Shame and Criticism

Is shame the only thing that grows into criticism? Is criticism always based in shame? Some of you asked these questions after I wrote about criticism’s mother.

No. As I stated in my last post, criticism can be healthy. Even in unhealthy criticism, other causes can be present such as pride and hardness of heart.

The word “contempt” would probably be a more accurate description of the criticism that is born from shame. I avoided using the word “contempt” because who of us actually thinks we are guilty of contempt? “Contempt” sounds so inherently dark and bad that we rarely see it in ourselves. “Criticism” is a gentler word–one that is not always negative–and it is easier to identify in ourselves.

Perhaps once we admit to feeling and expressing negative criticism, we are nearly ready to admit the contempt buried in our souls.

In this post, I look at the relationship between shame and contemptuous criticism, both in how I relate to myself and in how others relate to me.

First of all, I want to tell you about shame and self-contempt I’ve felt toward myself. In my last post, I wrote: “…trying to remove the contempt and criticism in myself will never work. If I try, shame will only give birth to more.”

Here is a simple example of how this works in my life. I love peace, order, and quiet in my household. These things are good; an integral part of how God made me as a person who loves to create a safe and peaceful place where everyone is welcome.

I love to bring troubled foster children into a place of quiet beauty and routine, where they can begin to heal. I love having space for neighbors to stop by, sit at our table, and share their hearts. I love when our family is snuggled in the living room with books on a cold winter evening, the smell of hot tea wrapping around us and the gentle glow of lamps reflecting on clean surfaces.

But sometimes that love of order goes awry. Having five young children in my house makes it impossible to have perfectly peaceful and neat surroundings. Many times it’s wild and loud and messy! Kids run and scream through the house like half-naked bandits who are perpetually hungry. The noise and chaos slams though my head and I find myself becoming critical and grumpy.

In those chaotic times (which happen daily), instead of staying calm and working to establish order where I can, I often feel my soul shriveling with shame. In my head I hear the voice of someone who raised me, someone who never thought I was good enough. And if that wasn’t enough to get me down, I compare myself to my sister who is a stellar housekeeper. She has never put me down for my housekeeping (or lack of it) but I look at her perfect house and despairingly wonder how she does it. I wish I could be so good, so perfect.

So I grouch at the kids. “Pick up your stuff! Clean your room! Wash your sticky hands! You smell awful–go take a shower!”

My inner shame projects onto them through criticism, striking deep into their tender souls. I hear the parent who hurt me coming through my voice and hurting them in turn. It makes me feel terrible and worthless.

But I can’t stop. I can’t get rid of that shame by trying to be nice. Trust me, I’ve tried! I can force myself to be civil, but the critical spirit is still wounding my children.

I’m learning that Jesus is the only one who can stop the criticism by healing my shame. Allowing Jesus to access the deep, rotting wells of shame in my life is a purging and painful process. But it is good. When Jesus heals, He does it right.

On the flip side, I’m also realizing that another person’s shame is not about me. Just as my children are not at fault when I feel shame, it’s not my fault when someone else projects their shame on me.

I had a watershed moment a few months ago relating to this. I can’t tell you the story for privacy reasons, so I will try to illustrate with a hypothetical example. I like writing, so I’ll use that.

I have a friend who I will call Mary. Mary also liked to write, but she did not approve of the sort of thing I wrote about. She was very critical of me, telling me how dumb my ideas were and that I was a proud and unteachable person.

I knew that I was indeed proud and critical sometimes, and had strong opinions. I knew I was far from perfect. Yet my feelings were hurt by her disapproval because I never wanted to be proud. I tried to write only what Jesus laid on my heart.

I often went to bed with a prayer on my lips, asking Jesus to make me purer in heart, to guide my writing to please Him and not people.

In a beautiful way, Jesus answered that prayer. I experienced Him working in me, cutting away the prideful and hard places in my heart.

In the meantime, Mary wrote an article on her blog. The article was well-written and insightful. The next time I saw Mary, I told her how much I liked her article. I told her that she was a good writer, and said I would pray for more opportunities for her writing to get out into the world.

I told Mary this with complete honesty because of Jesus’s work in me. I felt no animosity toward her, only genuine pleasure at her success. This was not at all something I’d manufactured; I knew all too well that I couldn’t scrub shame and criticism out of myself. My delight in her was God enabling me to see her as a person truly worth loving.

Mary replied, “How can you say such a thing about my writing? You are so proud and just trying to make yourself look good. You don’t think I’m capable of writing anything good unless I agree with your ideas. You think you are so super-spiritual that you have to pray for me. I don’t need your help!”

I was shocked by her response. I knew that I wasn’t perfect, but I also knew that my heart was completely good toward her.

This misunderstanding troubled me, until I realized that her criticism was not about me. Her criticism was coming from a place of shame.

A burden rolled off my back, and suddenly I felt completely free to love, to pray, to enjoy her writing, and most of all, to treasure her as a person. She may always be critical of me, but it’s not my fault. Another person’s shame is not my fault.

Identifying shame in myself and others is leading me to a newer and kinder way of relating to criticism, whether it comes from my mind or from the lips of others. When I can’t stop the criticism, I can pray for Jesus to heal the shame. In this, I am free from false guilt, and free to see myself and others as valuable human beings created in His image.

Walking by Jesus’s side, I am covered with His love and dignity. His sacrifice on the cross was enough to cover my imperfections. His sacrifice was enough to take away my shame.


