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Hidden shame from family expectations

Heal / Parent Relations
The word “shame” is often associated with public disgrace, humiliation or abuse. There is a form of silent shame that is less apparent but also deeply damaging. From birth, we learn about our value from how our parents interact with us. Many of us wear an invisible cloak of shame from years of feeling as if we haven’t quite fulfilled our parents’ hopes and expectations.

(See Chinese versions: 简体中文 > 隐藏在家人期待中的羞耻感 | 繁體中文 > 隱藏在家人期待中的羞恥感)

The slow burn of mismatched family expectations

While it is important for parents to teach their children what boundaries to stick to and what standards to aim for, there is also a fine line between motivating children through encouragement or shame. Young minds, however, do not have the maturity to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of communications. They simply determine what seems “good” or “bad” based on how their parents interact with them.

Here are some examples of shame-based motivational methods:

  • We are repeatedly reminded we should achieve more than what we have.
  • We are constantly being compared with our siblings, cousins or friends.
  • We face our parent’s disappointment when we don’t meet their standards, such as qualifying for the school of their choice.
  • We are made to attend extra classes or tutorials that we do not enjoy, in order to satisfy our parents’ standards.
  • We secretly fear we have disgraced our family’s honour and reputation.
  • We feel belittled and “small” in front of our relatives or friends.
  • Our efforts are rarely acknowledged nor accepted when we miss our parents’ standards.

Most of our parents do not intentionally shame us. We begin to experience shame when our best efforts are not matched by healthy amounts of affirmation and unconditional acceptance. This can lead us to feel that we must be defective, incompetent, unlovely and undesirable.

We deduce that our value must lie in our performance, so we conjure up high personal standards in order to feel worthy of love. In reality, what we are really doing is to try to compensate for the childhood shame that we experienced but could not articulate.

Our parents’ mismatched expectations follow us into adulthood and overshadow our ability to see who God intrinsically created us to be. We find it hard to celebrate our Heavenly Father’s immense love for us because we have already concluded that we are flawed. We can theoretically explain God’s grace but don’t truly believe we deserve it.

We have become slaves to an inner voice that keeps reminding us that we are not good enough. Such masked shame grows into “emotional handcuffs” that drive our choices over a lifetime – until we recognise them and ask Jesus to set us free from them.

Galatians 5:1 ESV  For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Real and perceived abandonment

The outside world can be confusing and scary. As vulnerable children, we all needed a secure home foundation to belong to. Growing up, there is nothing more that children desire than the security of our parents’ time, affirmation, and unconditional support. Children need to be reassured that they are still loved and accepted even if they fail to meet some standard or make a few mistakes. The ability to bond unconditionally with our parents in this way is critical to nurturing self-assured and resilient children who go on to become well-adjusted and secure adults.

Most parents are unaware their children feel ashamed for not meeting their standards. The effects are even more damaging when a parent’s standards are unclear, volatile or fluid. This is confusing and frustrating for children, who are left feeling fearful and insecure.

Ephesians 6:4 NIV  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

We begin to feel isolated and “abandoned” emotionally – even if our parents have never physically abandoned us. The fear of rejection lingers on into adulthood.

The subtle influence of our spiritual gifts

We all experience some form of childhood disgrace and will react to it positively or negatively, depending on our predisposition and spiritual gifting.

Those amongst us who have highly valued spiritual gifts of mercy, exhortation, and compassion are more likely to feel guilty or ashamed for having “let our parents down”, simply because we tend to respond emotionally to people. On the other hand, we may respond more cognitively if our spiritual gifts are discernment and wisdom. Those of us with spiritual gifts of service, hospitality, and giving may actually thrive when given the opportunity to meet our parents’ standards and please them.

Romans 12:6-8 ESV  Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Also, see Sharpening our spiritual gifts.

Generational shame

If we take the time to review our family trees, we may notice the generational patterns of hidden shame that began with our parents and members of our extended family.

Here are some examples;

  • Our parents endured their own childhoods of shame and are determined to give us a better start, so they set high standards for us in the hope of preventing a repeat of history.
  • Our relatives all compare themselves with one another, creating a family culture of competition, jealousy, insecurity, and shame.
  • Our family has been ostracised by our relatives simply for being poorer, less educated or just not up to standard.
  • Some close relatives are known for their accomplishments in certain areas, which the rest of us are expected to match but have no hope of achieving to the same standard.

Sometimes, shame already existed in our families before we were born.

