Of all the multiple ways our human brokenness shows up, probably none is more insidious and prevailing than shame. Shame whispers (and sometimes shouts) that we are a fraud; that we don’t have what it takes; and that making ourselves known to others – really known, flaws and all – will make them stop loving and accepting us.
Psychiatrist Curt Thompson likens it to having our own personal ‘’shame attendant’’. Imagine that you have a completely devoted attendant, who is attuned to every sensation, image, feeling, thought and action you have. Also imagine that your shame attendant’s intention is not good – it is not to care for you, but rather to infuse verbal and non-verbal elements of judgement and self-criticism into every moment of your life:
- in your bathroom, your shame attendant greets you with the words, ‘wow, you have put on a lot of weight lately’.
- in a work meeting, as you struggle to put your ideas into words, your attendant says, ‘’see? You really shouldn’t be talking…’’
- in your bedroom, you want to share with your spouse about your fears and worries, and your shame attendant whispers, ‘’nobody wants to hear about your fears – keep pretending you have it all together and continue to hide.’’
Thompson and well-known researcher Brene Brown shine a light on the pervasive nature of shame. Both also point to the truth that shame has neurobiological, relational and spiritual consequences, and that healing involves being honest about our imperfections and risking vulnerability in the presence of safe people. Shame loves to lurk and hide in the darkness. It seeks to isolate us from others and from God – like Adam and Eve did in the garden- despite God’s invitation for a real conversation, for real connection and for deep knowing.
Many of us see God as all-powerful, majestic, holy, gracious, eternal and good. Perhaps less understood is his great vulnerability. And yet as Thompson writes in The Soul of Shame, Genesis introduces us to a vulnerable God, in the sense that He is open to wounding.
‘’Our triune God… knew he was setting Himself up for a rough go at it when He created us in His image…The act of creation was one of vulnerability, an act in which God was open to wounding with the anticipated heartache that accompanies it.’’
It is no easy task to keep our shame attendants at bay – especially for those of us who have experienced shame-based emotional struggles, addictions, mental health disorders or developmental traumas. Our judgmental self-talk often wins the day, or we learn to live in survival mode, adopting socially acceptable coping strategies designed to keep hiding.
John Townsend, the author of the popular Boundaries books, says that when we hide, the time and energy we might spend in loving and being loved is diverted – channelled instead into maintaining our isolation. The driver is always fear – fear that our needy parts will cause, as Townsend puts it, our emotional annihilation. Put another way, we are certain that if we risk further relationship, at least one of two things will happen: our own needs and dependencies will engulf and overwhelm us; or others will betray or hurt us because of our needs.
But hiding never works. Ultimately, shame is only and ever relationally resolved.
Being in a loving relationship in safe communities brings shame to its knees, and slowly lifts us up and into acts of authentic living.
This is the telltale sign that a community is safe: it encourages us into acts of mature living, creativity and goodness. And it embodies God’s story of redemption, always seeking to move us closer to faith, hope, love and joy.