When Shame Becomes Toxic

Articles on the topic of shame inevitably provoke questions. This short article is an effort to give a bit more substance by way of an answer to some of those questions. I hope it is helpful.

Shame is a normal emotion – one which we could not live without. It signals emotional boundaries (among other things), and alerts us to very important social information. We can experience it just walking into a room of strangers as we seek to see what others are doing and whether we will fit in. We experience it in settings of social discomfort or failure. That kind of information is as important as sight, hearing, smell, etc. It’s absence would make us impervious to the signals others seek to send regarding their own comfort and discomfort. Without shame, social interaction would be dangerous.

But this is a description of “healthy shame,” the simple, natural signal that is of use to everyone.

There is, however, its darker companion, “toxic shame.” Toxic shame is generally the result of abuse, injury, long-term stress, or various broken and dysfunctional relationships. Toxic shame is not “toxic” in the sense that it feels worse than healthy shame. Healthy shame can feel extremely uncomfortable. Toxic shame is “toxic” in that the shame itself has somehow morphed. Instead of being a useful, emotional signal, it becomes the defining characteristic of the personality.

Think of a dog who has been abused. Every dog experiences fear. But prolonged neglect and abuse can reduce a dog to a mass of trembling flesh – tail-tucked in, very likely to bite, and a pity to behold. For the dog, its fear has come to dominate everything. It reads the world through its fear. Thus, a human hand extended for petting is seen as a human hand extended to strike. Little wonder that it is likely to bite.

With toxic shame, the shame itself has become the dominant platform for the personality. We expect shame. We expect failure, rejection, judgment, crisis, criticism, etc. The pain of toxic shame is just below the surface and reacts with very little stimulation. Needless to say, such an experience has a way of developing modes of protection. We can become hyper-vigilant, or driven towards constant perfection. We are likely to be depressed, or chronically angry. We may develop “masks” of an identity that serves as a face to the world. We become “something” – but not really ourselves.

When an event of healthy shame occurs, our whole emotional mechanism is disturbed. Job one is to respond to the shame and address the situation. We are not at our rational best in these situations. Shame disrupts reason. It gives the message, “Fix this!” or “Run”! or “You’re a failure and you’ll never get it right!” or “This is how it’s always going to be!”

When toxic shame has taken over the personality, all kinds of situations (bearing some amount of discomfort) can serve as triggers, setting in motion the over-reactions of a shame-driven personality. We react badly. We over-react. A host of possibilities are set in motion, none of which actually “fix” things.

Sadly, one of the side effects of toxic shame is to alienate us from the self (or to alienate the self from the world). The shame that is present never really quite disappears but becomes the face that sees the world. The “true self” is somewhere behind it, unable to break through. It’s easy to see how such a dynamic makes relationships difficult. In this setting, God seems distant as well. Indeed, we are likely to make God into a “cipher,” an idea to which we try to relate. Of course, our shame-created cipher of God is just as likely to be distorted as everything else around us. We may avoid God altogether, especially if the “idea” of God that we entertain is a shame-generating bully. Who would want such a thing in their life?

With that small description (and this is only a thumbnail sketch) it is easy to see that toxic shame requires serious attention. It distorts the world, our perception of the world, and our perception and experience of the self. It is the voice of fear, loathing, shame, sadness, anger, etc. Of course, not all fear, loathing, shame, sadness, anger, etc., is the product of toxic shame. The problem is that with toxic shame, it can be almost impossible to know what is actually taking place. Is it me or my shame?

How do we get out of this? The simple answer is – with help. Think back to the frightening and abused dog. How do you heal such an animal? With kindness, patience, love, tenderness, and consistent respect for what it has endured and the damage that has been done. The animal will heal – and the change will seem miraculous. There will likely be some residual effects, but the transformation can be amazing.

With human beings, things are more complicated (as are our emotions and thoughts). But still, what is needed is kindness, patience, love, tenderness, and consistent respect for what someone has endured and the damage that has been done. Many times, the roots or early causes of toxic shame are buried and hidden (as in early childhood abuse and such). Above all, whoever assists us in dealing with toxic shame must be safe and reliable. Nothing in our life is more vulnerable than those places within us that have been damaged by toxic shame. Breaking a confidence about such things, or (God forbid), ever using them as a weapon, is itself a serious form of abuse.

