Shame is a wound made from the inside, dividing us from both ourselves and others.
FromThe Psychology of Shame, Gershen Kaufman
I have been working on papers for presentations at the Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY, in February. The conference is entitled, “Encountering God.” My second paper focuses on the place of shame in our encounter with God and takes me back to a topic that has never been far from my mind for about the past 5 years. I continue to “mine” the Fathers, noting their thoughts on shame. Quite notably, St. John of the Ladder says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” Observing myself and others, I know that shame is omnipresent, frequently mislabeled and very often quite crippling. I cannot in this article begin to say all that needs to be said on the topic, but I want to make a particular observation.
Shame can be described as “global” in character. For example, I could say that I am not very good at sports. That is a specific observation that may carry no particular sense of shame. If, on the other hand, I say that I am “clumsy,” or “awkward,” I am making more of a global observation. I have gone from the specific to the general and the wound begins to be felt. Shame is about “who I am,” my global sense of self.
It is a bad habit in our speech that we frequently make global statements about very specific things. A husband and wife begin an argument with a global statement: “You never pay attention to what I’m saying!” Shame begets shame, which, most often (particularly in men), begets anger. And so the argument rages in a spiral of shame-anger-shame-anger. And the wound goes deeper.
The wounds of shame last long after the argument has ceased. We indeed experience a separation, dividing us not only from the other, but from ourselves as well. The conversation that shame creates often continues in the head for an extended period of time (days or more). “I pay attention! She’s the one who ignores what I say…I can’t believe she said that! My mother used to say things like that and I hated it!” You can write your own version of this because it is universal.
The inner argument is an extremely ineffective way of restoring and healing the alienation that has occurred. It stays in our mind, not because we are alienated from the other, but because we are alienated from ourselves. And we continue the argument trying to heal a wound – while the inner argument is only deepening the wound. Most often, we “get over it” not by healing, but by the distractions of other things. But the wound remains, waiting for the next assault.
Our culture’s language has become increasingly shaming in character. We make global pronouncements at the drop of a hat. The bitterness and pain of our political life, for example, is driven largely by the mutual shaming that occurs. We not only disagree with people, we globalize the argument. They do not merely disagree with me, they are racist, stupid, homophobic, Neanderthal, hater’s, etc. This is warfare rather than speech – a warfare of shaming that only deepens the spiral of misery. It becomes demonic at some point, in that our adversary utterly hates our existence. And nothing wounds us as effectively as shame.
Nations regularly shame one another and often have a difficult time being reconciled within themselves. The shame of defeat after WWI was, doubtless, the single greatest engine driving the angry rise of Hitlerism. The triumphalism of one nation over another can be a repeated source of shaming. Americans often wonder why they encounter Anti-Americanism. We have excelled in a foreign policy that begets shame. Acts of generosity, well-meant, easily and unwittingly produce shame. The so-called “export of democracy” (as though we were really good at it) can also be a way of saying, “You’re primitive, backwards and don’t even know how to run a nation.”
Contact with shame begets shame. When a child suddenly comes to a stop during a recital, all eyes in the audience go to the floor. The child’s shame is felt by all (Andy Kaufman did comedy routines based on performing in a shameful manner, causing deep discomfort in his audiences). And so in our exchanges of shame we create a mutual prison, a common hell in which we cycle between the shame of our unworthiness and the anger of our protest against life.
The accusations that produce shame don’t even have to be true. We carry enough shame within us to easily subscribe to even unwarranted shame.
In our Orthodox prayers, we pray that we may someday stand before the fearful judgment seat of Christ, “without shame.” That would be to stand before God, in the integrity of ourselves-made-whole. Repentance is, on its deepest level, the willingness to “bear a little shame” (in the words of the Elder Sophrony), to reveal ourselves in the truth, the nakedness of our being. The Elder wisely says, “a little,” since we cannot bear more most of the time.
In no way does this endorse shame as good, or give a pass to toxic shame. It is to recognize that shame is a fact of life, something that, according to clinical studies, is “hard-wired” into our bodies. It is the abuse of shame that creates the deepest wounds of our lives. As God heals those wounds, He does so by touching them, removing the sting and reestablishing the wholeness of our lives.
To see God face to face is the promise of true wholeness. To behold Him, without shame or fear. Soon, please.
Soon, please indeed. The pain in which we live seems to be growing and our inability to respond in any meaningful manner.
The ideological shaming and hatred have largely replaced almsgiving it seems. Just vote of the “correct” ideology and everything will be fine, even perfect.
Lord have mercy.
Your piece strikes home. I can admit that I have been trapped in the shame-anger cycle and I have had others use this as a weapon to exert control and to manipulate me. My only escape from this is confession (thus bearing a little shame) and public testimonies in addiction groups (bearing a bit more shame).
