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.