11 thoughts on “Shame and Criticism

  1. Glenn & Anna Miller

    God has anointed this very-timely message! It speaks volumes to my heart! Thank you for sharing! God’s teaching program is so beautiful! Keep writing and blessings on you and your precious family! Aunt Anna


  2. Victoria Miller

    I could cry forever. This really struck me to the core. Much of my life is lived out of a deep sense of shame which causes brokenness in everything I do. You, my sister, have fought so well, lived so well, given so well, and most of all loved so well. You are a true example of hope to me-redemption, indescribable beauty out of ashes. Thank you sis. I love you.


  3. Lovina Baer

    So much truth! God bless you for sharing this, Rosina.
    It hurts to think of all the times I have projected my feelings of failure on my children. How we need the tender mercies of Jesus!
    I have come to think of contempt as being synonymous with “spiritual superiority.” I once read an article on attitudes that can trigger depression. Contempt was one of them. The article was not saying, and I do not believe, that sin is at the root of all depression. But an environment of spiritual superiority, or contempt, is a breeding ground for shame, and more contempt. And as the cycle continues, depression, because who can live triumphantly with nothing but the filthy rags of self-righteousness to cover their shame. This realization has been life changing for me.


  4. Browsing

    Oy. I’m so sorry for what you’re experiencing. Are you sure it’s a good idea to write about your blogger friend? She might read what you wrote, since you say she reads your blog. When she reads this, she might decide you’re being passive-aggressive and manipulative by laying things out in your blog instead of speaking to her in person, perhaps with a mediator. (Matthew 18:15). Jesus has given us instructions for healthy conflict resolution in the body. Be careful, or you could accidently make things worse.

    It still feels to me like there are more issues at play here than shame. When you’re dealing with mild embarrassment over the state of your house, that’s different than shame for actual wrongdoing. Housework with multiple kids is endless. It’s do and redo, rinse and repeat, all day long. There’s an expression in Spanish, “Sin pausa, sin prisa,” which means “without stopping, without rushing.” That’s about the best you can hope for in a busy daily routine. (Listening to beautiful music, and lots of prayer can help with the monotony.) Since embarrassment is different from shame, see if you and Will can discern if there is any actual wrongdoing or sin happening in your daily routine. If you’re not ever idle, then ask God to help you know his grace as you move through your tasks. Is He a loving, ever present help with you all day long? Or is He a scowling presence looking over your shoulder? Sometimes our view of God needs healing. Once we receive that healing, we need to abide in Him when others would find fault with us when he isn’t. I had a friend who was always screaming at her kids, and she hated that she didn’t ever seem to stop. She was raised in a wealthy, prominent family, and her parents told her she needed to appear perfect whenever she appeared in public. Her home life was a demonic disaster, incest included. By the time she was an adult, she was well aware of the hypocrisy, but when she married and had her own children she still wanted her life to appear perfect. Children and their own wills and messes interrupted that plan, and she screamed at them because she felt their behavior was a reflection on her. Her concern was self-centered. She wasn’t able to express love to them until she could see their objective need to know Jesus and receive training for how to function in life, independent of her perceived need to appear perfect, with her children seen only as extensions of herself. Until she could experience how God is different from her parents, she was misrepresenting Him and his ways both to herself and her children. If you know you’ve sinned in how you’ve handled something (being idle, or being unkind to your children), then confess and repent. He is faithful to forgive. Ask for help to change. But having a messy house when sin is not a factor is not something to repent of. It’s a temporary state due to exigent circumstances (recent newborn, illness, etc.) If the mess is bad and constant, then it’s time for a couple to admit they need outside help because they’re overwhelmed by the circumstances and stressed. Sin may have nothing to do with it.

    As far as your friend goes, her treatment of you is appalling. The minute someone tells you your ideas are dumb and you’re a proud and unteachable person, you go for help. We’re not to call each other names, we’re to name the sin. “Dumb, proud, and unteachable” are labels. They’re insults. If she really loves you and wants to help you, she will speak to you privately about actual behavior she’s witnessed, not just call you names. Her recent response to you is just as appalling. It’s just more name-calling. It would be best for you to sit down with her via Matthew 18:15 and list the problems with a mediator who fears God. She doesn’t appear to be motivated by shame, but a spirit of condemnation. When you blog, people are going to occasionally disagree or have a wider perspective than you if they are older than you in the Lord. That’s normal. But calling you names and insults is not normal. Satan stands before the throne of God accusing us night and day. Our brothers and sisters shouldn’t be assisting him. Ask for help, Rosina.


    1. The blogger friend story was hypothetical, not real. (I don’t have any blogger enemies that I know of!) I was trying to describe the relationship between me and others who really are much the same but let criticism and shame stand between and twist the relationship.

      As far as the housekeeping, most of the time my house is in decent order. So my feelings are FAR out of proportion to what is actually true. This drives me to look deeper, to ask God what is really going on. I’ve been remembering things from my childhood and putting pieces together. But God is so good at healing those things! And yes, our view of Him is so important.

      I don’t have a problem with people disagreeing with me. I can’t learn anything if I stay in an echo chamber. But what hurts me is when people attack me as a person rather than civilly discussing dissenting viewpoints. There’s a big difference between people disliking my ideas and attacking me personally. In the latter case, it helps me to know the problem is bigger than just me.

      Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂


  5. Somehow you’ve described my own life with eerie accuracy.
    “Another person’s shame is not my fault.”
    My 50s have been the years of finally dealing with shame. It’s profound how it changes everything.
    Hugs to you, and applause for your brave words.


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