How we respond to the shame of feeling “I may not be good enough”

There is the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt will say, “I did something wrong”, while shame will say “I am that something that is wrong.” Shame always comes with a sense of hopelessness.

Human beings often cope with the low-level stress that shame brings through a combination of ways. Here are some common examples.

1. Perfectionism

Where our parents once set standards for us, we now adopt the same approach to managing our lives. We resort to perfectionism, becoming highly judgemental of ourselves as well as other people. We work hard to overcome the insecurity of not feeling good enough through constant performance and achievement.

2. Comparison and jealousy

If our parents compared us with other children growing up, we can form the same tendency to compare ourselves with others in adulthood. We can’t help but feel a tinge of envy or jealousy towards others who seem to have what we have been striving for.

3. Procrastination

Where there is no one to tell us what standards are satisfactory or when the best choice isn’t obvious to us, we can start to feel anxious and stuck, unsure of how to proceed. We tirelessly compare all our options and keep procrastinating on making prompt decisions.

4. Latent anger

Our suppressed feelings of shame can also seep out in another guise; anger. We become hypersensitive to what we perceive as criticism and react defensively towards anyone who has the misfortune of approaching sensitive topics that we feel too ashamed to talk about.

5. Masking

We may also develop a fear that people will find out that we aren’t perfect and wonderful. We form a habit of masking how we truly think or feel with ready smiles, proud fronts or silence. We avoid talking about anything personal that may reveal our true selves.

6. People pleasing

The fear of abandonment drives us to do whatever we can to make sure people like us. We say yes to things we don’t really want to be part of, laugh at jokes we don’t find funny, go out of our way to be helpful, tell people what we think they want to hear, and so forth. The more we seek to please others, the more we lose a sense of who we are.

7. Self-condemnation

We feel awkward when people compliment us and openly express their love for us, because we don’t really believe we deserve anything good. There is a tendency to blame ourselves for things that go wrong, even when we are not at fault, and listen to self-condemnations that loop over and over again in our minds.

8. Fatigue, depression and suicidal thoughts

Our constant striving breeds a dull sense of hopelessness. We feel tired even when we haven’t done anything strenuous. Over time, we begin to feel that everything seems futile and meaningless. We entertain thoughts of giving up but our fears keep us trapped. Slowly, death seems like a viable escape route.

9. Pornography

Our shame leaves us longing for love yet fearful of seeking it in case we are rejected, so we turn to other forms of intimacy that won’t involve rejection; pornography. Porn does not involve other people’s standards, expectations or opinions. We can feel affirmed and comforted whenever we need it. We retreat into a world of sensual fantasies that help us escape from our masked shame for a while. Unfortunately, porn often only brings on more shame afterward.

What God does with our shame

When God created the human race, there was only goodness and fulfillment. Adam and Eve walked around the Garden of Eden naked and unashamed – until sin entered the world. Notice that God’s first response was not to remind them that they failed to meet His standards. He simply called them out of hiding out of shame, in order to restore their relationship with Him first, before laying down the consequences for their sins.

Genesis 3:7-9 ESV  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

God does not stop loving us when we sin or make mistakes. He is a perfect Father who is full of compassion and mercy. All we need to do is to ask for His forgiveness, repent of the “evil” from our hearts and invite the Holy Spirit to make us new. God knows we are unable to meet His standards on our own, and this is why He sent His Son to die for our sins and gave us His Holy Spirit, “for He knows how weak we are; He remembers we are only dust.”

Psalm 103:8-14 ESV  The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever. He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve. For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth. He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.  For he knows how weak we are;
he remembers we are only dust.

Mark 7:21-23 ESV  For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, covetous desires, wickednesses, deceit, sensuality, an evil eye, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

1. God never shames us, Satan does

God will never let us be put to shame when we turn to Him for help and relief. There may be consequences for sin, but God does not withhold His love from us. His overwhelming love is enough to wipe away our shame. God is a faithful, kind and compassionate Father who comforts us and gives us robes of righteousness in place for our dirty rags of shame.

Psalm 71:1 ESV  In you, O Lord, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame!

Psalm 145:9 NIV  The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.

Isaiah 61:10 ESV  I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…

On the other hand, there is someone that God has publicly shamed, and that is Satan and all his demonic cohorts. The Bible calls Satan the accuser who condemns us day and night before our God. The devil wants us to join him in his shame, rather than be united with God in His perfect love. We fall for Satan’s relentless accusations only because they stir up familiar feelings of shame from childhood, even though we are now adults and our present circumstances may be very different.

Colossians 2:15 NLT In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. 

Revelation 12:10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.

