The Healthy Shame at the Heart’s Core

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.

Footnotes for this article

  1. John Bradshaw has a very good discussion about the nature of healthy shame at the beginning of his classical Healing the Shame that Binds You.

26 comments:

  1. Father Bless,
    I am glad to hear Bradshaw used as reading him was the beginning of my healing from unhealthy shame and PTSD. I can definitely relate to the feeling of being unworthy. I never deserved the medals given me in service nor should I have ever been ordained. I thank God for the feeling of unworthiness as it keeps me grounded and humbled and not full of myself (which I can easily fall into).

  2. Very interesting story to explain shame:
    This reminds me of the story of the man who received a medal for being humble.
    When he put it on, they took it back.

  3. I can’t help but think of the film, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler was left in tears at the gratitude of the Jews he saved, only to feel like he hadn’t done enough. Great example of healthy shame.

    A question, though, why do non-Christians display similar behavior at being praised if it isn’t acknowledging their success/accomplishment is a gift from God?

  4. Toxic shame is difficult to avoid. I have difficulty thinking well of others without degrading myself. My priest has told me to “just try to think well of others” as much as one can and to “read a chapter of the Gospels each night”. It is simple advice but not easy.

  5. Could you expand on watchfulness? Watching ‘the something else’, ‘the gift’, ‘the true self’. What is it you suggest that we do in our prayers to avoid the busy thoughts? How do we positively watch this something else?

    I can relate to the noise in my thoughts during prayer, and I have also experienced an occasional quietness in prayer.

    “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.”

  6. Very good Father – in my professional counseling I make the same distinction between shame and guilt. Shame is the kind of self loathing that is caused by the demons, guilt is an gift of the Holy Spirit that engenders blessed mourning and the resolve to change ones way of life.

  7. Tima,
    It’s always hard to put into words the stuff that is going on within – watchfulness, distraction. Experience, with lots of failure and little success is helpful (at least for me, the failure greatly outweighs any success).

    To a degree, I was suggesting not “watching” the busy thoughts, but to watch something else. Just let them be the noise. What we watch, that I’ve called the “True Self” by which I mean the same thing as the “heart” as used in the Fathers, is best seen by simply being grateful, by giving thanks. And to persist in giving thanks. That “place” of thanksgiving is also the “place” of the heart. Practiced long enough (giving thanks always for all things unto God – as St. Paul says), that place begins to be familiar. Our watchfulness is to pay attention to what we should pay attention to – Christ in the heart of our thanksgiving. Let the noise babble on – there’s very little to be done to make it go away – at least at first.

    It is the noise of our own brokenness and wounds – and only the slow work of healing will quieten it down.

  8. Father,
    You note in this article the “importance of healing from the wounds of toxic abuse and similar injuries”.  If a person is in that injured state, how is healing facilitated? Is it possible to heal in this life?

  9. Father Stephen,
    Memorizing this from St. Theophan the Recluse has helped me.
    “You’ve got to get out of your head and into your heart. Right now, thoughts are in your head and God seems outside of you. Your prayer and spiritual exercises also remain exterior. As long as you are in your head, you will never master your thoughts, which continue to whirl around your head like snow in a winter’s storm or like mosquitoes in the summer’s heat. If you descend into your heart you will have no more difficulty. Your mind will empty out and your thoughts will dissipate. Thoughts are always in your mind chasing one another about, and you will never manage to get control of them. But if you descend into your heart and can remain there, then every time that thoughts invade, you only have to descend into your heart and your thoughts will vanish into thin air. This will be your safe haven. Don’t be lazy, descend. You will find life in your heart. There you must live.”
    Archimandrite Meletios Webber has also described nepsis as something positive, quiet but active attention… like that of a cat watching at a gopher hole. These have helped me, but like you Father, I fail at this watchfulness more than succeed.

  10. Here’s an observation:

    I’ve thought about this a lot through the years. Do you suppose that the toxic kind of shame could be described as disgrace, and the healthy kind of shame could be described as humility?

  11. Carol,
    Yes, most definitely. The deeper the wound, the longer and more difficult the healing can be. But it’s amazing what can sometimes happen very quickly. Therapy can be quite helpful. Having said that, it is also true that “therapy” is not a generic thing. Some therapists are better than others, and sometimes it’s just the right match. I will say, on a personal level, that many issues that were shame-based played a major role in an anxiety-panic disorder that I endured from my late teens until my late 50’s. Over that time I saw plenty of therapists, often with little benefit. We didn’t analyze it correctly, never got to its true issues, many things. By God’s grace, in my late 50’s, a lot of things came together both to put me into a “crash” mode and to put me in a place where the help was spot on. The result has been 5 years of panic-free existence, doing things I could never have done before, and inner freedoms and insights that are overwhelming in their abundance.