My own experience of healing in this regard has been a combination of conversations with a trusted therapist and a few friends as well as with my confessor. In all settings, what has been valuable has been the discovery that the uncovering of shaming experiences, when met with love, understanding, and lack of judgment, is itself the beginning of healing. It needs repeating – and some things will undoubtedly require years of patience. I was 58 when I began the journey into this kind of healing – a lesson that it’s never too late to begin.

Toxic shame creates an emptiness within us. The “shame-formed” personality is not the true self. Neglected and often unnoticed is the true self that lies beneath. When the shame begins to be lifted, we are left with a child of sorts, a true self in need of care and love. The Psalmist says:

“Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (131:2)

This is a Psalm verse first brought to my attention by Elder Zacharias of Essex (who was quite helpful with me on this whole topic). The Psalmist recognized the distress of his soul and saw within it a child. It is a deep wisdom – not a gimmick of pop psychology. Iconography consistently portrays the soul as a child. (cf. the icon of the Dormition)

Foundational above all is the firm assurance of God’s unrelenting and unconditional love. With that love, there can be no hesitance or suggestion that it might be withdrawn. “Conditional love” (where love is used as reward and withdrawn as punishment) is like substituting a slap for the kindness of a gentle hand with a dog who has just begun to trust. Healing requires that we come to know that God is safe. God is good. He wills only good for us. Without such an understanding, God will remain outside the picture for a soul damaged by toxic shame.

I have noted through the years, that some people (including some priests) are convinced that a soul can only be saved with disciplinary slaps and corrections from time to time. If there are such corrections needed in a human life, then it is likely only God who has the wisdom to know when and how such correction should take place. My experience as a priest and confessor is that I simply need to be consistent in sharing God’s love and be patient with what might be a process of healing that takes years. I would add that, in my experience, spiritual abuse is almost always a case of manipulating toxic shame against someone. If that happens, we are not asked to tolerate it.

This is a difficult topic. It is an essential topic in the spiritual life and touches far more souls than we might imagine. You might wonder why the Tradition doesn’t say more about this. You might even think that I’m inserting modern psychology in the place of spirituality. However, the Tradition does speak of these things, but often in different language.

The Book of Sirach says: “There is a shame that brings about sin, and there is a kind of shame that is glory and grace.” (4:21) This is the distinction between toxic shame (that grinds us into the dust and alienation of death) and healthy shame (that can bring glory and grace). Additionally, the Tradition most often speaks of healthy shame under the heading of “humility.” Humility is the ability to bear healthy shame (again this is confirmed in the teachings of Fr. Zacharias).  

I pray this short synopsis is of help for those who are seeking to learn more about this topic. My own book on shame and the spiritual life is in the process of being edited and will be published (I’m told) in February of next year (or thereabouts). God give us all grace!

 

 

65 comments:

  1. Wonderful news about your book! I began reading your blog in seminary about 2010; incidentally, that’s the year I took a class on shame. Looking forward to more from you.

  2. Andrew,
    The understanding that toxic shame sort of creates a false personality (or allows it to “kick in” from time to time) is really key for me. It’s like realizing that you’re stuck and need a major change.

  3. I am so thankful to Our Lord and believe even more that He is truly our Great Physician and the Lover of Mankind as I read these words, Fr. Stephen. Thank you! Glory to God for all things!

  4. Thank you for speaking of this, Father Stephen. It is indeed helpful for me. I look forward to your book as well. May God grant you many years. His wisdom in and through your life and ministry is needed.

  5. Father, as someone who grew up in an “internet world” (as a teenager, in the very early days of the internet), I have been thinking about your writings on shame for a while. I know that often toxic shame can happen when a person abuses us in some manner (and there are all manners of abuse, from verbal to physical), but it seems that there’s a kind of abuse that can occur, especially to younger people, who stumble across things no one should ever see on the internet.

    How do you address that? For example, my whole life, I have heard blame and shame from Christians poured out on people who have viewed pornography online. I am unaware of a single person my age who hasn’t seen such things. Many came across them when they were 11 or 12 years old, and they got hooked. Getting unhooked has been a long, slow, and painful process for many of them. The idea that “they chose to view this, so it’s their fault” has often been beaten into them. Many times by those who are completely unaware of what they’re doing. Comments are made that these young people chose wrong, they are moral degenerates, and they deserve the shame that is heaped upon them – but the people speaking this way are often unaware that they’re speaking to young people struggling with this sin and addiction.

