How to Overcome Feelings of Shame

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. This was good; 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 — and it’s not a very effective tool for change or growth.  It says things like, “This is who you are,” or “Did you really think that crying and begging Allah swt to forgive would change things?” and 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 for a Master’s in counseling, specializing in trauma therapy.  Within a year, I was working with survivors of trauma, and it felt like my whole world came crashing down on me.

You see, in learning about and then subsequently teaching about trauma and holding space for its survivors, I began to understand the havoc that toxic shame can wreak on a person’s life, and how it is not an effective motivator for change. I lived in conflict:  on the one hand I sat in groups creating space for women to let go of toxic shame, exploring how shame thrived in secrecy, and watching as it loosened its bonds over them when through courage and strength, they shared their stories and received affirming “Me toos.” On the other hand, I was attempting to make sense of the fact that the Islam I was taught told me that shame leads to repentance, and repentance brought you closer to God.

It was at this time 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: shame. The issue is that shame is a felt sense that does not gear us for action, but rather labels the sinner and not the sin as what is “wrong” or “bad.” Shame does not lead to repentance, shame leads to despair.  Shame tells you, “You are bad. This is who you are,” and it refuses to acknowledge or accept mercy and compassion. It tells you that maybe others will be forgiven for the sin, 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 despairs of Allah’s Mercy except the unbelieving people.” (Surah Yūsuf 12:87)

Hayaa, or modesty, on the other hand, is a means for protection and self-respect.  Itis sometimes explained as the feelings of embarrassment in front of Allah swt, or in therapeutic terms, adaptive guilt. Unlike shame, guilt (or 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 does. Guilt is forgiving, because (if done right) it acknowledges our humanness and our constant potential to err. It does 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 time again if not to forgive us when we inevitably do make mistakes? Why else would we be reminded to 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 into guilt? As most of you know and I as I have endlessly described here, shame is sneaky and doesn’t really care for logic. What it told me was, “Yeah, okay, so 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 it’s core it is a fear of disconnection, that if people were to truly see us, they would walk away.

So now I had dilemma number two: “Don’t expose your sins,” another teaching that was repeated throughout my upbringing as a young Muslim. This teaching seemed truly out of line with what I encouraged clients to do day in and day out. I would communicate that shame thrives in secrecy and one of the only ways to release the hold it has over us, is to expose it by naming it to safe people. So 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, and processed through it, and mercifully received the acceptance I needed, dispelling the belief that people would walk away. It was intense and painful, and the entire time leading up to it I felt sick to my stomach, and after being 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 (which is a characteristic move for shame) and the shame told me, “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 so bad, you’re inevitably going to make another mistake and really ruin your life.”

So I pulled out my laptop, and I took the advice that I so often gave my clients. Journal about it, despite how cliché it feels. Through processing with myself, my therapist, dua and time, I realized that the “shame thrives in secrecy” bit that I always doled out to my clients needed to come with a caveat. While “Me too” can be the most powerful words in the human language, they’re 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 put it back together and reconstruct it in a different way in order to see yourself and your flaws 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.

*Shame work can be complicated, especially if the legacy of trauma or avoidance has been passed from generation to generation, as shame is so wrapped up in trauma. 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.