Healthy vs Toxic Shame for Orthodox Christians

By: Fr. Seraphim Gisetti

There is much talk in contemporary addiction treatment and psychotherapy about shame and how it drives addiction, depression, anxiety and violence. As Orthodox Christians, we want to distinguish between toxic shame and healthy shame. God created us with a conscience. This gives us the ability to distinguish between righteous and unrighteous behavior. This conscience is partially “written on our hearts” and partially culturally formed. Every culture has similar views as to what is considered sinful behavior, with some differences. “Shame”, or the feeling of “being ashamed”, is what tells us that we have done something wrong of which we need to repent. It is a crucial part of our humanity. However, it also is part of our fallen nature and can become distorted, and subject to the wiles of the Evil One.Healthy shame tells us when we have fallen short of the glory of God and calls us to change our behavior. Toxic shame, on the other hand, tells us that we ourselves are evil, unlovable, undeserving of forgiveness and dammed. It is a result of early childhood trauma and abandonment, as well as later trauma, and comes from the awful feeling of being out of control of our behavior and senses, that addiction brings. It fuels the sin of despair, that feeling and belief that we can never change and will always be horrible sinners. It drives addictive behavior. It is a sin because it distorts the truth about ourselves and God, and drives a wedge between us and God, us and other people, and within our own hearts. It lies to us. As we come to recognize the power that toxic shame has over us, and the way it contaminates so much of our lives, we can bring it to confession, repent of it, and look to God for healing of our souls and behaviors.

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