Sexual sin is a very taboo area in the Catholic Church, or at least that’s what I experienced growing up in a devout Catholic family. The extent of sex education I ever had consisted in just three words: SEX IS BAD. So, you can imagine the level of secrecy that I went about in order to hide my curiosity of sex, my lust for porn and my struggle with an addiction to masturbation. By the time I fully understood my actions were wrong, it became a battle against my own self-deprecation.
I got caught in the trap of believing that I would only be worthy of love when I was completely pure, completely chaste, completely Catholic… leading myself to disappointment when I failed again and again to live the life of purity I knew God was calling me to. I felt ashamed of myself and started to believe that maybe this was just who I am, maybe I’m just completely wrong… maybe I was just made for damnation!
It took 4 years for me to realise that these were just lies I was telling myself and that the devil was delighting in. I had been trapped in the web of shame and this was the very thing that was preventing me from moving through my recovery journey. So, in this blog post I want to share with you what I have learnt about shame in my own healing experience and from reading on the topic.
Shame vs. Guilt
Before we delve deep into the role of shame in prolonging the struggle with sexual sin we need to have a look at the difference between shame and guilt. Often we use these two emotions interchangeably, so it becomes confusing to realise that guilt and shame are completely different feelings. What pronounces their difference is the experience we go through in feeling these two emotions.
Shame researcher Dr Brene Brown presented the distinction by saying that “shame is about who we are (‘I am bad’) and guilt is about our behaviours (‘I did something bad’)”. Through guilt we evaluate our behaviours by our personal values. We realise that a particular behaviour did not uphold what we believe in. When one is feeling guilt, she knows how to separate her identity from the bad behaviour. However, the experience of feeling shame leads one to the lengths of defining one’s self by the bad behaviour.
Shame lies to us by dictating our identity by what we do or what we have done. If you lost that job, you are a failure; if you cheat on a test (even if it’s just that one time), you are a cheater; if you gave in to the urge of sexual sin, you are a bad person. It’s not that you did something wrong anymore: shame lies to you by implying that there is something wrong with you. It judges you by your actions rather than judging the action itself. Because of this, shame is destructive to our sense of self and worth. Guilt helps us to correct our wrongdoings, whereas shame points its finger at us, making us believe that we ourselves are wrong and there is nothing we can do to change that.
So, what does shame look like for someone struggling with sexual sin?
It’s easy to get trapped in the web of shame because it is a battle that happens inside our heads. Through her research, Dr Brene Brown devised a universal definition of shame drawn from many women’s experiences she had collected in her research. This is the definition of shame:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.
Our Catholic community is not immune to this web of shame. God has given us very clear and specific commandments to follow His Will, and the devil has his ways of using them to his advantage. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that God’s commandments are faulty or wrong. What I mean is that because of our flawed humanity we tend to use shame to reach the perfect virtue God is calling us to, which ends up being more destructive rather than constructive. And from this shame the devil draws on our experience of fear, blame and disconnection to prolong our struggle with sexual sin.
Shame makes us experience a constant fear of being judged and rejected for the weakness we bear. It is ultimately a fear of disconnection, a fear that we won’t be loved and won’t belong. As a result, we end up hiding our wounds and brokenness in an attempt to appear unstained before those we love and even God – who knows us better than we know ourselves. Because of our fear of being judged and rejected we try to be in control of others’ perception of us. But what ends up happening is that we give sin the power to own our very identity, leading to the isolation we were trying to run away from in the first place.
When we feel ashamed of ourselves in the midst of the struggle with sexual sin, often we will identify ourselves with this sin we commit. We ultimately start believing that this sin is just part of who we are. This brings about a sense of powerlessness in overcoming sexual sin: if you truly believe that sexual sin is part of your identity and since sexual sin is in opposition to the Catholic faith, then you will end up believing that there is something inherently wrong with you.
Believing there is something wrong with us, robs us from our sense of self and worth. We start believing the lies that we are not worthy of love and that we deserve the rejection we have been so desperately running away from. It’s a self-destructive cycle: we don’t want to stay in the dark hole that is shame, but feel completely powerless and hopeless to make the changes necessary because of that very feeling.
Seeing ourselves through the lens of Mercy
Feeling shame is all too common for those of us struggling with sexual sin (or any other sin) within the church. We place that expectation that we need to be fully virtuous to be loved by others and to be worthy of God’s Love. So many times, however, we fall short and end up facing the reality of our humanity: that our brokenness is part of our fallen human nature. This is the truth: we cannot rid ourselves of our brokenness because it IS part of our human nature. But God never called us to be in shame and remove our brokenness, but to unite ourselves with Him through it in His Divine Mercy.
God through His Son, Jesus Christ, desires to meet each and every one of us in the midst of our brokenness, just like the Samaritan woman at the well. She was a woman who was rejected by her community because of her promiscuous lifestyle – having had five husbands and now living with a man whom she was not married to – and Jesus met her right there in the midst of her brokenness, offering the living water to satisfy the thirst of her soul (John 4: 4-30). And like this woman, Jesus wants to meet us at our well, so that He may offer us the living water. In other words, we cannot save ourselves: we are in need of God’s healing mercy, we are in need of Jesus’s salvation. Our journeys towards pure and authentic love are not possible without truly experiencing and fully laying ourselves down in the goodness of His Divine Mercy.
His Mercy is what will move us from shame towards hope, because when we rest in His Mercy we will fully become aware of our own weakness and imperfection, our own sinfulness. When we rest in His Mercy, we rest in the knowledge that even in that weakness and imperfection we are always and forever loved by God, our Father and Creator. Just St John Paul the Great once said we are not defined by our sins but by “our Father’s Love for us” as His children.