    Because of your writings, I have begun to view this issue more in terms of shame and abuse, though. A pre-teen or teen who is already struggling through a difficult time in their life, getting hooked on something as awful as internet pornography, seems very much more a victim (of demons, at the very least) to me than anything else. And the toxic shame that they can suffer from can be extreme. They can develop passions for such things that completely overwhelm them, and it can drive them away from friends, family, and church.

    How do you address such things, when it’s not only between one person and another, but a person’s actions “done in secret” and accompanied by addiction? And when it’s so widespread that you almost have to assume anyone can be suffering from such things?

  6. Toxic shame can also be passed from one generation to the next. A parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, can easily pass their toxic shame to their children through interaction. This has been going on in my family for generations. I am finding that time prayer, and awareness can heal many wounds.

  7. Fr. Stephen,
    I do at times wonder who I am, when I have the peace and courage to look at the effects of toxic shame and my reactions and behaviour to it through life.
    It was not something I was aware of until reading your articles. I was however, aware of my anger and anxiety, but couldn’t put my finger on the cause, although I could connect many scenarios in life with it, I didn’t connect them with toxic shame.

  8. Father,
    If I become aware of an action that I had no role in personally (it may be from watching the evening news) and I have feelings of shame and/or guilt, would you consider that normal?

  9. Nathan,
    Outstanding question! The approach to porn addiction, especially in the young, is itself shameful – particularly when it is couched in terms of “choice” and “will.” I believe, in point of fact, that very few men in our culture (let alone children) are free of porn attachments. It is, first and foremost, something that should be outlawed (I do not want to hear about “free press”, etc. when it comes to porn). Human beings are deeply vulnerable in this regard – men and women – but especially men. It is more powerful than people want to admit, and it is always only a click away. “Soft porn” is everywhere – not a click away – but immediately present all across social media. It exploits the passions – and it is absurd in the extreme to simply take a moralistic approach and say, “Quit choosing it!” If it were that simple, it would not be a problem.

    In my writings, I am not anti-moral (though I’ve been mistakenly accused of that), but I am anti-simplistic. The moralistic approach that everything is a matter of choice and will is simply untrue, naive, misleading, and ultimately harmful. It’s also a myth that allows dangerous, multi-billion dollar industries, like porn, to get away with what they’re doing.

    When I’ve encountered young children, even pre-pubescent, who have become addicted to porn, I am devastated (and angry).

    We are currently living in the single most irresponsible culture than I can remember in history. We are selling false narratives about human sexuality and gender (especially to defenseless children), corrupting our educational, business, and government institutions as we do so. The end of this will be deeply destructive and likely nightmarish before it’s complete.

    What we need, as faithful Christians, is intelligent, truthful, well-grounded approaches to our lives and the spiritual medicine that is meant to heal. Bad theology is dangerous (always has been). It’s one of the reasons the Church has always opposed heresy. But there are pastoral heresies that can do more harm than often realized.

    I would to God that I were far more competent at what I do than I am. But, by God’s grace, He will protect us, and slowly provide for our healing and well-being.

  10. Allen,
    Not sure what “normal” means. Shame is an emotion that conveys information. The question would always be: “What is this reaction telling me?”

    Also, when we see someone else’s shame, or we see something shameful taking place, it is normal and healthy to feel shame ourselves. It’s a sort of social reaction. But, in our media world, those reactions are often part of being manipulated. We have had massive reactions, even riots, in our country that were provoked through manipulations of shame.

    It’s why I warn people not to entertain ideas like “we’re making the world a better place.” It is the language of manipulation – not a description of truth.

  11. Andrew,
    It is possibly true that everyone has some degree of toxic shame – mild in most cases. I’ve learned to stop when I’m feeling certain emotions, and question what is going on. Who or what is speaking when I hear these things being said in my head? Where am I?

    More importantly, what is God actually saying to me. I like the Christ about it. He speaks comfortably – even to the thief – from that brutal place. Fr. Zacharias taught me to pray, “O God, comfort me!” and to wait. Also remember to breathe.

  12. Thank you, Father. I appreciate your thoughts on these matters. They’ve been very helpful to me, and to others I know, as well. Glory to God!

  13. Thank you Father. It’s not a simple problem and it’s not a simple remedy. Advice, offered by well-meaning people, even (maybe especially) clergy, who don’t understand the effects of toxic shame, inadvertently add more burden. Trying to make decisions to protect your own health is often met with condemnation. Reading non-Christian resources helps. Reading your Christian perspectives fills me with hope in a truly loving and intelligent God.

