How Do You Untangle the Web of Shame?

Author’s note: Shame work can be complicated and is often not attached to our own mistakes, but the errors of others, especially if the legacy of trauma or avoidance has been passed from generation to generation. In the event that you are struggling with understanding how and why it arises in your life, or you are noticing an avoidance around exploring it, counseling from a professional may be helpful.

Have shame — the more shame you experience, the less likely you are to sin.

Shame will stop you from sinning, because nobody wants to experience THAT feeling. A person without shame will destroy their lives.

In some ways, those messages are accurate. Shame is a horrible feeling. It shows up as a pit in my stomach, nauseating, dizzying and isolating. In the past, shame did discourage me from sinning. I would find myself in a panic days, weeks, or months after making a mistake, sometimes wanting the weight of it to suffocate me. Perhaps this was a good thing. Perhaps it meant that I would never repeat the mistake again and maybe I would be forgiven for my sin?

The issue was that weeks later, I would find myself faced with the same or a similar temptation again, and the only tool I had at my side was shame, which is not a very effective tool for change or growth. Shame says things like, “This is who you are,” or “Did you really think that crying and begging Allah swt to forgive you would change things?” I would find myself back at square one. I never actually dealt with the mistake, and I didn’t develop tools to combat unhelpful behaviors. I simply shoved those thoughts and feelings away, beat myself up for a couple of days, and then moved on.

I grew familiar with the cycle: making mistakes (because I am human), punishing myself with self-hatred, promising God I would never do it again, and then inevitably doing it again. I thought that’s what repentance was, and that one day, I would feel so incredibly devastated that it would actually hold. Then, I went to graduate school and received a Masters degree in counseling, specializing as a trauma therapist, and within a year it felt like my whole world came crashing down on me.

Shame, Shame, Shame

You see, in learning about — and then subsequently teaching — healing from past experiences and how to move from surviving to thriving, I began to understand the havoc that toxic shame can wreak on a person’s life, and how ineffective it is as a motivator for change. I lived in conflict; on the one hand I sat in spaces with survivors who were exploring and shifting away from toxic shame, watching as it loosened its bonds over them when they shared their stories. On the other hand, I was attempting to make sense of the fact that the Islam I was taught told me that shame lead to repentance and repentance brought you closer to God.

It was then that I spoke with an Imam and made the decision to go to therapy. In discussing the conflict I faced with the Imam, we recognized the issue was in language: In Arabic, shame translates to “ ’Aar ” but often is mistranslated as “hayaa” For so long, I had been taught to have “hayaa” in front of Allah swt, but was told to experience it as ‘aar, or shame. The issue is that shame is a felt sense that does not gear us for action. This type of shame does not lead to repentance, it leads to despair.

Shame refuses to acknowledge or accept mercy and compassion. It tells you that others will be forgiven for their mistakes, but not you. This is in direct contrast with what Allah swt tells us in the Quran and what the prophet SAW taught us about Allah swt’s mercy: “…and despair not of Allah’s Mercy; surely none despair of Allah’s Mercy except the unbelieving people.” (Surah Yūsuf 12:87).

Unlike shame, hayaa leads to repentance as it reminds us that we made a mistake and motivates us to take action, without defining us in the way shame can.

Hayaa, on the other hand, is a means for protection and self-respect. It encompasses the feelings of humility, modesty, and embarrassment in front of Allah swt, or in therapeutic terms, “adaptive guilt.” Unlike shame, hayaa leads to repentance as it reminds us that we made a mistake and motivates us to take action, without defining us in the way shame can. Humility and adaptive guilt are forgiving, because they acknowledge our humanness and our constant potential to err.

We may hide briefly in response to them, but they give us the space to reemerge and reconnect. They do not expect perfection from us, just that we acknowledge our mistakes and work hard to do better in the future. Why else would Allah swt tell us that he is merciful time and again, if not to forgive us when we inevitably do make mistakes? Why else would do we begin all things with Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Raheem, In the Name of Allah the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

I now logically knew that shame was not the cornerstone of being Muslim. But the issue is that shame is in fact a reality of being human and it was a feeling that could not be rationalized away. So how was I supposed to now shift MY shame to guilt? As most of you know and as I have endlessly described here, shame is sneaky and doesn’t really care for logic. What it told me was, “Yes, Allah swt may have forgiven you but if people knew what you had done, they would want nothing to do with you.” And just like that, I was back at square one. That’s the thing with shame —at its core, it is a fear of disconnection, that if people were to truly see us, they would walk away.

Don’t Expose Your Sins?

So now, I had dilemma number two: “Don’t expose your sins.” This was another teaching that was repeated throughout my upbringing. This teaching seemed truly out of line with what I had learned in my work with clients: that shame thrives in secrecy and to release the hold it has over us, we had to expose it by naming it to safe people. I moved forward with a plan to take my own advice, rationalizing that I would not expose myself to everyone in the world, just one safe person. I told my story, processed through it, and mercifully received the acceptance I needed, dispelling the belief that people would walk away. After being painfully vulnerable in this way, I felt certain that this specific shame narrative was no longer going to get in my way.

About a year later, I felt the prodding come back at a time when other things in my life felt chaotic, a characteristic move for shame, and it said, “You didn’t tell the full story. You didn’t name all of your other flaws. You lied by omission.” When I turned towards myself with compassion around that shame narrative, it responded with, “You’re bad, you’re inevitably going to make another mistake and really ruin your life.”

While receiving validation from others can be incredibly powerful, it’s not going to do all of the work for us.

At this time, I had more tools available to me to respond to these toxic messages. Through journaling to process with myself, working with a therapist, dua, a lot of Brene Brown and Kristen Neff books, and time, I realized that the “shame thrives in secrecy” bit needed to come with a caveat.

While receiving validation from others can be incredibly powerful, it’s not going to do all of the work for us. Yes, when you share, it’s like taking an axe to the big shame shield that you have between you and the world, but you can’t keep attempting to shatter it, because ultimately, that shame is a piece of you and is trying to communicate something to you. You need to be able to listen to it in order to see yourself differently, so that you can change and grow.

Had I instead returned to the person I shared my story with and provided more details, I would be asking them to accept me and to give me permission to accept myself. It would become a compulsion, seeking their approval every time the grip of shame made itself known. I began to understand the hidden wisdom behind why we don’t expose our sins. When we place our need for approval, acceptance, and mercy in the hands of anyone but Allah swt, the Most Merciful, it will never ever feel like enough. It potentially takes us back down the path of despair and a lack of belief in Allah’s mercy and compassion.

So What’s the Solution? How Do We Move Forward?

My belief is, we do it all. We seek connections with safe people to be open with and feel brave enough to show ourselves to. We seek to understand our mistakes and where they come from through self-exploration and validation. We utilize the wisdom we gained to correct our mistakes and gain tools and skills to combat the human urges that will naturally arise in our lives. And all the while, we turn to Allah swt and repent and find the strength to internalize His mercy and compassion. That looks different for everyone, but oftentimes, it may look something like internalizing this, in words and in action:

I am human, and thus I am fallible. I have and will make mistakes, and they make sense. I am doing my best to correct my errors as they arise, and pray to Allah swt that he gives me the ability to have the strength and awareness to face my flaws with understanding and never despair of His mercy.