Imagine: A large crowd has assembled and you know that something special has been planned. Unknown to you, however, is the fact that the something special is for and about you. At a given moment, you are called forward. A short speech detailing some extraordinary thing you have done is given. You had not thought anyone would notice, and you did not expect them to. However, you are being noticed. You are being thanked. Indeed, you are being rewarded.
A large monetary gift is being given to you complete with the solution to many problems that had concerned you. It is as if they knew exactly what you needed. There are cheers.
And, strangely, you’re embarrassed. You are looking down and cannot bring yourself to look at the faces that are all directed to you. You feel tremendously humbled, but feel that if you make eye-contact, you’ll burst into tears. You are grateful far beyond your ability to express it.
Oddly, this is a face of shame.
Shame can be toxic and debilitating. It can leave us completely paralyzed. It can even nurture the role of the demonic in our lives. But, it is a perfectly natural response, even a healthy response in certain situations. We are not created with a capacity for shame as a result of sin. Shame can be healthy.
The example I’ve given is healthy shame. Many would not refer to it as shame. We would call the feeling of embarrassment, deep gratitude, or something of the sort. But when it is analyzed, it has all the elements of shame and the same physical affect. But it has none of the toxicity.
The need to avert the eyes is a physically-wired reflex, one of the nine “affects” of the body, and a primary part of the emotion of shame. Shame carries with it a sense of exposure, and some sense of discomfort with “who” we are. So many times in our lives the thought of exposure carries with it deep pain. However, it also accompanies the sense of “awe” and “wonder.” In the face of that which is overwhelming, including that which is overwhelmingly good, we feel inadequate, or undeserving, even unworthy.1
After the moment of ordination, the Bishop begins to vest the newly-ordained priest. With each article of clothing the Bishop intones, “Axios!” (“He is worthy!”). The congregation responds loudly, “Axios! Axios! Axios!” It is the ancient cry of public election. It is also (in my experience) embarrassing beyond description. For if anything is true at that moment, it is that you are not in the least “worthy” of the dignity being placed upon you. And it only gets worse that same day, and ever after, as people come up to ask your blessing and kiss your hand.
But this positive, healthy sense of shame is essential to the well-being of our lives. It plays a key role in the discernment of boundaries. It is a right and proper reaction to that which is “not me.” No doubt, we call this reaction by other names, particularly in a culture in which shame is both a taboo topic as well as a deeply toxic fixture.
John Bradshaw makes this observation about such healthy shame:
Healthy shame keeps us grounded. It is a yellow light, warning us of our essential limitations. Healthy shame is the basic metaphysical boundary for human beings. It is the emotional energy that signals us that we are not God— that we will make mistakes, that we need help. Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.
Healthy shame not only plays a role in the formation of boundaries, and thus all aspects of the personality, it is also essential for the experience of giving thanks. To give thanks is to recognize that what has been given is a gift, that it is not deserved. This entails some sense of unworthiness. I have encountered individuals suffering from deep, toxic shame who indeed find the giving of thanks to be difficult, even impossible in the true sense of connected emotion. In many cases, it seems that the entire mechanism of shame (including healthy shame) has been poisoned by toxic wounds, and that even instances that should bring joy (such as the proper sense of gratitude) can be a trigger for troubled thoughts. In such cases, gratitude simply becomes an intellectual acknowledgement that one should be grateful, but the actual emotional content remains inaccessible.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said, “Anyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.” This pierces to the very heart of healthy shame, and the importance of healing from the wounds of toxic abuse and similar injuries. Love itself can be crippled by such wounds. The true experience of love is a bonding and communion between two persons. The simple recognition of “otherness” required in such a communion is itself fraught with problems when there are wounds of a toxic nature. The abiding sense of emotional danger that is inherent in toxic shame makes the sort of trust required for true communion very difficult if not impossible. This is simply to say that when we carry such wounds, our relationships are often marked by a history of trouble.
In the spiritual tradition of the Church, there is a practice called “watchfulness” (nepsis). It could also be called “awareness.” Frequently, its practice is misunderstood. Books and articles on the Jesus Prayer suggest that while we pray the prayer, we “keep watch” and rebuff any extraneous thoughts that intrude. What quickly becomes the pattern, however, is that we have very little prayer but a large awareness of extraneous thoughts. And so, people describe themselves as “distracted” during their prayers, or during the Church service. This is very problematic. It is as though the suggestion of watchfulness when we pray includes ignoring the sound of the wind, or the droning of crickets or the songs of birds. For most of the “distractions” in our minds are little more than the “noise” of our brains.
What we fail to understand is that watchfulness is not about not watching (ignoring), but about positively watching something else. The something else we watch is the Gift. I call it that, though it could also be called the true self. This “true self” is not that which is of our own choosing or creation (the ego), but is the gift of God. It is that which is “truly unworthy” for it cannot point to its own making. All that it has and rightly sees is a gift. And the gift is wonderful and without compare.
It is interesting that the term “unworthy” is seen and felt by most as a term that says, “I am a bad person.” It’s not at all true. Our feelings about this reveal just how toxic our relation with shame has become. When Christ was addressed once as “Good Master,” He responded, “Why do you call me ‘good’? There is none good but God.” This is the utter and complete self-emptying of the Son towards the Father. It is said by the Fathers of the Church that the Father is the “Source” of God: the Son is begotten of Him and the Spirit proceeds from Him. And so, it is right to say, “God (the Father) alone is good,” in that He alone is the Source. And, though Christ refuses the word “good” with regard to Himself, it is not a toxic experience, nor a confession that He is somehow “bad.”
St. Paul tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.” When we are truly honest about such things, we find this to be quite difficult. I am glad, on some level, for your good fortune. And yet, the success of others touches the wounds of my own shame, and I can easily feel judged or envious and jealous. The same happens with those who weep. We feel sorry for them, secretly happy that it is not us, guilty that we even think such a thing, or reminded of our own pain when something similar happened to us years before.
All of this says that there is little healing that is not healing at the very core of our lives. The busyness we engage in around the periphery, the moral motions we go through, the words we speak by habit or the scripts of politeness, are all at a great remove from the core of our souls, and the wounds that remain unattended. This distance is also experienced as an alienation and leaves us feeling hollow, hypocritical, empty and sad.
The good God who saves us has entered into the very depths of created being and the depths of every alienation. This He “tramples down” in His Pascha, and sheds light where there had only been darkness. It is a fearful place for us, this inner Hades. But it is not a forbidden place, nor is it a place where we cannot find God. Indeed, it is only in finding God there that we can truly find Him anywhere.