice factor is paramount: people who abuse, choose to abuse.
      But people who are victimized do not chose to be victimized.

      If it makes you feel any less lonely, Now Free, I was abused (sexually) as a child. Once. But once is enough to derail your life.

    • Jeff S

      Now Free, thank you so much for the encouragement. It means a lot to know that what we write is helping people.

      Perhaps Megan and I can write a book some day- after I get my CD finished though! I love to write, but I love writing music even more :)

  6. Now Free

    Dear Barb, How brave you are for posting about the sexual abuse that happened in your childhood. It must have been unspeakably traumatic. My heart is breaking for you.

    Last night I wept after reading your message. I wept for you, for myself, for others who have been abused in their childhoods and have experienced continued abuse. I wept and prayed for you and Jeff, who have been so faithful in your advocacy for the abused. I asked God how long do you and Jeff need to continue to fight. I prayed that there would be a huge changing of the course of the pastors and churches to recognize abuse and abusers for what they really were, to have empathy and understanding of the abused, to be their true helpers in the Lord.

    I prayed for Megan and Jeff C and any others who are working on this blog and giving so much of their time and energy to helping the abused. I prayed for us all, whether or not abuse was present in our childhood.

    I thanked God for Jeff, Barbara, Megan, Jeff S and all of us. I know that God works in His own good time, and although it seems like a slow and discouraging journey, we will get there, to where many more pastors and other people will truly understand what abuse really is, that it is not simply some hurtful remarks made to a spouse or child, that it is not just another sin to merely be confessed and forgotten.

    Abuse is a deeply ingrained need for the abuser to inflict continuing and lasting damage on the people closest to them… usually their spouses and children. Sometime they extend their abuse to people outside their families, but very often if not almost every time, they appear as normal people. In fact, many times they can be super nice and agreeable to the world outside of their families. They purposefully use this persona to their advantage, so that they can continue their abuse and yet gain the approval of others.

    For those who might wonder why I am so passionate about this subject of abuse and its ramifications, I will mention that I was in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage for over 40 years. I was in a fog for a very long time, as most abused people are. I denied it for decades. I came out of the fog. I want to help other abused people. I think everyone who posts here wants to help. Will you join us?

    • Thank you for your prayers and commiserations, Now Free.
      You know, I actually don’t find it requires bravery on my part to disclose my childhood sexual abuse. I’ve been talking about it for so long, it’s no big deal for me to share about it. I don’t disclose who the offender was (for various reasons I choose to keep that private) but I do talk about the abuse and its effects and how I have now recovered from it praise God! I never thought recovery would come, but it finally has.
      I have found that talking about abuse, any kind of abuse, has helped me recover from it — so long as I was talking to people who didn’t judge or should on me.

      I believe that by talking about the abuse I suffered, others who have suffered similar kinds of abuse will not feel so alone.
      The statistics I’ve heard about childhood sexual abuse is that it happens to one in three girls and one in five or one in seven boys. So the more we survivors ‘normalise’ it by talking about our experiences, the more survivors will feel validated and be emboldened to speak up and lay complaints about the crimes, and society and institutions will be forced to take better steps to reduce the epidemic.

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