    Note that I was a Christian for all of that time, and a priest for most of it, and an Orthodox priest for about the last 13 years of it. When the “break-through” occurred, it was like a dam burst. Everything that I knew that was good, suddenly became much better and more useful. I could go on. I share such intimacies only to be helpful and to say “yes” – it can.

    I sometimes think that I was not ready for any of that break-through until it came. God alone understands the timing. My wife had faithfully interceded for me for a long time. And I was quite functional and not crippled (at least to the eyes of many). But healing is deeply important.

    All of the Church’s tools, confession, communion, etc., are effective. But therapy is almost a necessity for toxic shame – I can hardly imagine healing without it.

    The effects of toxic shame are not just “mental.” It actually makes changes in the brain and in the body. This is reversible to some degree – but it’s very real. And because of that, it’s also true that some of the worst effects and crippling effects of toxic shame can be helped with some medications – not cured. Some medications can mask it and do great harm. I would put benzodiazepenes in that category. They are quite dangerous.

    But medication can sometimes turn down the static, if you will, enough to get some work done beneath.

    Trust and safety are utterly essential in a therapeutic relationship when dealing with shame. There really is help and hope. I’ve seen it. It’s not theory for me – it’s raw experience.

  12. Doug,
    I certainly think that humility is, at its core, the “healthy” kind of shame. Indeed, I would suggest that if someone wants to think about what the fathers say about healthy shame they should research humility.

    There’s all kinds of possible words for the toxic stuff. I’m using the words I use because I find them helpful, accurate and very descriptive of what I find inside me. I’ll admit that I’m in a three-way conversation on this. There’s the tradition. There’s contemporary research, and there’s what’s going on inside of me. The tradition is the “boiler-plate” in the conversation – the foundation. But to understand the tradition requires that we find it in our experience as well, or we only have words. And, I’ve found that in order to understand and articulate my experience, I have to use words and occasional concepts from my own contemporary world. The result is that I find the tradition coming to life and yielding up its fruit in abundance. I also have to say that the tradition allows me to read “beneath” the contemporary science stuff and see some things that are not seen elsewhere.

    Bradshaw, I should note, pays attention to spiritual stuff. I find him very accessible – as are many others writing in the field.

    The topic of shame was largely ignored, even in the clinical professions, until it came to the fore in the experience and conversations surrounding addictions treatment and recovery. On a plus side, this has meant that it has been studied in the crucible of experience far more than in someone’s theory. That’s extremely helpful. I think that this commonality between the tradition and science – that human experience has been an essential part of them – that makes it easier for them to dialog.

    Many modern versions of Christianity are so controlled by ideology rather than true spiritual experience that they cut themselves off from this dialog. It’s little wonder that many Christians have a bifurcated existence on things like this. Their religious tradition has no room for it.

  13. I thought the article was both interesting, and a little odd.
    The archetypal view of “shame” surely is the painful reaction that you get when you have been caught out doing something that you know is wrong. It is possible to internalise that sense when your own inner watcher (nepsis in some form) also catches you out.

    The centrality of this idea is there right from the beginning in the Adam and Eve story, where that kind of shame is their very first reaction, and interestingly it leads to more sin and separation from God as they try to cover up. That becomes even more explicit in the very next archetypal story when Cain masters the art of deception as he avoids answering the Lord’s question : “where is your brother”, by that famous deflecting counter question “am I my brother’s keeper”. In both cases these first humans know they have done wrong, and feel just enough shame to want to cover up or lie, but not enough sense of “shame” (in the sense I think you are pointing towards) to actually want to do anything about it, and/or repair the broken relationship.

    I wonder whether what your example here is really the virtue of true modesty (which is NOT the same as humility). Modesty is born of a real understanding of exactly what it is that you are responsible for when having achieved something, and then wanting only to take credit for that (if that) if you have done something good, and also to share the credit with all the others who have contributed to your success – to me it is modesty that is the kind of dissonance-stress of having credit being mis-attributed. It seems to me a little odd to say that that feeling of dissonance is “shame”, although it is probably a cousin.