2. God empathises with our shame

Because of His great compassion for us, God also allowed Himself to be shamed for our sakes. Jesus was subjected to great shame. He was bullied, rejected, abandoned, wrongly accused and hung naked on a cross for our sins.

Hebrews 4:15 ESV  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

Most of us would not have to endure that level of shame that Jesus took on. God participated in the worst public humiliations of all time to show us that He is fully able to empathise with our shame and struggles. As the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith, He has set the example for us to follow. Shame does not belong to God’s redeemed children, it belongs to Satan who is eternally condemned. Let us, therefore, crucify our shame to the Cross and walk free in the resurrected new life that Jesus paid for us.

Hebrews 12:2-3 NIV  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Galatians 5:24 ESV  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

3. God’s standards contradict with our parents’

Out of concern for our futures (as well as theirs), many Asian parents direct their children to do well in life and accumulate financial security. Our achievements are often compared with others.

God’s attitude towards us is very different.

Jesus explains that in order to be “perfect” in His eyes and accumulate “treasure in heaven”, we should relinquish all our possessions and be generous to the poor. God’s Word warns us against a type of earthly wealth that leads to spiritual poverty or bankruptcy.

Matthew 19:21 ESV  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Mark 8:36,38 ESV  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In another instance, Jesus told the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30), where a wealthy master entrusted three servants with five talents, two talents, and one talent while he was away. This was an incredible privilege since just one talent would have been worth millions of dollars today. When the master returned to find that the stewards with five and two talents had doubled his wealth, he praised them with the exact same words. He didn’t show any favouritism or compare the two servants.

Matthew 25:20-23 ESV  And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 

Similarly, God has been incredibly generous to each one of us and calls us to flourish with what we have. He knows we can’t attain 10 talents when we began with only two talents. To God, it doesn’t matter what we start with. It simply matters that we are faithful to what He has given us. Sadly, it is our fallen human nature to compare and covet what other people have. God warns us not to covet what others have in His Ten Commandments. Also, see When comparisons become sinful.

Exodus 20:17 ESV “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

4. God will rewrite the next chapter of our lives

When we give our lives over to God, He gives us a new identity – we become children of the Most High God. God considers our parents merely guardians until we place our faith in Jesus. He reminds us that He is our only True Father. Once we step into our new spiritual status as His children, we are entitled to every spiritual blessing. We can nail our shame to the cross where Jesus died for our sins and be resurrected by the Holy Spirit into His new life – plus a double portion of His blessings. God is so generous with us that He makes us co-heirs with Jesus – simply because He is a generous Father. This is so enormous a gift that we could never hope to earn even a tiny part of it. What an amazing privilege worth thanking God for every day!

Galatians 3:25-26 ESV But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 

Matthew 23:9 ESV  And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.

Ephesians 1:3 ESV  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Isaiah 61:7 ESV  Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.

Romans 8:16-17 ESV  The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

With God, we begin a new chapter in our lives that is no longer bound by the expectations of this world.

Surrendering our shame to God

God is not interested in shaming us. If He did so, He would only be accusing His own creation and ridiculing the price that Jesus paid to redeem us.

God’s Word states that there is no condemnation for those who belong to Jesus. God specialises in making things that are “very good” and He is certainly capable of making our lives “very good” too if we let Him. He is the Father of lights who only gives us good and perfect gifts.

Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Genesis 1:31 ESV  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good…

James 1:17 ESV  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Receiving God’s salvation is not a matter of doing more in order to feel worthy of His acceptance. That would be similar to telling God that Jesus’ death on the cross was insufficient for us. Jesus has already done all the work that was needed. We simply need to confess our hidden shame to receive His perfect gift.

Romans 10:10-11 ESV  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Here is how we can pray a prayer of confession:

  • Acknowledge that Jesus died to free us from our shame,
  • Accept God’s invitation to be His son/daughter,
  • Thank Him for His generous gift of grace,
  • Repent of condemning ourselves,
  • Repent of ever wanting to die or fantasising about death,
  • Repent of turning to ungodly ways to cope with our shame,
  • Forgive our parents for following the patterns of this world and not anticipating the damage it would do to our souls,
  • Forgive ourselves,
  • Command the spirit of shame (and other accusing spirits) to leave us in Jesus name,
  • Invite God to use our stories of redemption to testify of His love and grace,
  • Join a small support group of believers who will encourage one another,
  • Make it a practice to study the Bible every day in order to renew our thinking based on God’s Word, and
  • Praise God every day for the next chapter of our lives.

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