C.S. Lewis once said, “I sometimes think that shame, mere awkward, senseless shame, does as much towards preventing good acts and straightforward happiness as any of our vices can do.” In the Western world, we don’t tend to think too much about shame. We think about failure and guilt; we think about depression and anger; we think about emotional abuse and regret. But shame seems, interestingly enough, a bit of an outdated word. And, yet, it is probably the one word to which most of our negative and destructive feelings about ourselves can be boiled down. We need to talk about shame.
Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (InterVarsity Press, 2015) does just that and is, in my opinion, one of the most important books written on this subject. Thompson’s bottom line question is twofold: First, what stories are we telling ourselves about ourselves? Second, how can we change those aspects of shame into something that is in line with the stories God wants us to believe?
The truth is, most of us walk around with elements of shame. Some, more than others. But we all are, as Thompson puts it, “born out of preludes of beauty and tragedy…You began your life out of and into this narrative that others were already telling” (86), and as such, we all grow up in contexts which are beyond us and yet intimately shape us in incredible ways both spiritually and biologically.
Shame is a part of everyone’s story on some level, so there’s no use acting as if it’s not. The real questions are these: what is your story, how was it created, and how is it being told?
Thompson defines shame throughout the book as “the feeling of not being enough.” It is a sense of personal insufficiency and inadequacy, and it affects what he calls “interpersonal neurobiology.” This is a fancy way of saying that shame affects our brain which, in turn, affects our relationships (and here, the brain-relationship circle begins, slowly deteriorating one another). This can vary person to person, of course, but it is seen in particular relationships: bosses, parents, friendships, spouses, children, God, and even the self.
It is important to note that for Thompson, shame is predominantly a psychological mindset versus an anthropological social convention. Many cultures of the past, including many today, operate largely within honor and shame contexts (arguably, this is even a Western reality). This has its benefits, and Thompson is aware enough to not suggest that shame doesn’t have a place at all as a positive social force (see 1 Cor). But as a psychological state of mind, shame has extremely deteriorating effects that do not work to integrate one within society but, rather, separate one from community.
That is extremely important, for Thompson’s overarching thesis is that shame is an intentional activity that has an end goal in mind, namely, disintegrating everything good by offering us a story that is the opposite of the one told in Scripture. As such, Thompson does not think of shame as a mere biological occurrence. It is also a personal weapon that is used to disintegrate people from one another by covering up our inner selves. Think of the Eden story: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen 2.25). As Thompson suggests, “The vulnerability of nakedness is the antithesis of shame” (99). It is clear that ever since, sin has sought to clothe us in a deception about ourselves and our value. It doesn’t want us vulnerable, because it knows vulnerability leads to freedom.
This, of course, is why community is so important. Shame leads to retreat and retreat leads to isolation. That is where it can do its most destructive work. But allowing oneself to be vulnerable within a trusted community can bring healing when empathy and listening are employed. As Thompson notes, “…stasis is one of shame’s neurolobiological attributes. It moves us literally and emotionally to places of isolation and paralysis. When we make a regular practice of sharing our lives with each other, we move toward them and create space for them to move toward us. Shame hates this” (142). Shame wants us to believe we are alone and unnecessary. Community, though, when it practices the art of empathy, tells us that we are not alone and that we are loved, cherished, and valued. This is where healing from shame begins and it is, as Thompson notes, exactly what “God with us” (Immanuel) conveys.
Of course, as a neurologist and psychiatrist, Thompson knows the brain. While it is not absolutely necessary for one to understand the neurology of shame in order to work through it, it is very helpful to understand why our bodies respond the way that they do with the situations in which we find ourselves. As such, the more we understand how our brains respond to shame, the more we can work to help and train our brains to respond to hope and truth. This means practicing disciplines rooted in our transparency, empathy, and community. It means that we don’t over-spiritualize everything (like anger, addictions, depression); we take biological parts of everything into account and work with them.
This is a book that is applicable to everyone on some level, whether you yourself are dealing with shame or you know someone who is. As Christians, we need to remember that shame isn’t an old cultural word that no longer applies to “modern” society. It has lurked from the garden into the fabric of our lives and relationships in ways that we are called to fight against.