  14. Father Bless!!!

    Excellent article … really looking forward to buying your next book!

    I may be off base here but my sense is that healthy shame helps us see things more clearly without distortion while toxic shame distorts and disguises reality and Truth.

    One of my favorite prayers for Holy Communion is from St. Symeon the New Theologian. He has this very interesting sentence in this prayer:

    “From sullied lips, from an abominable heart, from a tongue impure, from a soul defiled, accept my supplication, O my Christ, and disdain me not, neither my words , nor my ways, nor my shamelessness. “

    To your point on healthy shame, I believe this prayer is suggesting that without shame we stray further from the truth of who God is and who we are. That when I ‘bear a little shame’ as Father Zacharias suggests in a number of his books, we are closer to the truth that I am ‘not God’ but have been acting and judging as if I am. This healthy shame removes distortion and with God’s help; I see things more closely as they are. I think this healthy shame is also closely aligned with the humility that Father Thomas Hopko describes as ‘seeing reality as it actually is in God. It means to know oneself and others as known by God’ (Volume 4- Spirituality-Virtues-Humility)

    Healthy shame can thus unite us to God in the reality of our lives.

    Toxic shame distorts, disfigures, and disguises. It separates us from God and from each other. It isolates and disconnects. We are further from the humility that ‘sees reality as it actually is in God’.

    I like to say that despair is the flip side of the pride coin. I think toxic shame is often the substance of what that despair is built upon.

    Let me know how far off base I am. Many thanks for all that you do!!!

  15. Thank you, Father.

    I’m no longer young either, and still struggle with a lot of anger, depression, anxiety and shame at times. A lot of it is situational. Would you recommend the book by Elder Thaddeus, Our Thoughts Determine our Lives, as a good resource for working through these issues and developing a capacity for a calmer response in stressful situations?

  16. Hi Fr. Stephen — I, too, am interested in your comment on Karen’s comment and question here concerning the book “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives” and also another book that I have found helpful concerning my continued struggles: God’s Path to Sanity: Lessons from Ancient Holy Counselors on How to Have a Sound Mind by Dee Pennock. Thank you!

  17. Someone wiser than me told me that toxic shame occurs when I bear the guilt of another who has harmed me (and who remains unrepentant and self justified).

  18. Karen,
    There’s much that recommends it. I am particularly fond of the biography part of the book in the beginning. It’s possible to overdo the concept that our thoughts having effects on those around us as strongly as the book would seem to say (or so it seems to me). But it’s been a long-time favorite for both myself and my wife.

  19. Bruce,
    This seems on target. Healthy shame is utterly essential in our lives – indeed – it is the actual content of what we term “humility.” Humility is the ability to bear “healthy shame.” It recognizes boundaries (that’s it’s main function) and therefore it is utterly necessary for discerning the truth. Toxic shame is particularly terrible in that it directly attacks and destroys the normal and healthy functioning of shame in our lives.

    I had to learn to hear the healthy shame in prayers like the one you quoted. Toxic shame would say, “I’m not worthy, so there’s no reason for me to go on. I might as well die.” Healthy shame would say, “I am not worthy, nevertheless, you are a good God and you have made me to stand in heavenly places, glory to Thee!”

    The book I’ve got coming is probably more about healthy shame than anything else.

  20. Father, thank you. I’m continuing to think through this and the other pieces you’ve written on the subject of shame.

    How would you differentiate what you’re discussing from some of the language and writings of the Saints and monastics of the Church with regards to their internal condition? It can often get pretty dark. Terms like “vile”, “baseness”, “unworthy”, “nothing good dwells in me”, “everyone else will be saved and I alone will be lost” etc. That stuff can come across, at least on the surface, as something approaching deeply shame-filled words and beliefs. I wouldn’t imagine suggesting they are somehow in error, but I’m not sure how to make sense of it and appropriate it into my own life without being tempted to despair. How do we walk on the right side of the line between toxic shame and proper self-deprecation and humility?

  21. Andrew,
    What I think is true, is that we are pretty much without the experience of hearing anything without the filter of some level of toxic shame. So, their language sounds harsh, condemning, brutal, even neurotic. What is actually the case is that we’re reading prayers and such, written by people who are whole, who are able to speak words of true humility (and thus “healthy” shame) without it crushing them, etc.