I find my buttons are a bit harder to push and I have learned in most instances to disengage in a confrontation that is turning into a toxic shame dump. This does not mean that I walk away clean every time, because I do fall. Then I pick myself up and confess.
Your comments on the culture of shame and anger we are entering into as a nation re spot on. I have been wondering why, we as a nation and we as Western culture seem to have become so addictive. Drugs are more plentiful on the street than they have ever been and many are seeking to legalize currently illegal drugs. The War on Drugs has been mostly a failure, I believe, because we are attacking the wrong side of the supply/demand equation. We need to attack, instead, the Demand side. I have been thinking on why we have such demand in order to begin to address how to attack the Demand issue. Your comments especially: “Our culture’s language has become increasingly shaming in character,” seems to be a very important element in why we need to numb ourselves so through addictions.
Thank you for getting me to see this and have an avenue of thought to follow.
Oh my, yes…I am all too well-acquainted with shame. Far too well-acquainted. Thank you for this, Father!!!
Father bless. As a recovering alcoholic I have found that by “owning” the truth of my addictions and when confronted with a situation where alcohol is offered simply kindly stating ” no thank you, I am an alcoholic, ” the shame has been defeated. I have been blessed with a wonderful peace and freedom.
This is timely. Many thanks, Father. I could say much in what has happened over the past two weeks in my life but I think it boils down to this: Love my neighbor. If I can do that, there is no shame.
I think shame is pretty inevitable, always part of the consequences of sin. It takes very little. What I have been discovering over a slow period of time (the past 5 years), and this has been a lot of hit and miss, is how to name the shame, call it what it is, sit with it quietly in the presence of God, without argument or defense, ask God to “comfort me,” and help me bear the shame. Even, and maybe, especially, undeserved shame. This Christ does on the Cross “He turned not His face from the spitting and the shame.” What I’m slowly learning is that this is possible, healthy and life-giving. It is also very hard, and extremely contrary to instinct. Shame is instinctive – it’s hard-wired. It does not have to be taught. Culture changes it and shapes many things about it, but the mechanism for shame is there from the beginning.
The Cross is far more about shame than about pain (the Scriptures pretty much say nothing about the pain). It’s all about the spitting and the mocking. Christ waits for us there and will not leave us comfortless.
I have often found that shame is the offspring of my pride. I truly believe I am too good for my sins. I am too good for myself. Thus the separation your article began with.
What about those who have no shame – the shameless?
That’s a particular psychological disorder (rather than a moral disorder) and is certainly a problem. Essentially, what you have in such a case is shame that has become so toxic that it’s been “shut off.” Shame has certain good aspects. Without it, we can get in very serious trouble. A person who has no shame would be relatively dangerous in various ways.
Interestingly, pride is really a shame issue. It’s the refusal of bearing shame and is a false move in a different direction.
Regarding culture, I think I and those on my side must out-shame the other side because we lack humility and an honest way of dealing with our own shame, so we shout louder and louder.
When there is no faith and no humility or forgiveness, when we fail to see the truth in the saying “there but for the grace of God go I,” there’s nothing left but to point out “hey, I’m not as bad as THAT guy.”
When we realize the truth of our condition, that, like Saint Paul we can truly say cI am the chief sinner, ” and like other saints have said to consider ourselves worse than everyone else, only then, I think, can we deal with shame and help our neighbors to do the same.
My own thoughts as one too long on the journey toward humility, with still so far to go.
Bearing a little shame before God (and a trusted spiritual father) helps to cultivate humility.
Humility strengthens our compassion so that we do not judge others when their shame is evident.
Compassion and nonjudgment teach us to refrain from shaming others when we feel shamed.
This is how peace grows between people and within people.
The first step is so very hard.
But we who believe have an advantage because we know Christ and can follow Him.
He who had no cause for shame Himself bore our shame out of love and emerged victorious. Hence, we can follow Him into the deep valleys of our shame, trusting that He will sustain us by His grace.
I can write these words – but it is profoundly challenging to live them…
(Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for a thought-provoking article.)
“My mother used to say things like that and I hated it!” You can write your own version of this because it is universal.”
I can think of an even worse verbal condemnation in the marriages of those of us who have gone through divorce and remarriage, and, that is:
“So and so (the ex), use to say/do that.” So far, after over 35 years in my second marriage, I have not done this; I just turned and asked my wife if I had ever done this which brought on a long pause as I watched her think, and she responded, ‘no, but you have called me by her name.’ But, we both realize that this from an old ingrained habit and she has, a few times, used her previous husbands name for me. We were both married 23 years in our first marriage and with marriages that last that long, habits develop that are hard to break.
