On Shame

November 21, 2009

We’re studying shame in CPE right now. Apparently, shame is only now being studied even in the mental health field.

From CPE materials this week: “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behavior.” And what a realization for me to understand that guilt and shame are two different things. Shame: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Shame is the belief that we are not worth “good”; guilt is the belief that “the bad” is inconsistent with who we are in our core. If I feel guilt for eating a doughnut, I believe I am worth eating something more healthy. If I feel shame for eating a doughnut, I don’t feel I am worth eating anything more healthy, perhaps because I am worried that my spouse will not love me for being fat, or will not want to have sex with me.

Guilt can motivate long-term change; shame cannot. I’m not far enough into the cirriculum to understand how guilt might be effectively used, but my guess is that the Church and other cultural influences use shame far more than we use guilt.

“You aren’t worthy of God’s grace, therefore repent sinner.”

“Good people do not engage in destructive behavior like drinking, smoking, drugs, overeating, and ‘abnormal’ sexual practice.”

“The more good stuff you do, the better you are in the eyes of God and the more God loves you and will grant you grace and favor.”

“If you are gay, you are bad and not wanted by God or anybody else.”

“Women are inferior in the Church, on the job, and in marital relationships.”

“Unemployment in this country is due to all the illegal immigrants taking our jobs.”

“The homeless need to stay out of sight. They make the streets so untidy.”

“I am afraid we might be attacked again like 9/11. We should attack other countries that might attack us even if we have to do it alone.”

I’ll cite the author of the cirriculum we are studying later. She cites some people as having “shame resilience.” That is the ability to move from the vulnerability which promotes fear, blame, and disconnection– an inward focused vulnerability– to an open vulnerability. Moving that vulnerability dial to an open place moves shame to empathy. When our vulnerability doesn’t control us but we allow it to be an instrument of empathy and shame resilience, the following happens:

shame moves to empathy
fear moves to courage
blame moves to compassion
disconnection moves to connection

When that happens, if I eat the doughnut I do it because it gives me joy. I can not respond in fear to an attack on my country but with courage to face the challenges of a new age with a different strategy from a position of my own worth. When the ‘other’ shatters a building and even thousands of lives along with it, my own worth does not shatter although surely I will grieve and experience anger– but not fear.

Similarly, instead of blaming others, we move to a place where we have compassion for their struggles. For me I even have to keep this in mind as I try to think of examples as I write but to open my own vulnerability to our human condition and their struggle to in this journey. The unemployment example is one– blaming unemployment on undocumented workers or homelessness on our need for “cleanness” because of our own closed-ness. These are shame responses– there is a threat to self projected as a blame response. Perhaps shame because of losing a job, insecurity of place in a country where racial, ethnic, and national mix is dynamic and power status is changing: “my worth isn’t based on what I thought it was– if this isn’t what gives me my worth then where does it come from?”

For many years, this country raised its children on “national pride.” For me, putting country first leaves no place for God to be first– the God who created all humanity and demands that we are all treated first as God’s children. But for those raised to see “country first,” somebody changed the rules and their whole identity and self-worth has to change as a result. That’s not an easy order.

Connection and disconnection is the final link– the war describes this perfectly for me (although the fear dynamic as well as the blame dynamic plays out as well). In response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US withdrew, isolating itself in internalized disconnection from its global neighbors. How many times did we hear attempts to reframe this, pleading with us, the American public, to believe that our global allies were just as committed in one way or another, because the public perception was that we were in it alone– isolated and withdrawn? Moving vulnerability to risk real connection– even if it means hearing what we don’t want to hear so that we can be in real relationship, avoiding the narcissism of self-defined relational boundaries is what it takes when we make ourselves available by being vulnerable in relationship.

Of course, the Church has been completely culpable in inflicting shame on its congregants since long before America was founded. What perhaps started as guilt to motivate right-living and right-belief turned into shame at some point along the way.

Beginning to understand that, as well as understand that we are created fully in the image of God, loved for being instead of for doing– simply for existing as the treasure both individual and corporate that we are as this human family– is, I think, the beginning of answer for the Church. Some places in the Church have started to realize this. “Whoever you are and where ever you find yourself on your journey of faith” is my parish’s invitation to the table in my tradition. That is the antithesis of an indictment to shame, but a motivator for empathy.

As a hospital chaplain, I see multiple families every day who ask why they are going through suffering. They confess their sins to me and are sure that their “badness” is why they are suffering– if only they had “been better” God would not be punishing them. This is an unfortunate and typical response in our culture to human suffering.

Of course God does not “punish” us. God loves us. It is out of God’s overwhelming love for us that he created us. It is out of that same overwhelming love that he sent his son to suffer with us (not for us) that we might know how much he loves us, and that in the end he conquers that suffering.

My prayer is that we will as a Church, as a nation, and as a human family, begin to engage with our vulnerability to raise our shame resilience and learn that our worth comes from something greater than ourselves. It comes from the one who has created us. We cannot take our worth away (no matter how hard we may try and even think we have succeeded!). It comes with us at our creation. Part of our purpose in our journey through life is to understand how deep a gift that is. That is what grace is: we are so deeply loved without condition, restraint, or restriction– no matter what we do, where we go, who we meet, or what decisions we make, we are valued, loved, and cared for; even when we fail to understand that ourselves.

All of these ideas are paraphrased or inspired by Brene Brown’s Connections curriculum, or by her book, I Thought It Was Just Me.


One Response to “On Shame”

  1. Jeff Says:

    It comes to mind that the Charter for Compassion is one very good antithesis for Empathy and Shame Resilience. You can sign the charter at the link above.

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