    Perhaps what they have in common is the idea that once you know that you have done something wrong AND if you have good impulses, you will do something to rectify that once this has come to consciousness. And perhaps it is that idea of coming to consciousness which is the important bit? Which is again why nepsis is so important? The Adam and Eve, then Cain and Abel, stories – which feature shame so very, very prominently certainly do have a strong ‘levels of consciousness’ vibe to them : surely in both cases (and especially Cain) they felt the sense of wrong doing, but did not have the necessary awareness to dig themselves out of the hole, and in fact dug themselves in a good deal deeper.

    Given that the centrality of these archetypal sin pattern stories (and maybe others in a similar vein – perhaps most spectacularly in the David and Bathsheba trainwreck), I would find it really helpful if you could tease out a bit further how this shame and knowledge of wrongdoing dynamic works maybe with reference to them?

    I am asking this because I agree that this shame business is so obviously central, and underdone, and your ideas are really interesting.

    Thanks!

  14. Chris,
    If you have time, read some of my earlier articles on shame. I go into far more detail. My grouping of good shame/bad shame/humility, etc. together is rooted in the biology of the reaction – which also helps in thinking carefully about what is going on inside. Of course we use different words to distinguish these things – shame, humility, modesty, embarrassment, etc. – but to understand what those reactions actually are requires probing them. This is part of that effort.

  15. Dear Fr. Stephen – thanks for the pointer. You are correct in assuming that I am new to your blog. Is there an easy way of finding these past articles of which you speak (without causing you undue effort that is!). A quick browse turned up “An Atonement of Shame – Orthodoxy and the Cross”. But your last reply strongly suggest there are others. I am wondering whether there is a search function or similar?

    BTW (and this really is an aside) with that – again interesting and insightful – “Atonement of Shame” article, you referenced the Prodigal Son story. I always thought it interesting that when the prodigal first “comes to himself” in the pig sty far from home, the story almost surprisingly does NOT describe him as overtly feeling shame. It is almost as if he just starts to think things through: “my current situation is terrible; I would be better off at home as a slave than here; yes I have been very stupid; but if I go back to my father and frame my petition well, he might just take me back”. I’ve taken the reference to the father meeting him “in his shame” as an objective statement that the prodigal’s state was a shameful one (as is indeed the father’s as he runs through the street making a fool of himself) rather than a description of the prodigal’s feelings. But rather than this being a bad thing, I have always thought that the story was a good description of repentance for that reason : the prodigal did not get wallow in self pity or even seem to get overly caught up in feeling guilty (even if that was entirely deserved) but just realised his situation and did something to change it and went to the one person who could change it, even if he knew and accepted this was (like all his actions to date) more than a little shameless. The more interesting form of shame is perhaps implied with the older son whose shame (which he feels on account of his father’s actions in general, and his feeling that he has been slighted in front of everyone) is mixed with anger. Now there’s an intoxicating mix! And maybe a pointer to a relationship between shame and status anxiety.

  16. Father, bless.

    Thank you for bringing Dr. Bradshaw’s book to my attention. I’m finding it very helpful as I start to uncover how I act out of shame.

    RVW

  17. This series on shame has been instrumental for me to begin to separate within myself the voice of shame from the voice of guilt. Now many things are falling into place.
    Thank you, father dearest

  18. Fr. Stephen. You have put the whole thing in plain view for me. I was feeling empty, now I’m not! Thank- you!

  19. Father,
    I am immediately reminded through this article of my experiences of prayer by way of “fools for Christ” saints. Especially during a period of praying the akathist to St. Xenia. I abruptly ended in a heap of tremendous humiliation and shame. I initially thought this was a “bad” thing and I bolted from it as though touching a hot stove. I have wondered often of this “shameful” experience. I felt very “unworthy” even to a holy “fool.” I was advised this to be the mere tip of my “emptying” and it can be likened to retching and loosening of one’s bowels (forgive my explicitness, I am not trying to be rude). In fact, a close friend of mine experienced a very similar reaction when venerating a saintly fool for Christ’s holy relics and asked “to be made like him” and immediately felt very sick and rushed to literally empty his stomach. My friend relayed his utter deep sense of shame and a feeling of “drunkeness” with the sudden exposure to all of his “toxicity.”

    What of the connection, if any, to shame and the Fools for Christ saints?

  20. One of the best counseling models that I have come across recently is called Internal Family System. Are you familiar with it? It shares much with what you are writing about.
    It acknowledges the existence within us of “exiles” which are kept under control by “managers”.

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