So, what is the shame that heals the shame?
Very good question. It is voluntary union with Christ in our shame. There is, in Steph 4 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the story of a repentant thief/murderer who bears his shame. It’s a good, thought-provoking chapter that I recommend.
Essentially, every time we make a good confession, we voluntarily bear a little shame. In that effort, we find the grace of healing. This is slow, not magical, but very real and profound. Some things I have revisited in confession more than once as that healing process unfolds. Fr. Seraphim Aldea, of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull, has authored a book on confession that is, hands down, the single best resource on confession that I have ever read. He speaks there of the place of shame – and does so very well. The books is called The Voice in Confession. If you buy one, you’ll thank me and you’ll be helping support the founding of that great monastic work.
Fr. Stephen, Fr. Steven, and Subdeacon John,
Do you think it would be fair to say that the medicine for shame is honesty?
I think of someone I know who has actually been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, and along with a blatant lack of shame (which is due to an extraordinarily fragile ego that cannot bear any at all), there is an inability to tell the truth, both to himself and to others. He couldn’t even discern anymore that he was lying to himself.
It was very painful when he first started engaging truth within himself, and to this day, cannot hold it very long. But he tries, I think. And God is good.
Also, Father Stephen, when I am going about my business and suddenly encounter a memory that brings shame, and I allow myself to feel the burn and say a prayer (usually the Jesus prayer), is that “bearing a little shame”? Or is it neurotic? 🙂 Do you have any advice as to where to draw the line (or perhaps this is forthcoming in your series, in which case I am waiting patiently)?
PS- I can only imagine the business the monks are going to do today as we all click over to immediately buy your book recommendation. 🙂
I think it is indeed bearing a little shame – feeling the burn and praying. It is when we rush to make the burn go away, with angry, defensive dialog, or the sad cocoon of depression, that we fall into trouble.
Your description of the narcissist sounds heroic to me. Honesty is utterly essential in this. In AA, their “Big Book” says that the one quality required of sobriety is the ability to be honest with oneself. In the case of the narcissist, this is unbearable in a manner that others cannot imagine. To engage in it, even in a small way, is heroic. It may be a greater work than the rest of us will ever do. May God give grace in such a struggle!
I would to God that everybody bought a copy of the book – both for themselves and for others – and that the little income stream will help this founding work – the first Orthodox monastery in Scotland for a thousand years!
There is shame in being alone & victimized. This pain is avoided in my experience at all costs via dr ial. But facing the alineness of abuse of any kind, one finds oneself at the Cross with the companionship of the one who never turns away, who did not leave her Son no matter what shame befell him. Then humility becomes something to embrace
Sorry for typos:
Meant to say “via denial”
Shame is confusing. I have found John Bradshaw’s definition of healthy shame and toxic shame helpful so far.
Healthy shame says “I made a mistake.”
Toxic shame says, “I am a mistake.”
I know in later chapters of Mr. Bradshaw’s book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You”, he expands the role of Shame in Spirituality, mentioned in earlier chapters.
My understanding at this point is that Jesus seeks to heal toxic shame and wants us to recognize healthy shame and learn the difference between the two. By confessing, thus owning, my mistakes (healthy Shame), I allow Him to heal the wound of thinking I’m an un-redeemable mistake.
I’ve read Bradshaw, Brene Brown, et. al. They’re accurate and useful, but I think that they confuse the issue for Christians who want to understand all of this spiritually. Bradsahw’s difference, for example, is actually the distinction between “moral shame” (guilt) and shame proper (“I am a mistake”). Ultimately, all that can be offered in these various psychological approaches is various methods of refuting false thinking. Techniques such as cognitive behavior therapy, etc. And they do work and they are helpful.
But, in our culture, there tends to be this incredible reaction to shame (because it is not progress, success, etc. – it’s seen as some kind of failure). Then we get various helpful gurus telling us how not to have this failing experience (or so we hear them). As Christians, there is a deeper, more grounded treatment of shame – whether toxic or not. I distinguish “toxic” shame as that which is not voluntary and which we find very binding.
In my larger writings on the topic, following the patristic witness, I suggest that shame is actually the most profound gateway into the encounter with God. The Cross is at the very heart of this.
It seems shame’s a subdivision of suffering (rather than vice versa.) And I see parallels between shame and suffering. For one thing, both shame and suffering can have an involuntary, (or even hardening and dissenting) form, as well as another form –connected to Christ’s Cross-, which is voluntary, cathartic and salvific. I don’t know whether there’s anything useful in this observation though.
Indeed, it could be characterized as a form of suffering. But without good detailed analysis, it would easily go unnoticed and unrecognized. Shame most often is very quickly morphed into sadness or anger and is simply noted as such, but to little avail.
