Revealing–and Healing–The Soul of Shame

Posted on by Curt Thompson

This past week witnessed the release of The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. This in turn has provided me the opportunity, over the next several weeks, to offer snippets from the book and reflect on various elements of it that seem worthy, at least to me, of attention.

Right off the bat, I have to ask the question, Why all the fuss? Why is shame getting so much press these days? How is it that one single emotional state has seemingly propelled someone like Brene Brown to the heights of notoriety? Well, one thing we can know for sure: no matter how often or how thoroughly we come to understand the notion of shame, its resilience and capacity to withstand our varied attempts to dispel it is a function not just of its nature, but of what is behind it.

Shame carries with it various fundamental features with which we are all quite familiar. First, it is primarily an emotional state that is embodied any time we experience it. It is not just some abstract idea. It is, in terms of how the brain works, first a deeply felt physical phenomenon, and only eventually something we think in terms of actual words. This is important to recognize, because as an embodied feature of our mind, its healing cannot simply, therefore, be boiled down to “thinking” differently about what we know to be true. Next, shame is characterized by its tendency to induce hiding on our part. I mean, who really wants to be seen when we are so convinced that our appearance—especially that of those parts of us that feel weak, broken, or needy—is so awful. Our hiding begins literally with our turning away and averting our gaze physically and ends with our keeping as many parts of our pathos out of the sightlines of others and ourselves.

Another hallmark of shame is its capacity to separate and isolate—not only us from one another, but different functions within our mind from each other. Have you ever noticed how hard it is, when succumbing to an onslaught of shame, to simultaneously think and act clearly and wisely? Our sensations, images, feelings, thoughts and behaviors all become quite disintegrated from one another, each going its own way. When feeling shame, we often feel cut off from each other as well as any part of our mind that might able to bring those various functions together in an integrated whole.

Furthermore, shame is bolstered by our characteristic tendency to employ condescension or judgment as a fast-acting coping strategy to mitigate its presence. With shame, we feel judged, accused. We not only judge others, we even more frequently and harshly accuse ourselves. With enough practice, this skill of accusation, of condemnation, takes on an infinite array of appearances that might all seem to be working for our benefit. The “correction” we offer. The “suggestion” for how we can improve our behavior. “I should just work harder.” Of course, no one would ever be caught dead stating flatly and out loud for everyone around to hear that she is a bad parent; that I don’t study hard enough; that I haven’t lost enough weight; that I am not working hard enough to follow Jesus. That would be, well, too shaming. Instead, shame comes up with other more helpful cues, mostly wrapped in our more subtle nonverbal communication styles that say more than words themselves ever could.

Moreover, shame presents that rather nasty feature of self-reinforcement. We feel shame…and then feel shame for feeling shame. And the only way we seem to be able to stop it is to distract ourselves with whatever our most convenient addictive behavior might be: working harder; food; sex; church; or any number of other “good” things that evil is quite content for us to indulge in—as long as we don’t actually admit that shame is what we are experiencing.

And that leads to what may be the most counterintuitive feature of all that shame carries. No one in their right mind would ever choose to turn the light on to expose the shame they feel. That would be…too shaming. But of course we know that not only the healing of shame, but being liberated to new creative heights begins with bringing into the light the very part of us that screams to keep us in the dark. It turns out, then, that the very thing we are, in our worst seasons of shame, most terrified of—exposure—is where we must turn if liberation from shame is what we really want; if the freedom to live as we were made to live is what we most deeply desire; if flourishing in communities of goodness and beauty is the hunger that our soul most longs to be satiated.

All of the above features of shame, however, remain mere artifacts of evolution but for one thing. For those who follow Jesus, we believe that we are embedded in a story that is beyond words to actually describe in its fullness. But it is a particular story in which we also believe that evil is a real thing and is intent to starve us of beauty and goodness. And shame is the tool that it wields more effectively than any other. Therefore, it is not enough to know what shame is and how it works. We must even more so be clear about the story in which we believe we are living. Otherwise, shame is merely so much emotional nausea in a story that begins and is going nowhere.

The good news about Jesus, and, as it turns out, for our minds, is that God knows all about shame, and not just as an abstract idea from which he has been immune to experience. No, rather, it is something that he knows all too well because he has been to its very center—and has lived to tell about it. The question for us is What does Jesus do when shame is at his doorstep? In the coming weeks, I hope you will join me as we find out more about the good news about shame, about the story it is trying to tell, and about the very different story God is telling, healing our shame, changing our brains, and setting us free to create as we never have before.

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