    Imagine the freedom that would be true if we could stand utterly as we are, as we truly are, in the presence of Christ, and see Him as He is. To behold His unflinching love, and, at the same time, be aware of our own unworthiness, our own creatureliness, etc., and not need to hide.

    I think of the healing that must have taken place in the woman taken in the act of adultery. After Christ has turned away all those who condemned her, and He says, “Then neither do I condemn you.” What kind of love can do that. What utter joy and awareness of unworthiness must have filled her heart. How could she not then love Him above all else?

    The words you cited are healthy words. But our souls need to be healed in order to hear them rightly.

  22. I have been thinking so much about St Peter. He is the one who seemed so often to rush in where angels fear to go. Lord, you shall not was my feet! Oh then wash my head also! Of course we know about his sworn allegiance and his later denial, and his bitter tears of recognition. And he first confesses Christ but is later told “Get behind Me, Satan!” Who could endure such a rebuke? The one who said, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” What an image of rock, and disciple.

    I struggle enormously with bad episodes of toxic shame, and as repeated experience. That described in Joyce’s comment is a framework I know so well. But I see, in opposition to the world, that it is only humility that saves. It is very hard to come out of denial on so many levels. Especially when abusers are also those whom we love, esp as children

  23. Hi Janine,

    For almost a week, I have been reading about the two miraculous fish catches and Peter’s parallel responses. Because of not remembering where I read particular bits, I hope I’m not repeating something that’s already been said, but to me it is a perfect example of the distinction Father Stephen is drawing between toxic shame and humility.

    When the disciples are first being called and they experience the miracle of the catch, Peter tells Jesus to depart because he’s “a sinful man.” In response to the parallel miracle (after the Resurrection), Peter leaps from the boat and wades toward Jesus. How significant the difference!

    Thereafter, Jesus asks Peter whether Peter loves Him three times, clearly echoing Peter’s three denials. Yet Peter is able to answer, “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”

    In the first, he felt toxic shame over his sins that he thought prevented his approaching God. In the second, he had denied Christ and had much to feel humility over, but he was confident to answer Jesus–who in knowing all things had told Peter that Peter would deny him–“You know what is in my heart, and that, regardless of what I said, I love you.”

  24. PS. Father, I forgot to thank you for this amazing article.

    And, some questions:
    Which book(s) by Fr Zacharias would you recommend?

    How did you begin your interest on this topic?

    How does one heal that “existential” (for want of better description) inner fear that remains a part of oneself from trauma?

  25. Mark Spurlock, thank you for that! He really is an example of transfiguration in discipleship, isn’t he?

    It’s really intriguing to me to think about what is that Christ knew in Peter right from the beginning

  26. Janine,
    Good questions (and big). I recommend, in particular, Fr. Zacharias’ The Enlargement of the Heart. I’ve long thought the topic was interesting, but I had little depth in the matter. A series of things brought about something of a crisis in my life at the end of 2011. A result of that being introduced to the place shame had played (and was playing) in my life. It was not the only thing, but was the major thing.

    So, typical of my writing, I write what I know. The topic has thus informed my writing, even as it informs my daily life.

    Janine, that inner fear from trauma is obviously hard to work with. First, it’s good to be able to name it. For example, when certain thoughts are drowning everything else out, it’s good to stop and notice that it is the voice of that existential fear (rather than your own, true, authentic voice). Sometimes, it’s useful to then turn to the self and begin to comfort the traumatized self like you would a little child (as I mentioned in this article). All of this is helped if there is someone else helping at the same time, reinforcing the process. And, be patient.

    I’m not sure how whole I’ll be before I die. But when I lie down to rest for the last time, I want it to be the case that I was working on this up until the end. It is not just a struggle to “feel better.” It is a struggle to know God and to know the self. They go hand-in-hand.

  27. Justin

    Fr Stephen and Nathan,

    Regarding pornography and childhood shame. My first exposure to pornography was when I was 7 years old?. Can anyone rightly claim that was a spiritually volitional choice or desire on my part? Maybe, maybe not, but I still carry the guilt and shame of that event and all subsequent events to this day. I am 50.

    I have only recently learned that my [toxic?] shame was present before that fateful day. An undergrad psych-major could figure out the source. Even so, the pornograhy ended up being only one vice of many I developed in an attempt to run away from the shame I carry. To the contrary, my entrance into the Church as a catechumen has been the only “solution” to my problem. Coming face-to-face with Jesus–and to Holy Mary–has been my only source of comfort.

