shame, round 2

shame part 2the past few weeks i have been thinking a lot about shame.  i wrote a post in 2008 that engages with some of my thoughts about it called i hate shame so you may want to catch up there first, but i think i’m ready for round 2.  i know shame isn’t the most popular blogging topic; it’s hard to talk about it, but i think we need to try. i often share that shame sometimes feels like my middle name; it is a reflex for me, the first place i often go when i encounter conflict, dissonance, or even good things.  it’s annoying that it’s still hanging around, but the truth is–it is.  i’m human.

right now i am reading a fab little book called the gift of imperfection by brene brown, a shame researcher and speaker-on-the-subject who has some really excellent, soul-touching, challenging material without a lot of unnecessary God language.

to me, shame is the really crappy internal experience of feeling unnecessarily guilty, embarrassed, judged, and stupid as a response to certain interactions or experiences. the way it mainly shows up for me is an evil & ugly voice that mocks me in my head and inflicts damage on my heart, trying to put me down, make me feel stupid, and rob me of hope.

here’s what it can look like for me: right now, i am wrestling with feeling shame for being sick.  these kinds of thoughts are rattling around: “it is my fault that my back broke and if only i had been more this or more that it wouldn’t have happened…this is my payback for starting to feel better about myself these past few years…i deserve this so i can be put back in my place…i have somehow failed myself, my family, even God. in my family of origin there’s a really strong thread of you’re-not-allowed-to-be-sick & people-who-are-sick-are-doing-something-wrong messages.  coupled with reality that i push myself too hard & do too much, it makes for a potent shame cocktail.

shame doesn’t only show up in the bad things, either. often, it’s mean to me in the good things, too.

i am currently in the editing process of a book project that i am very excited about because it sort of dropped in my lap and forced me to get off my butt and put what i’m passionate about together in a comprehensive way.  this is a gift, and i am thankful.  at the same time, it is sometimes difficult for me to receive good things like this freely.  shame tries to rob me of it.  here’s what my head has been battling my heart with ever since this project started:  “who do you think you are? you’ve got this little community that no one really cares about anyway.  just give it up already, get a real job, and quit thinking you have something to say…” and that’s definitely just the short version.

shame is usually not rational.

i can rationalize any of these statements in my head, tell myself all the ways they aren’t true.  the reality is that in my heart, the place where i live from, they don’t go away so easy.  brene brown talks about developing “shame resilience” to find our way through shame. i love this thought because it implies that shame is going to come but there are ways to navigate it.  she believes that part of cultivating shame resilience is to “name it, talk about it, own your story, tell your story.”

that has been my experience, too.  it’s why i am so passionate about cultivating community spaces for honesty & story-telling & heart-sharing.  the more i am able to notice my shame, own it, and bravely talk about it instead of resist it, rationalize it or think it will just magically dissipate, the more free i become.  every time i share honestly in a little pocket of love, some of shame’s power is released and God’s healing seeps in. i can see how the distance that i stay stuck in shame keeps decreasing over time.  yep, it obviously still comes, but as i grow in connection, resiliency & identity, it just doesn’t last as long.

last september at our monthly refuge advocates gathering we focused on shame. i love being in a community where men & women are in the same room sharing real life experiences. it is so pretty!   shame crosses gender, that’s for sure, and we each connected with different ways it is present it is for us & how it can get in the way of being advocates. the part that i value the most, though, is that the more we get in touch with shame, the more real we become.  and the more real we can become, the safer we are in our relationships with others, too.

to me, any conversation around missional ministry has to address issues of shame.

shame is a universal human experience; resisting it or pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t helpful.  people and systems who resist shame and pretend it’s not there or ignore it because they are scared to address it tend to be unsafe people.  i think this is why so many churches are fairly unsafe–they are filled with people trying to resist shame (or heap it on), with no real places to let it out so they end up multiplying it.  the focus on quick spiritual fixes for complicated feelings just creates more shame for most people i know.  i have felt it myself & heard many people share how often they feel shame for feeling shame!

for our advocates gathering i shared a list of feelings that can be associated with shame:

alienated, inadequate, helpless, powerless, defenseless, weak, insecure, uncertain, shy, ineffectual, inferior, flawed, exposed, unworthy, hurt, intimidated, defeated, rejected, dumped, rebuffed, stupid, bizarre, odd, peculiar, different.

yikes!  connect with any of these?

