Shame-Based Systems

from “Tired Of Trying To Measure Up,” by Jeff Van Vonderen.

What is a “shame-based system?” A shame-based system can be a church or group in which the authority figure demands a certain level of performance, whether spoken or implied. If you don’t live up to the standard of the system, messages that are either subtle or overt will tell you that you are not good enough – you simply don’t measure up. But that’s not even the saddest part.

Worst of all, a sense of shame can keep you at a distance from God. It keeps you from praying because, “Why would God want to do something for me?” In abusive churches, the disconnected, controlling leaders, who are supposed to represent God, have given people a distorted view of who God is. People who have been in situations like this might think, “Why would God answer my prayers? I don’t come close to living up to His standards. He probably doesn’t even want to be around me.”

People who are involved or have been involved in these types of situations encounter struggles over a period of time.

Here are a few:

*Difficulty trusting people
*Low self-esteem
*Highly performance-conscious
*Don’t know yourself very well
*Feel Wounded
*Feel tired
*Can’t tell what is normal until away from situation

The following is a list of characteristics that best describe the relationship systems, past and/or present, under which tired, wounded people labor:

1. Out-loud shaming

Comparing one person to another causes shame. Name-calling causes shame. Phrases like, “What an idiot you are!” and “What’s wrong with you?” will shame a person. This type of shaming is hard to overcome.

2. Shame-based systems are performance-oriented

We all need an environment where we feel our needs are met because of who we are, not because of what we do. In this system, value and acceptance are earned on the basis of performance. We become ingrained with a need to measure up. We are taught that acceptability comes from religious performance, rather than being taught to rely on our identity as a child of God.

3. Unspoken rules govern shame-based systems

The rule that reigns supreme in this type of system is the “can’t talk” rule. The truth of the matter in a church system is that some pastors are afraid of what the existence of a problem says about them as leaders. If there is a problem or question, then the person raising the question is the problem for raising a challenge.

Here is a list of other examples of unspoken rules that govern shame-based systems:

*”What’s real doesn’t matter; how things look is what really matters.”
*”What other people think is more important.”
*”Adults are more important than children.”
*”People who feel sad are oversensitive.”
*”Something is wrong with people who feel at all.”
*”Feelings don’t matter.”
*”We don’t have any problems.”
*”Questioning is disrespectful.”
*”Women are here to do what men want.”
*”When women are upset, they’re just being oversensitive.”
*”It’s not okay to have needs – needs are selfish.”

Left in the dark, these rules have an incredible amount of power and anyone who brings them to light will be shamed.

4. People in shame-based systems “code” when they talk

In this system when someone asks you “to do them a favor,” you know you don’t have the option to say no. It wasn’t really a favor, but it was a command. It swiftly becomes clear that needs, honest feelings, questions and opinions that differ are not okay. Saying things straight will get you labeled as the problem, so you have to learn how to speak in code to get what you need. You learn to carry an invisible code book in your head that helps you say things with the least amount of waves possible.

5. Shame-based systems have a hard time with kids

Needs, feelings, opinions, and certain behaviors all have the potential to bring on a sense of shame – especially to kids. Everything must be perfect. You must walk on egg shells and take everything seriously. Tow the line, mind your p’s and q’s, and act your age. Watch what you say and don’t make too much noise. It’s not okay for kids to be kids in shame-based churches. They must be miniature adults. It’s not a healthy environment for children because they don’t find out what’s real.

6. Shame-based systems are preoccupied with fault and blame

These systems burn a lot of energy in self-defense, and in asking “Who’s responsible?” This question is not asked for the purpose of helping the guilty party face the consequences, but it is raised so they can know whom should be shamed and made to feel bad.

7. Shame-based systems are strong on “head skills”

People in shame-based relationships live in a defensive mode. Shame hurts. It cuts to the heart. Therefore, people must become experts at “self-defense” techniques. These include: denying the existence of problems or rationalizing them away and blaming others. In this system, people are constantly interrogated. But the questions have no answers. “I just can’t understand why you did that! Is your head on backwards?” “Why did you do that?” The only safe answer is “I don’t know.” Any other answer would be analyzed and made to look foolish.

8. Shame-based systems are weak on “heart skills”

Experiencing or expressing certain emotions such as sadness, hurt, loneliness, or humiliation is viewed as an indication of weakness or defectiveness. In these systems people believe that feelings should go away. Consequently, they get stuck carrying a lot of heavy emotions and are never able to resolve them.

9. People in a shame-based system only look as if their needs are met

People come away from these systems with a sense that they are:

*Not loved and accepted
*Only loved and accepted if, when, or because they perform
*Not capable, valuable, or worthwhile
*Alone, not really belonging anywhere, to anything, or with anyone

10. The shame-based church is a system that is upside-down

This relationship system isn’t there to pour strength and fullness into its members. Instead, it draws from its members in order to perpetuate itself. Since love and acceptance are something to be earned, members have learned to be good performers. The result is people who are empty and disconnected on the inside with the appearance of fullness on the outside.

People in these shame-based systems spend their lives wondering when they are going to start living and being happy. But life is here to be had and enjoyed freely. Make the choice not to listen to these “killing” voices anymore and choose life!


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