Your comments of suffering and of the link to shame are indeed present and they are profound. Suffering in its primordial essence is shame. We see that in the Garden where the real sufferings are seen in shame (for it is in shame where we hide ourselves from our selves, to our neighbors and to God). This separation; this estrangement is our hell on all the levels cited above and it is all encompassing.
In this world sufferings are unavoidable.
The Holy Apostle Paul clearly recognized this when he stated in 2 Cor 7 of an underlying truth of man; that we will know suffering and shame no matter what. It’s part of what constitutes us per the fall. The only question is how we will experience this suffering. There is a sorrow that leads to repentance and there is a sorrow of the world that leads to death – 2 Cor 7:9-10.
In light of this there is a choice to be made. It’s simple but it is not easy. It is the saints that are simple.
Have you read the book: ‘Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life’ by Marshall Rosenberg. I find your blog shares themes with Marshall’s helpful communication techniques. If you have read it what did you think about it?
I have not read it.
Fr. Stephen –
You wrote: “I distinguish “toxic” shame as that which is not voluntary and which we find very binding.”
I am not sure I am understanding your distinction. Are you saying when the shame (toxic) itself is involuntary? Or when the experience(s) that brought it about are involuntary?
It would seem to me that the vast majority of shame experienced is involuntary – that’s what makes it so awful. If we could readily decide to not have it or make it go away, we would surely do so – as we would with any disease.
The exception would be Christ’s voluntarily acceptance of shame in His suffering and death. (And possibly those holy people who follow Him very closely as to learn from Him this outpouring of self for others.) However, this is the cure – whereas the other is the disease.
From a psychologist’s perspective, I tend to think of toxic shame as that which develops in a person when *someone else’s behavior* has had a destructive impact on one’s personality development. Hence, the shame becomes part of the person’s identity – and therefore is modified only with great difficulty. Abuse, neglect or extremely inconsistent bonding experiences in early childhood tend to damage a person’s sense of self in such profound and enduring ways as to be truly “toxic”. And the experience is truly involuntary – i.e. not the result of the individual’s own choice. (Children who seem to “participate” in their own abuse, of course, do not have the maturity to truly choose.)
On the other hand, shame brought about by one’s own voluntary action or inaction can be profoundly painful but it is less likely to be so tied into one’s identity – unless it co-occurs with early childhood damage. Hence, not “toxic” in the same sense.
(Here I go, trying to answer the question I just asked you. Sorry. 🙂 Please explain a bit more what you mean. Thanks.)
I am not sure how much merit is in the thought but: Considering the observation of the parallels between shame and suffering (of which shame is but a subdivision);
– suffering’s ultimately salvific transfiguration through God’s far-reaching administration (which we are too short-sighted to discern now), might have something to do with this?
Your clinical definition works for me. In some ways, “toxic” shame is simply language for shame that has become crippling. There is voluntary shame – repentance being an example. I have pointed out in a number of talks I’ve done that the traditional language of devotional prayers in Orthodoxy is often misheard. The prayers speak endlessly of our unworthiness in very poetic terms. Some people hear this as the Church telling them they are unworthy – if they already carry a toxic load of shame – the language acts as a barrier for them.
But, I stress that the prayers are “eavesdropping” on saints. And, most importantly, they are voluntary. They are what it sounds like when we voluntarily humble ourselves (“bear a little shame”) and enter into the healing that God gives us. This is not God or the Church shaming us. The language of the prayers is always, “I” and “my” it is voluntary.
The toxic stuff generally needs to be healed to some degree in order for the prayers of the Church to be of use. Or so I have observed.
The whole discussion on shame has confused me even more, I really don’t know now how to apply it to my life: what’s shame, what’s guilt, what’s “too much thinking”…. I find Dino’s and Pete’s comments helpful, to put it under the “suffering” category, and since according to Elder Sophrony, “suffering is a sign of election by God”, then at least I can look at any of these feelings as beneficial for my salvation, and a gift from God….
But I wanted to say that I really loved your sentence
“But, I stress that the prayers are “eavesdropping” on saints.”
I have just listened to a lecture of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (I have recently discovered there are many on YouTube) where he says that when we read prayers of the Saints, we don’t even necessarily even have to believe ourselves in every word of the prayer. We can simply say to the Saint “I need this kind of help, and you believed it’s possible. I don’t really believe it’s possible, but since you did, please carry my prayer to God” (he says it in a very wonderful way of his…).
My favorite story is how he read a prayer to a mouse (which he commanded to stop, sit and listen to him, as he read the prayer to her), asked her to carry the message to her friends, then asked the Saint to carry his prayer (for all the mice to go away!) to God. Within a day, all the mice left the house where he lived with his mother and grandmother!