when i look at this list, i am struck with just how familiar many of these feelings sometimes are to me & so many honest people i know.  i also don’t think we have to be stuck with them forever. or that they have to last as long & ruin us.  i believe part of  spiritual emotional transformation & healing over time brings less shame, more freedom.  less despair, more hope.  less fear, more courage.  less anxiety, more peace.  less self-rejection, more feeling comfortable in our own skin. i do not believe that God’s heart is not for us to live in on-going shame.

when we have a safe space to speak the truth of what we’re really thinking and feeling and share our stories, shame loses its power and God’s love & hope have room to grow.

to me, an integral purpose of transforming community is to learn the ways of Love together, to practice the hard things Jesus calls us to, and to be a safe space to share the stuff of real life.  these can take all different shapes & forms, but honesty & authenticity must be at its core.  most humans struggle in some shape or form with shame, yet, often “the church” doesn’t quite know what to do with it on a practical level. waiting until people implode & then sending them to therapy isn’t the answer.

we’re supposed to have places we can learn this for free. together. men, women, young, old, rich, poor, educated, uneducated–shame crosses all these differences.

often, we think we’re the only ones. or that we somehow we deserve it. and that if others knew what was really churning & burning inside they’ll ditch us.

it seems like the more we resist shame & work hard to keep it hidden, the more trouble it brings in the form of loneliness, depression, addictions, self-hatred, rage, and a whole host of not-so-great-things.

i really do hope we can keep changing this, that we’d become people & communities who walk in truth & love & hope and become really good at cultivating shame resilience.

i’d love to hear some of your thoughts on shame, what this stirs up in you.  please don’t leave me hanging, ha ha.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

9 Comments

  • So glad to hear your voice on this topic…what Brene Brown has discovered in her research, her willingness to share her own struggles with Shame (“shaw-may” as she called it for one group), is very powerful and could be life-changing for all of us. This feels very big to me.

    I so appreciate you raising the issue of how church contributes to the cycle of shame. From my experience, I think the church may be one of the biggest offenders. Sad, but I think, true.

    AND with God’s light shining through, we can become more “shame resilient” – increase our capacity to recover from these shame attacks. Talking about it can help others.

    That shame (isolation, aloneness, disconnect, fear, hiding) can be recovered from as we increase our capacity to risk vulnerability – which moves us to empathy (connection, compassion, and community) was very powerful and explained what I have experienced in A Small Group and other similar settings. When others risk being vulnerable (with safe people) – it shifts the conversation from staying in our heads to conversations that matter and have depth, build connections, compassion, and community.

    I hope we can sell a gazillion of Brene’s books – and offer these workshops for everyone. I plan to use Brene’s books to create a workshop here in Cincinnati to reach out to others.

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  • Hmm… shame is a foundational issue, I think. I spent most of my life deeply ashamed of the things that happened when I was a child. I took the full blame for them in my head. Ouch. It has been (sometimes still is) a slow process to let go of feeling ashamed that I was molested. Hmm… but you are right. Speaking about it brings healing – freedom. I also think that shame and self-worth are linked in an inverse relationship – the stronger the one is the weaker the other….

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  • Oh em gee Kathy!!!! I think you are holding a whirlwind by the tail here my friend!!!! I have to echo what you and Katherine shared in regards to feeling so much shame since childhood. I became so scared of dying when my dad died when i was 8. I was afraid it would *get me* somehow. someway. Once i became a christian, this fear just lopped on increased shame becaise Jesus took away any need to fear death and so if you did fear it, you were not a good christian,lacking faith and all that. I know all too well the prison shame creates by being ashamed of having shame. Your sharing opens the prison and lets grace,love,freedom and peace shine in brightly Kathy!!! Keep it going sista!!! Much love :)))

    Robert

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  • I find it amazingly hard to stop the self-criticizing thoughts after failure and abandonment(to add to the list). I can KNOW that “there is now no condemnation”, but to really let that overcome the negative thoughts is one thing…THEN, for it to really sink into my heart is another. If you’ve put things “in the light” in community before and got nothing but rejection, judgement and abandonment…well, it’s hard to muster the courage to do that again. Finding the “safe people” yes, might be the key, BUT, are any of us really FULLY safe? I’m finding that piece REALLY hard.
    If the knowledge of His true nature and my Identity in Him continues to make it’s way from my head to heart over and over again well, prayerfully I’ll find that resiliency. He can do it…so, maybe it’s a matter of surrendering my shame to Him? I dont’ know.
    All that being said, my shame has some similar sounds…like, “oh, if I could just figure out what I’m doing wrong, I would be accepted more”….or “if I would just obey and get back in His Will, I wouldn’t have all these physical ailments”, etc. I KNOW we don’t serve a mean, cruel and abusive God…so, my shame always keeps me second guessing His true nature and love for me. Yea, I hate shame too!
    Great post, Pastor Kathy! Thanks for the challenge to find courage again to seek Him and be vulnerable in community/safe people.

