Tag Archives: Curt Thompson

Shame: What we can do about it.

soul of shame

People are secretly preoccupied with the topic of shame. Sometimes it is a secret even to themselves until someone confronts them with it! 25 years ago in Christian circles, John Bradshaw wrote Healing the Shame That Binds You and sold over a million copies. [Well-known PBS speech]. Now Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, sells a million copies, and is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. [Famous TED talk]. One would think we’ve never heard of this topic before! In 25 years, someone will probably discover it again for the first time.

The pastors have been reading The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, whose hand I was pleased to shake after a great presentation a few years ago [A summary video]. Thompson is a psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation who has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. His favorite verse of the Bible is probably Hebrews 12:2: [We must fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 Jesus “disregarded, scorned, thought nothing of the disgrace of” the shame of being stripped naked and killed in the most brutal, public way the powers-that-be could devise. At that moment, God effected the ultimate turnaround in history, and humankind’s future was reopened to its past, in which Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix when Jesus scorned the scorn of the Cross.

What is shame?

Most of us probably think of shame associated with that embarrassing public event, the humiliation of which lived on — like the time I lost my prized baseball cap down the outhouse and, with tears, pleaded with my Mom to retrieve it. The truth is, most shame takes place inside our heads dozens of times every day, not in the public events we fear. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids. It even crops up in our dreams. For instance, my final dream of last night had me climbing up a wall of some kind and perilously walking on top of it toward an important destination only to look back after I had made it to notice someone going out a gate. I felt a little embarrassed even in my dream!

Thompson has some fascinating research to describe how shame activates the parts of our brain at the deepest level: the flight or fight system. Stress tells our system to slow down. Shame does that even better, activating circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, where we perceive emotion. That’s why a simple roll of the eyes can have such a powerful impact on us whether our intimate says anything or not. The smallest communication might shut us right down! Shame dis-integrates us from others. When our connective systems go offline, they are often quite difficult to reboot. [I wrote about this]

We all experience this disintegration. It is probably the experience we fear most deeply: our horrible, deserved aloneness. Evil promotes our temptation to take that feeling to its horrible end, until we are devoured by it. That is why it is so significant that Jesus scorned the shame, was again naked and unashamed in the face of the most contemptuous way he could be treated, and demonstrated how a new creation could begin.

Image result for tenth station
Stations of the Cross at St. Paul’s on the Green Episcopal Church, Norwalk, CT, Tenth Station by Gwyneth Leech

What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?

Ultimately, we must learned to scorn the shame with Jesus. Taking up our cross daily means talking back to the stories shame nurtures in our head about our flawed, despicable selves who are unloveable. For instance, I often encounter people in counseling of one sort or another who deflect a compliment. Sometimes I stop the dialogue and ask, “What just happened?” My friends can often identify a “scorn monitor” in their head who rejected the compliment because it did not correlate with their low opinion of themselves. I often take the place of the rest of humanity by affirming that “we” don’t agree with the scorn monitor and Jesus undoubtedly doesn’t. We have to at least doubt the shame, if we cannot stop it from talking.

The best way to break the power of cancelled sin is by telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to that “great cloud of witnesses” from chapter 11 that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud?” It is not only the great examples  from the transhistorical body, it is the people in my cell and the trusted friends in Christ I develop.

If we name things we can tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety and open up the possibility of feeling love, joy and hope. Real community helps my true self get out of shame prison. I allow others to say, “Pay attention to this. You are the beloved of God.” This is not an easy process. But every story helps convince me that God loves me. Every time I expose my shame and the worst does not happen, I believe salvation is possible a little more.

It is what we do about shame that matters

The real issue is not whether we experience shame or whether we can stop it. We can alleviate our suffering with understanding and new behavior. But we are always going to experience shame, on some level. The question is what will we do in response before it leads us to disintegration?

We need to stay vulnerable. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability has the  opportunity to live in a safe, predictable space. That’s why we long for Circle of Hope to be a “safe place to explore and express God’s love.” The cell is a shameless attempt to learn how to share ourselves without fear. I wish each meeting were like a magic pill so people would not flee back to their aloneness. But, over time, the discipline of building community fends off the reactions that deprive us of giving and receiving love. A cell even prepares us to overturn the shame that Jesus scorned on the cross! We often scorn the cells capacity to do that even when someone tells us it just succeeded! The church has a shame monitor too!

Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity through connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—and we can move past it, even if some remnant follows along behind.

See an interview with Thompson in Christianity Today 

Read his book: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson {recently added to Pastors Goodreads]

Despise the shame: Disintegrate the disintegrator

حرام عليك (Haraam 3aleik) Shame on you!

That is the extent of the Egyptian Arabic Jonny has taught me and I still can’t pronounce it. (Shame on me!) According to him, it is an important phrase to know if you want to know about Egyptians and maybe the whole Middle East. He often calls them a shame culture. For people schooled in western philosophy and theology, the sociologists need to remind us that we are from a guilt culture.