Sorry, I have wanted to share this for a while, and your comment Father seemed like such a great opportunity 🙂
Thank you for that last comment, Fr. Stephen. I have struggled with depression on and off for years, and when I am having dark times, I find it too painful to read the prayers of the Church, or sometimes even to go to church. Then I feel worse for neglecting my prayers or praying the “wrong” way. It becomes too easy to conflate my dark thoughts about myself–the voice of the depression–with what God thinks of me at those times, especially when I hear all the language of unworthiness and being a terrible sinner in the prayers. Then I find myself fleeing *from* God right at the time I should be fleeing *to* him. It becomes a vicious circle. How do you suggest one prays during those times?
You are right though that this is a very different experience from when I feel God’s love and love him in return and, because of that, become aware of my own sinfulness. At those times, the sense of my own sinfulness becomes almost the same as my sense of his love because I feel how strong and safe his love is, how it reaches and heals me to the full extent of my distance and sickness. Your comments have been helpful to me in understanding this distinction. Thank you.
My favorite story is how he read a prayer to a mouse (which he commanded to stop, sit and listen to him, as he read the prayer to her), asked her to carry the message to her friends, then asked the Saint to carry his prayer (for all the mice to go away!) to God. Within a day, all the mice left the house where he lived with his mother and grandmother!
Do you have a link for this story? Quite wonderful!
I, could be wrong, but I personally think it outstandingly critical that everyone with a propensity towards the ‘desperation-end’-of-the-spectrum-of-negative-thoughts, (whether from depression, from panic, from torment, from oversensitivity [that’s potentially everybody]), must at every opportunity cultivate and nurture trust and gratitude towards God’s covert providence, predominantly His providence throughout the very times when His presence is utterly eradicated from our perception – when we virtually taste of an eternity of hell.
God will often sanction some manageable “tests” for us (although these episodes subjectively feel the opposite of ‘manageable’ during their occurrence), in order for us to practice ‘gluing unto Him’ (despite His seeming utter inexistence at the time) and also unto His saints who have gone through all this before us, ‘learning’ about hell and humility yet despairing less and less until ‘we despair not’, but acquire willingness and even gratitude in it all. It is after such difficult experiences –perhaps more so than even the desirable, indelible, transformative, palpable experiences of His grace– that we come to realize that the God of Hosts is ‘my God Whom I know and Who possesses me inseparably’.
It takes many years of simultaneously fearful and joyous building-up of such an “ark” for such “cataclysms”, and one could argue that the “floods”, when they come, are always stretching and challenging each person in the same proportion and according to their strength and ‘practice’; however, I think we become foolish the moment we forget the importance of cultivating ‘sticking and gluing’ to God (with our voluntary exposure to our Lord in all honesty, in heartening vigilance and at all possible times). I wouldn’t want all this to be misintepreted in a fretful manner. God calls us to joy, but it is prudent to sow and cultivate wisely and diligently while we still can: we will surely reap accordingly when we cannot cultivate anymore, ultimately, (both the difficult episodes as well as the opportune and easy times which we decide to not waste away but use them as explained) this is all preparation for the time of our death…
My mom struggled with severe depression her entire life, and shared the struggle with the language of the Orthodox prayerbook. One of the books my sister and I read aloud to her when she was dying (a protracted battle with bone cancer), was “The Scent of Water” by Elizabeth Goudge.
In the book, there’s a series of three short prayers that we found to be good medicine for those times when words were hard, and she had me put it on a decal on the wall:
1. Lord have mercy
2. Thee I adore
3. Into Thy hands
It’s a very Trinitarian prayer in structure, too: Three threes. 🙂
Here is the YouTube piece. The mouse story is around min 28, but if you have time, listen to the whole lecture. This video is especially wonderful, and it is on prayer….
Thank you for your comment. It is the realization of everything you just explained that continually repels me from Protestantism and glues me to the Orthodox Church.
When I was a Protestant the suffering of this world always escaped me. According to my previous faith martyrdom and suffering sacramemtally made Christ present to us, and then through His presence God graces us with the fullness of salvation in an instance. In this situation, according to the monergistic view of salvation, God does all the work in such a way that there is no “journey” to God. He gives us Himself in total, but for some reason on this side of death we are always still sinners, so we wait it out. What I never understood was if total depravity prevented our ability to consent (and hence, lead us on a synergistic journey) then why was the presentation of Christ in a sacramental way even necessary? The paradigm could all still be true, but we could be totally unconscious to His presence (let’s pretend in a we’re coma) and grace could still fall on our heads, because what’s the difference between being unconscious and utterly depraved? Either way I can’t consent. So then why do we need to be comcious of the witness of the martyrs? (Or conscious of the Word, or anything else that makes Christ present to us for that matter.) There is no point to it without a journey to be had, it seems.
