How Do You Respond to Leaky Emotions?

Do you remember the first time you felt shame? Once you experience that powerful emotion for the first time, it’s hardwired into you. It’s personal, private, and painful.

Shame is different from guilt, though they’re often lumped together. Guilt is about what we did . . . our behavior. Shame is about who we are . . . our character. Guilt is temporary. Shame is longer lasting. 

Shame makes us hide—like Adam and Eve. They ate that forbidden fruit and came face-to-face with each other and with shame.

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment, their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.

Genesis 3:6-7

Their shame experience went beyond physical nakedness to encompass the whole-life, stripped bare kind of exposure. Before eating the fruit they were naked and felt no shame, but post-apple, they saw distortion. So, they grabbed a few leaves and wove together fig-leaf jackets. 

If you’re familiar with the story, you know that despite the coverings, they were still exposed. They covered themselves with big ol’ leaves and hid in the shadows of the trees. But their jackets were “holey” and their hiding place was not so hidden. God still saw them.

Isn’t that what we do, too? 

When we’re confronted with our mistakes, sin, or guilt, we hide. We hide from ourselves, people, and God instead of moving toward them. We lose connection with the people who love us most and could help lead us out of our shame. Relationships suffer.

For leaders, it’s especially important to recognize when your shame may be “leaking” onto your team, even when you think you’re effectively hiding it. Therapist Amanda Cornelius explains three primary responses we have when experiencing shame:

  1. Moving Away:  withdraw, hide, ignore, dodge questions, numb, isolate, avoid, change the subject, or keep quiet.
  2. Moving Toward:  people please, overperforming, perfectionism, controlling the way others see us, fitting in, kissing up, lack of boundaries (saying yes when we want to say no), apologizing when we have nothing to be sorry about, not holding others accountable out of fear of their response
  3. Moving Against:  bullying, fighting shame with shame, sarcasm, blaming, anger, judging, one-upping, lashing out, purposefully hurting others

Can you identify your natural tendency? It’s important that you know how you instinctively react so that you notice it when you begin to move away, move toward, or move against those you’re leading. 

I’ve seen shame grip so many of the people I’ve personally coached. But I’ve also seen them overcome it. They’ve lifted a corner of their jacket, removed one little leaf, and given me a glimpse of what lies underneath. This is when the healing begins.

No matter what you’ve done, or what life has done to you, it’s never too late to conquer shame.

Here are three things you can do today to shed your “fig-leaf jacket”:

  1. Take off your running shoes. No matter how hard or how fast you run, God will find you. He’s always in pursuit. Trying to outrun shame will not lead you to a better future either – it will only lead to a jacket with more holes. When you slow down you hear God’s whispers as you learn to “be still and know.” 
  2. Start a mulching business. Those fig leaves need to go. You don’t have to start with the biggest leaf; a tiny one will do. Maybe it begins with talking to a trusted friend, journaling, or getting in touch with a counselor who can help you heal. Your past doesn’t have to define your future. Shame can’t survive in the light.
  3. Wave the white flag. Surrender to the God who’s given you a new line of clothes. God took your fig leaves, all of them, and wore them all the way to a tree that was waiting to receive him. He took each leaf and placed it on his own broken and beaten body so that we would no longer have to be fig-leaf wearers. He’s forgiven you. Have you forgiven yourself?

Are you ready to conquer shame? Stop running. Start mulching. And surrender. Strip and shed the fig leaves that are covering your life. It’s time to be seen.

Next Steps

  1. Identify which of the three primary responses you have when you’re experiencing shame and what you’ll do differently the next time you feel it leaking. How can you use this information, going forward, to help mitigate shame and move forward along a more positive path?
  2. Check out Heidi’s interview with Amanda Cornelius on our Side by Side Podcast. Find it out on Apple, Spotify, Google or our Website.
  3. If you’re ready to connect with a qualified counselor, contact Amanda Cornelius at Cornelius Counseling.   

>> Excerpts taken from Heidi’s book, It Began in The Garden: Understand Your Past for a Healthier Future


Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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