    Reply
  • thanks for taking time to comment. it’s funny, whenever i really extra need comments, they don’t come & when i’m not expecting them they fly, ha ha. i have appreciated these comments & the emails & phone calls, too, that remind me that this topic always stirs up a lot of good & scary stuff that needs stirring. i do highly encourage any of you to check out brene brown’s work on this if you haven’t already. really good stuff.

    elaine – thanks for sharing & it is really cool how this work is spreading and challenging men & women to talk about this more openly. i am excited to hear more about the workshops you put together; keep me posted. on wednesday night at our HOR, totally unrelated to this post or the brene brown stuff, my friend who facilitated did a lovely piece on shame. so good. the more “shame resilience” we can cultivate, the better. lots of love from CO

    katherine – yes, shame & self-worth seem to really be so deeply intertwined. i also read something challenging in her material about how our level of belonging can never exceed our level of self-acceptance. i think that’s one to ponder, too. thanks for sharing.

    robert – thanks my friend for reading and sharing. yeah, shame is so subversive and can rob us of life in so many ways. the more we can bravely talk about it and bring it to the surface, the less power it has in our lives.

    tammy – thanks for reading and sharing how you are wrestling with this. it is most definitely a challenge, that’s for sure, but one worth facing so that it loses its power. i didn’t include it on this post, but this rumi poem came to mind when thinking about how important it is to not resist it but rather “befriend” it (not as in, you’re my best friend and i love you kind of way) but more as an acquaintance that we can learn something from. it’s called the guest house:

    The Guest House by Rumi

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    kelly – thanks for reading.

    Reply
  • I’ve been thinking about this post for weeks.

    Shame is often, but not always, piled high on us by others – sometimes our parents and frequently the church. Often it’s someone or some group that we accept as an authority figure.

    If we, as an adult, molest a child then of course we should feel shame. On the other hand, if we were molested as a child, we have no valid reason to feel shame, even if the molestor should claim that our short skirt, tight jeans, color of our hair or whatever it was caused them to molest. That is a lie, a lame excuse. It is like a bank robber claiming that the bank is at fault because the bank kept money in the building.

    People, including some parents, churches, scout eladers and others who we allow to be in a position of authority over us (even if it is some kind of moral or spiritual authority) can sometimes abuse their position and pile the shame on us. Its a method of control. They’re superior – morally, religiously or whatever. Therefore, what they say is the final word on whatever topic. We should and must do what they say – wait on them, give them money, do as they say, and never never ever expose them as an abuser. If anyone should be ashamed, it should be them.

    This gets really tricky when the abusers get “outed”/discovered for being the abusers they are. Perhaps they’re spiritual abusers. Perhaps they abuse their wife and kids. Perhaps they’ve been verbally abusing LGBTs and then we discover that they’ve availed themselves of the services of a “rent boy” (more than one story of this in the news in 2010).

    Resisting shame may not be helpful. But confronting it can be.

    It’s our choice to accept or to reject the shame others try to place on us. Perhaps if we’re 16 and living at home and it’s our parents, we just have to be quiet and wait until we’re out of there. Perhaps if it’s our spouse we can refuse to allow it. Perhaps that doesn’t work and we need to quietly make plans to escape. Perhaps it is the voice in our head of a long-dead parent, pastor or abuser. We must tell the voice that it is lying to us. We may need a counselor or someone who cares about us to stand with us and confront the voice, living or dead, and call it a liar.

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    • amen, sam. i am so with you. i think it starts with identifying it and then beginning to stand against it instead of lean into it & because it can be so strong, it’s why we need others to help us tangibly with it. for the most part, me & God alone in a room trying to figure it out wasn’t quite enough. i needed others people to look me in the eye, take me by the shoulders, and remind me of the truth.

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