the 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.