Therapist Thaddeus Heffner on Shame: The Emotion Killer

Thaddeus Heffner

Thaddeus Heffner

According to Marriage and Family Therapist Thaddeus Heffner, LMFT, the most common issue he experiences with clients, no matter the presenting problem, is shame.  One small, five letter word, notes Thaddeus Heffner, that packs a huge punch–and from the dawn of time has destroyed lives and kept people from living their purpose to its fullest.  At some point in each of our lives shame has been our companion, acknowledges Thaddeus Heffner.  Walk with shame too long, he adds, and tragically, we sometimes forget how to live without it.

Shame is NOT an emotion, according to Thaddeus Heffner. Shame is what kills our emotions, or rather, keeps our emotions suppressed.  Shame is never healthy. Guilt, on the other hand, is healthy. Often people will confuse guilt and shame.

To explain this differentiation, Thaddeus Heffner describes the voice of guilt as saying, “The choice I just made was a wrong choice, or hurtful, or bad.”

However, if shame had a voice it would say, “I am wrong, I am bad, I am unworthy, unlovable.”

Can you see the difference? Guilt always points outward. Shame always points inward.

Guilt, when appropriate, should be felt.  Thaddeus Heffner believes that when we are guilty we should take the proper steps to make amends if necessary and then let it go and move on. However, points out Thaddeus Heffner, shame never wants to let us go.   Once shame digs its talons into our hearts and minds it can take some doing to set it down again and leave it behind.

Remember, shame is NOT an emotion.  We feel emotions but not every feeling is an emotion. For instance, says Thaddeus Heffner, I can feel tired, hungry, and yes even shame.  But I cannot emote tiredness, hunger, or shame.  Shame is what keeps our emotions suppressed deep inside us and to overcome the shame it is to these emotions we must turn for healing.

One way to do this, suggests Thaddeus Heffner, is to try and set the shame aside for a moment. Picture yourself just moving shame over to the side and out of your way.  Take a breath and then try focusing on how you actually feel in terms of emotions.  Whatever happened to bring you to this painful place, before the shame hit, how did it make you feel? Sad? Angry? Fearful? Maybe you are feeling a little bit of all three?  Stop. Take a moment. Give yourself time to feel what actually is going on inside so that you might grieve it.  It is in grieving and feeling your emotion that is the first step to healing – the first step back to peace, relief, and joy.

Here is the basic rule of thumb when it comes to wounds, hurts, emotions and healing, believes Thaddeus Heffner.  “Feeling and dealing equals healing.”  Shame is a counter emotion. Shame shuts emotion down. Shame keeps me from feeling.  Often shame is so overwhelming that not only do I stop feeling emotions, but I also fail to “deal” with the actual problem that caused the pain in the first place. Shame is the one stone that kills the two birds of feeling and dealing and thus healing fails to take place.

Set shame aside, encourages Thaddeus Heffner. Take some time to feel the emotion and deal with the pain of what happened.  As sadness, fear, or anger spend themselves and you express them, room is finally made in our hearts, minds, and bodies for peace, calm, relief, joy, and gladness to move back in.  And then, concludes Thaddeus Heffner, feeling and dealing will equal healing.

A member in good standing with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the American Association of Christian Counselors, Thaddeus Heffner, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Brentwood, Tennessee. You can visit Thaddeus Heffner at



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