(For clarity, I was referring to Dino’s comment to Erika.)
Also, sorry for the typo. I meant “let’s pretend we’re in a coma.”
When David heard Nathan’s gentle but deeply revealing story he was brought to deep shame. Psalm 50 (51) was fruit of that shame. In it we hear “the bones that be humbled, they shall rejoice.’ & ‘a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise’ & ‘a sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit’.
Whether it is the voice of a Nathan sent to me, or the voice of the Gospel speaking the law clearly or just the feeble wimper of my poor conscience I would hope to choose the way of shame and brokeness.
To bristle against what would shame us is natural. When we are caught off guard and experience what from Greek translates ‘the shame of the face’ then it can either humble or embitter our heart. I have always thought the choice is there for us each time we experience it.
Without the overwhelming mercy of God that David called upon and received bitterness becomes our backstop. With the mercy of God to catch us as we crumble the walls of Jerusalem (the city of God’s dwelling) can be rebuilt.
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’.
Erika, responding to your 10:19 AM comment.
Obviously I’m not Fr. Stephen… but if I may, I will share with you a way of praying that helped me when I was suffering from anxiety disorders. My suffering at that time was such that I could hardly tolerate going to church because it seemed to make my symptoms worse.
It took me a while to understand this but I learned that, instead of resisting my hideous obsessive thoughts or judging myself for them, I tried to accept that I had this illness and that God knew I had it. Then I offered my suffering with the illness to God *as a prayer* for someone else – anyone I knew of that was having a problem.
In time, this eased my symptoms as well as my suffering over them. It actually gave the suffering some meaning which helped me not feel so afraid or guilty for what felt like my failure to stop it.
I know that depression torments in different ways than my anxiety issues – but there is overlap. And I believe that when we bring ANY suffering to God in prayer, it is transformed so as to unite us to the suffering Christ and to all His people who suffer. It still feels bad (it is suffering after all) but it becomes easier to bear when we can hold on to this truth.
I was in graduate school when my anxiety problems really peaked. I have been a psychologist now for 22+ years. I can now look back with gratitude for this suffering because it has helped me so much in helping others. I do not pretend to be suffering-free now or in the future. I know I could always relapse. It is God’s grace that sustains me, not any accomplishment of mine.
What is the connection between shame and the need to be right?
I would think the “need” to be right is a clear manifestation of avoiding shame. There is, of course, no proper “need” to be right. There is a need to eat, to touch, to breathe, etc. A need to be right, in serious cases, is simple narcissism, which is an extreme condition related to shame. Such an individual can be helped – rarely – but not under any normal circumstances. If someone finds themselves in a relationship with a narcissist, I strongly suggest getting quickly educated on the nature of the condition and then to be extremely careful.
On a lighter note, none of us like to be wrong. None of us like shame or embarrassment. The best thing that happened to me early in my priesthood/pastoring was to learn that the best way to handle a mistake was to acknowledge it and apologize.
Dino–Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Recently I was blessed to be able to re-see a particularly dark stretch in my life from years ago, but for which I still feel deep shame. I saw how Christ was so present with me then, even though at the time all I detected was absence. With that re-seeing, I became grateful for something that had been my hardest burden. I think what I’m needing to learn and practice is “praying as I can, not as I think I must,” as Fr. Hopko says in his 55 maxims. At times those prayer book prayers resonate too deeply with the voice of the depression and become not a doorway to God but a kind of scrim separating me from him, on which I project my own lack of love for myself as his lack of love for me. I am just beginning to learn that clinging trust you describe so beautifully, in great part due to this recent re-seeing. It is indeed a process, and I’m learning to accept that I don’t have to (in fact, can’t) have it figured out all at once.
Tess, it sounds like you and your sister were such a blessing to your mother at the end of her earthly life. I appreciate knowing that I’m not alone in my struggle with some of the prayer book language, and love the prayers you put on your mother’s wall. (I want to check out the book, too!) When I am having harder times, sometimes “Here I am” is all I can do. Thanks be to God I’m not there now.
Mary, thank you for sharing your experience, too. It helps to feel like I’m not the only one with these kinds of issues! Yes, it’s so easy to slip into feeling bad about feeling bad. This is really hopeful–they way you’ve turned your suffering into prayer and into a capacity for connecting to, and helping, others. I will try the prayer approach. And I wonder if the experiences I’ve had can be “for something” someday, too (as yours have deepened your work). They have certainly humbled me, which, I pray, is a start.