The generalizations of sociologists are hard to defend but they can be instructive to think about. Want to know more about how they label you? Here’s a full treatment of the building blocks of godless societies: fear, shame and guilt. It will help you get your mind around the ideas: link.

What runs a shame culture

If you don’t want the full treatment, here’s the idea of what runs a shame culture:

Basically, shame is an act against the accepted system of values.  You feel shame when you are going against what others think you should be going with. It is especially activated when an outsider finds out that you have committed a shameful act. One author puts it this way: “He who has done a shameful deed must conceal it, for revealing one disgrace is to commit another disgrace.” There is an Arab proverb that says, “A concealed shame is two thirds forgiven.”

My dad loved Spade Cooley and lived in a lot of shame.

A 20th Century Syrian scholar, Kazem Daghestani, tells of an Arab husband who caught his wife in bed with another man. He drew a gun and pointed it at the couple while addressing the man. “I could kill you with one shot but I will let you go if you swear to keep secret the relationship you have had with my wife. If you ever talk about it I will kill you.” The man took that oath and left. The husband divorced his wife without divulging the cause. He was not concerned about the loss of his wife or her punishment but about his reputation. Public shaming and not the nature of the deed itself or the individual’s feelings had determined his action. That’s an old example from mid-twentieth century, but it is still applicable — and it tells the story of a lot of what happens in the Middle East. People are carrying secret shame.

Your secret shame

You are probably carrying secret shame too, Egyptian or not. When you got up today, your “shame attendant” probably started doing its internal job. Maybe you looked in the mirror and said, “Yuck.” You got ready for a shower and it said, “Too fat. Too thin. Too hairy. Too out-of-shape. Too unattractive to make love to.” The background music of our secret shame is playing all day and we never let anyone else hear it because that would feel even more shameful. So we end up dragged around by it all day; trying to feel better in spite of it all day. Right now as I write this, my left foot still hurts because I went down to the basement to turn on my laundry in the dryer (Forgot it last night, stupid) and I hit my foot on my toolbox. (Did not take it clear down to the workbench, lazy.) When I yelled in surprise and pain, my first thoughts were, “Why did you leave that there (you dummy!)?” And I also immediately thought that I did not want to tell Gwen I had hit my foot because she disapproves of me leaving my stuff lying around. My shame attendant was in full swing.

At my conference this weekend Curt Thompson  called shame the “vector” that evil uses to dis-integrate the universe. He is an MD so I think he meant: Shame is like “an organism, typically a biting insect or tick, that transmits a disease or parasite from one animal or plant to another.” Shame transmits anti-love and dis-connection. It transmits the dis-ease resident in a shame-activated person to another victim. It is a spiritual self-destruction virus. But he might mean this:

Regardless, shame is a dis-integrator. It separates us from our true selves and definitely keeps us from transparently loving of others. Our shame attendant monitors our every move so we present a self that conforms to whatever we think will make us look good enough to survive the constant threat we perceive. Gwen cares more about my toe than about her sense of proper tidiness. But my shame attendant needs that to be proved before it allows me to receive her love. I am still tempted to think I will be ashamed if I show up as myself. In other contexts, when my true self poked his head up from his bunker, the shame attendant was spot on and someone did shout “Shame on you!” in some way, trying to get me back into line with what is killing everyone. Some sociologist chimed in and said, “From a shame culture, eh?” I’ve been bitten by the tic so many times that I am tempted to give up altogether.

Jesus wore the shame

As a matter of fact, Curt Thompson said that the whole temptation of Jesus story is written for the salvation of people who live in a shame culture and for each of us (all of us) who have a shame attendant. We see that the ultimate shame attendant, the devil, accuses the Son of God and tries to get Him to give in to conforming to a God-free, love-free, truth-free world. “Prove it!” Satan keeps saying to Jesus. “You don’t know that your needs will be satisfied, because you aren’t worth saving. You don’t know that you are honored as the Son, it needs verification. You have no power in this world that the world does not give you, prove your allegiance.”

This daily, relentless fact of shame’s dis-integrating power is why Dr. Thompson was so thankful to point out that the life of Jesus and facts of the cross so completely disintegrate the dis-integrator:

Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3) 

In the King James Version it says Jesus “despised” the shame. He looked at it as the disintegrator it is. Even more, he fought it to the finish and publicly wore it by hanging on a cross. People shouted “Shame on you!” while he was dying there. But bringing the shame of the world into the light crippled its power. Rising from the dead provided hope for all of  us making our way through this world into our own resurrection.

We are a circle of hope because of the great promise of God in Jesus:

Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).

Despise the shame that creates that “despicable you” your shame attendant is relentlessly trying to make the true you. In Christ, we are the children of God and the whole universe is waiting to see what we will become.

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