Shame is a major part of my own journey. As a kid, I was a classic underachiever, and even today I still hear, in my mind, my parent’s “you have potential” lecture and feel like I’m not measuring up. I also carry the burden of past mistakes, vocational frustrations, and family secrets. I am ashamed for being forty without making an indelible mark on my world. I feel shame acutely when social interactions turn awkward and I feel disconnected from others. Is it me?
Yes, of course it is. But it isn’t just me. Shame is part of your journey too. Psychiatrist Curt Thompson wrote The Soul of Shame : Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves to address our common sickness:
Shame is something we all experience at some level, some more consciously than others. Of course there are the obvious examples: times we’ve felt everything from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation. . . .But many of us also carry shame less publicly, often outside the easy view of even some of our closest friends. Losing a major account at work. The breakup of a marriage. Our child’s seeming disinterest in school. A boss whose motivational tactic is to regularly compare your work to that of someone who is outperforming you. Any of these more common scenarios carry the burden of shame in ways that we work hard to cover up. And our coping strategies have become so automatic we may completely unaware of its presence and activity (21).
Thompson defines shame as more than simply ‘just a feeling’ but a belief that: ‘I am not enough; there is something wrong with me; I am bad or I don’t matter’ (24). This is profoundly isolating and demeaning. Shame is that part of us which tries to destroy our soul and derail our story.
Thompson explores the neuro-biological and psychological roots of shame, and points to the practical and theological resources which will bring us healing in the book’s nine chapters. Chapter one provides a working description of shame (quoted above). Chapters two and three examine shame from a interpersonal neurobiological (IPNB) approach, discussing how shame works in the brain, and in relationships. This includes biochemistry, the history of attachment, past experiences, etc. Chapter four explores the fact that we are story telling creatures. When shame reigns unchecked, we inhabit one sort of story. Chapter five examines the biblical narrative, especially Genesis 3 where shame corrupted ‘God’s intended creation of goodness and beauty.’
Chapter six begins to unfold the resources for healing: vulnerability and community. We feel shame in the areas that are most vulnerable; the power of shame is broken in us when we allow ourselves to be known. Thompson’s counsel to one client addressed her shame:
It makes complete sense that you would feel vulnerable. This is the feeling that shame activates and that everyone feels to some degree when they are on the verge of being known in what they anticipate may be an unsafe space. To allow yourself to be known is very hard work. (119)
He calls this ‘the gift and terror of being known.’ There are no guaranteed outcomes in how other people will respond to us, but by learning to share ourselves, the power of shame is broken. In chapter seven Thompson explores how sharing ourselves in community can gives us the strength and imagination to counter our internal shame narratives. Ultimately we need to make the shift from the story shame is trying to tell in us, ‘back to the story that is true, the story God is telling at that moment’ (141). A committed group of people who will tell us the truth about us, and our behavior, and won’t turn and run from us in those moments when we are wrong, are people who can be used by God to heal our shame (144).
This communal burden sharing which allows us to conquer shame is described further in chapter eight, especially in relation to our ‘primary communities of nurture’: family, church, and schools. I gleaned some insights here on how to speak to my own kids without re-enforcing their shame. Chapter nine, explores the new vitality in vocation we experience as we experience healing.
Shame is something of a ‘hot topic’ lately. Many of us have read Brené Brown’s books or seen her popular TED talks. Thompson draws on Brown and builds on her insights, but his approach is different. Brown’s writing is more self revelatory, Thompson tends to share stories from his counseling of others. This is also a self-consciously a Christian, theological approach to the topic of shame, so Thompson explores relevant scriptural passages and the ways in which church aids in the healing process. This is an integrated Christian approach to shame which makes use of the best insights from neuro-psychology.
Vulnerability and community is sound advice. It is also difficult and risky. There are parts of my soul I had to learn to let people know and was lucky enough to have friends who didn’t bail on me for sharing my twisted vulnerable self. Whatever inner healing I have experienced, it is in this knowing and being known by others. However it still takes risk and I have also learned that not every listening ear honors brokenness. The key to Thompson’s model, is a commitment, loyalty and acceptance. Without these, there is no nurturing community to reveal our deep shame.
This is a compelling read and worth spending some time on. The back of the book has questions for discussion and a bibliography of related resources. I recommend it for anyone who has wrestled with shame from past wounds or has experienced the fear of being found out. There are plenty of insights on how to nurture healing in others as well. I give this five stars: ★★★★★
Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.