Is shame but a subdivision of suffering?? Or is shame the primordial suffering of the first Adam and therefore the shame, cloaked in suffering, the preeminent aspect of ‘this chastisement of our peace that was upon him?’ – Isaiah 53:5. The totality of all of this is salvific whether we understand it or not.
It is the shame that points to the tragedy in specific terms and also of the ontological tragedy of human existence in a ‘direct sense,’ much more so than the suffering does. Shame points to something that is quite simply – unbearable.
Christ is referred to as the second or last Adam in scripture. He assumed all of that which is Adam – to use St. Gregory the Theologian’s expression. Christ as the second Adam experienced this shame as the Father turned his back on him.
In Isaiah 53 we see that he was ‘cut off, made his grave with the wicked and his soul was in travail.’
Christ too, participated in what was unbearable, to what end? Or to what purpose?……
This speaks both to the abject tragedy of our ontological existence and to the supra-rationality of God’s love simultaneously.
It is because of shame that we don’t stand before God in prayer. It is suffering that drives us to it. The descriptive preeminence of our state is shame.
Yes. However, we are not taught in the Tradition that the Father turned His back on Christ. I’ve heard that said, mostly from Western Punishment theory atonement point of view – but, it is without Scriptural evidence. Instead, we are told that Christ did not turn His face from the spitting and the shame. If Christ did not, neither does the Father. The atonement is not something that occurs within the Godhead. God reconciles us to Him – but Himself needs no reconciliation, nor payment. In Christ was the fullness of the Godhead bodily. It is more than problematic to speak in terms of the Father turning His face from Him. God did not turn His face away from Adam in His shame, but covered Him.
Just thoughts…but important.
Thanks for the delineation on that point Father, a strange Godhead if your point was not so. In fact, if you look at v9 of Isaiah 53, where I was drawing this from, it does say that he cut off from his brothers. The contextual interplay between shame and suffering was my initial focus..
I used to be frequently bothered by intrusive thoughts and memories that made me feel angry and/or ashamed. Some of the memories were about things that happened over 50 years ago. Then, a few years ago, I heard someone explain that he had a similar problem. He said he came to believe that the intrusive thoughts and memories were demons, so he started saying to them, “I am not going to serve you. I am going to serve my God and my Savior.” I tried that myself and, while I am still bothered by residual anger and shame producing memories from time to time, the practice has provided amazing relief. Works with intrusive pornographic thoughts as well. Thanks be to God.
Yes. Shame cuts us off from our brothers – it breaks communion. But the suffering of Christ is not isolated to the 2nd person of the Trinity. In the doctrine called the “perichoresis” within the Divine persons, it is right to acknowledge that the Father was “in the Son” even in His suffering. Thus, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…” 2 Cor 5
Your initial focus seemed spot on.
I think we cannot deny that suffering can be unbearable -with or without shame involved-, (gehenna is what it is –i.e.: unbearable torment- irrespective of any feeling of shame accompanying it for example…) There’s clearly numerous forms of torture that could make one loose their mind and which we needn’t bring up.
But I would like to return to the subject of voluntary shame in confession rather than “the other thing.”
It is somewhat unfortunate that talk on shame always manages to derail towards the popular, psychological understanding of shame and guilt, and clarifications between ‘toxic’ and ‘non-toxic’ shame are so necessary! (It reminds me of all the requirements for clarifications a few years back when we mentioned Elder Sophrony’s favourite notion of ‘self-hate’ as proof of complete love of God – and how we soon needed to derail into fending off misinterpretations of that notion. ‘Correct interpretation’ [of a notion with profound depth], became the new conversation, highjacking the original topic)
However, traditional ascetic understanding (I guess I ‘speak from’ a traditional Greek/athonite ‘security’ on this) of the subject of shame (predominantly in confession), is about the honesty and openness we crave for in our relating to another (especially to our Maker). It is all about standing in front of our beloved Father and God who loves us despite our utter failure, in the presence of our beloved spiritual Father, and opening up completely. Who would need psychoanalysts if this were happening as it should? then grace enters our very depths and we cease being ashamed to reveal our shameful sins and sinfulness, In fact, we are inspired towards revealing the most shameful thing about us… We experientially discover that Christ renews and occupies the utmost hidden parts of our being then. We thus become “all conscience”, [one of Fr Zacharias’ sayings] and at last pray and glorify our Lord without any opaque, unconscious enslavements. Is it not our out-and-out exposure – unashamedly confessing our shamefulness – that transforms us into pure Light the most effectively…?
Regarding the painful yet profoundly transforming ‘bearing of our shame’ when confessing our wretchedness and distance from our “logos”/ (God’s ‘destiny for each of us), the very traditional, patristic metaphor comes to mind: of simultaneously refusing to, as well as intensely desiring to vomit when we’ve consumed something bad that needs to be expelled, comes to mind
Father Stephen, RE: “If someone finds themselves in a relationship with a narcissist, I strongly suggest getting quickly educated on the nature of the condition and then to be extremely careful.” If one’s parent or another close family member is a narcissist, how is one to “be careful,” as you describe?
Dino, RE: the floods that “are always stretching and challenging each person…” What have you found to be spiritually helpful after being leveled by a series of floods, one after another? Fatigue sets in…and “heartening vigilance” such as you describe, takes energy.
Could it be said that Cain was seeking to be right before God? I am meaning in the pathological way. He refused to accept any shame even when God confronted him. If so, he shows an early example of narcissism.
the key thing that this difficult pedagogy of God bestows on us is sometimes referred to as “double knowledge” –which we can summarise by saying to Him: “I am nothing and You are everything”. It prepares the road for humility and therefore unwavering spiritual joy, not because of who I am though, but purely because of Who He is.
The mysteries of the Cross are endlessly deep!
My intention was not to draw a distinction between shame and suffering i.e., as to which may be unbearable and the other not.
Rather, as I said, It is because of shame that we don’t stand before God in prayer. It is suffering that drives us to it. The descriptive preeminence of our state (as we experience it) is shame.
Oh shame, my friend, my foe. We have journeyed long on the mountain of unforgiveness. But I must go now and you can go with, not a person but a feeling just like all the rest. We will learn from each other in the world of charismatic participation, not isolation. My Savoir came that I might have life. Oh Mountain of Shame, “Be though removed!” Your pieces are beautifully designed as a map to a greater whole.
I know I’m not Father Stephen, but I have some experience (and a heck of a lot of reading!) with regards to narcissism. It’s a topic that’s very hard to “talk” about digitally because the word “narcissism” is used colloquially to describe everything from selfishness to egomania to sociopathy.
If you want, we can continue this conversation outside of comments. You can send me an email at theodorasociety at gmail and I’ll get back to you from my private address.
I don’t get it. Do you think you guys overthink things?
Could you be more specific about what it is that you don’t get? Is there something that raises a question, or seems unclear?
Thanks for the book recommendation from the monastery of All Celtic Saints — I ordered all four books they had available and was delighted by each of them. I think I will next be buying copies for my church’s library!
I have thought often of the theme of shame spirals that has been cited in these articles, amplifying each others shame and the danger.
A few years ago I raised my voice at a class of students for not knowing the answer to a problem I had written on the board but when I looked closer I realized I had written it incorrectly. From somewhere in the class one of the male students made quite a sarcastic and mean spirited sound. The event, after reflection, taught me never to use shame.
The touching and healing by God: one place I think tells that story so vividly is St. Sergius of Radonezh struggling to learn to read. The pain and the shame provided an opportunity for him to know God’s mercy and power. A providential encounter with a monk bestowed God’s grace and the seven year old boy began to read.
I think the mockery he would have faced before is a good example of toxic shame. God gives us fragility specific to us to be our point of encounter with Him.
St Juliana of Russia amazes me, how she bore the advice and scolding of her mother in law (cited in Marriage as a Path to Holiness)
She did not become defensive or argumentative, but she also did not waver from seeking God first.
Perhaps the way people look down if child makes a mistake at recital is an expression of empathy. A rare moment of being unwilling to increase the shame of another…
I’d be interested in how this relates to toxic shame. I’m thinking of toxic shame as described by John Bradshaw in his book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You”. Seems to me toxic shame is an essential part. It say not I’ve made a mistake, but I am a mistake.
My working understanding viz. shame and toxic shame turns primarily on the question of voluntary and involuntary. We could say that voluntary shame, that which is freely borne (as in a good-hearted confession), is not toxic. Shame imposed on us, involuntarily, by persons or circumstance, is experienced as toxic.
I can voluntarily say, “I am a sinner” (which is a statement of shame). If you say to me, “You wretched sinner!” that’s involuntary and toxic, perhaps. It is not inherently wrong to speak shame. Christ’s words to the Pharisees, “Hypocrites, white-washed sepulchers, etc.” are clearly meant to shame them to the end that they repent.
That is something that should be used quite sparingly and with great care. The point is repentance, not punishment or crushing.
My Orthodox husband left me 2 years ago. I believe it was because normal marital and stepfamily interactions made him feel ashamed of himself and his actions. Or perhaps reactions is a better word: his anger, desire to have family life run his way, and unfulfilled desire for ‘respect’. It is true that he has toxic shame from childhood. So maybe he could not withstand the experience of being confronted with his faults through family life. He blamed me for shaming him but I was not abusive. Any thoughts? Thank you.