    Fr. Stephen, I have you to thank [or is it to blame?] for this blessed development. You are quite competent, yes. Thank you both for this encouraging discussion, specifically, and to all of you for the discussion as a whole. Light displaces the darkness.

  28. Father, thank you so much for your reply. As you say, big questions, and also big answers!

    As you say, these things are buried so deep they are elusive. Again, as you indicate, the Lord in reaching to our true selves, unpeels the layers, and it’s a lifetime process. Such patience is asked of us, even as it was asked of Him first I think. His Cross showed us the way for ours, it seems to me.

    As Justin says, Mary, the Joy of all who Sorrow, seems to me anyway (my experience) the one who can comfort and understands seemingly infinitely pain and humiliation (and even anger, anguish). Think of her experience.

    I think it has been absolutely essential to me to find guidance through prayer, worship, etc. for prudence, patience, counsel, and so on. There is also anger buried there which I couldn’t allow myself to feel in those earliest experiences, and that always needs counsel!

    Thank you SO much for your reply and recommendation, and your work — also to helpful comments here. I’m sure I will have loads more questions(!)

  29. Justin,
    If, in God’s mercies, I have been of help, then I am deeply grately. It is, I think, the greatest privilege and joy of my life to have been useful to some.

    I have myself benefitted enormously from the Theotokos. No doubt, other saints and my guardian angel have played their roles as well. The playing field is tilted towards salvation – it’s just they we do not always see that this is so.

  30. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    We are in desperate need of help discerning toxic shame from healthy shame. Naming healthy shame as humility is life saving..

    How did ,the great elder Fr. Zacharias’ explain this to you,? May I ask if it was in a personal conversation or from reading “ The Enlargement of the Heart.”

    I am an avid reader of St.‘a Sophrony, Silouan, Paisios and Porphyrios. But if you suffer very deeply from toxic shame the above distinction between healthy shame and toxic shame can be hard to see. Naming good shame humility is a good start.

    I am Orthodox 30 years and 53 years old. I have suffered much abuse, even at the hands of my current Priest,, who forgive me for saying so, but told me with violence I must fear him because I did not agree that Orthodox marriage included anything other then a man and a woman. I have been slowly forced out of any stewardship positions at the parish.

    I have all but lost faith in the Church. The despair and hopeless I’m experiencing is the result of many of my own failures. But I despair of life itself!

    How does one get proper guidance when those set over you often do not read the Father’s and publicly disagree with the Church on many things? I have humiliated myself for the sake of peace between us.

    We need to hear more about the difference between toxic shame and humility! Please consider this when you write you book. I look forward to it.

    Any advice, or help in any way would be so helpful. I feel orphaned by our Church!

    In many ways I feel I am already dead, simply useless and hopeless and alone.

    Forgive me for any pain this communication may cause you! I am so sorry!

    How does one find the door to a self made prison? How does one hear Christ in such a loud storm? How does one find an experienced and true spiritual Physician to treat them?

    In Christ,
    Seraphim

  31. Seraphim,
    I met privately with Fr. Zacharias on this topic. It is all there in his writings, if you read carefully. The language of “toxic” shame and “healthy” shame is not in his work. That is a contribution that I am bringing from other sources. It is, as noted, implied in the passage from Sirach. I have “stared” at this reality, both outside of me and within me, and within the lives of others as their confessor and counselor, and see the truth of it confirmed again and again.

    It is deeply troubling to read of your troubles with your priest. The mindset that suggests that anyone other than a man and a woman (and even that with careful canonical guidance) can be united in marriage in the Church is delusional. That such thoughts seem acceptable to a priest is deeply problematic.

    We are, at present, entering a time (depending on where you live, etc.) when these false ideas are gaining strength. I think of it as similar to the times of the Bolsheviks. We have to be patient, wait on God, struggle to maintain love, and to be confident that we will be vindicated by our dear Savior. May God have mercy on us and protect all of us from these errors.

  32. Seraphim, it is a difficult not to lose hope. My hope is more and more centered on contrition and repentance for my own sins.
    I have been in the Church since 1986. I have experienced some toxic priests making it very easy for me to judge. But the Mercy of our Lord can overcome if I submit my own sins to that mercy first.

    I was able to move to another parish but even there my late wife and son struggled. It is a tough battle, but apparently we do not escape The Cross. But Jesus’ Prayer to forgive because they do not know what they do is there too.

    Despair and anger are tools of Satan. I have only been able to not give in by remembering to repent entering into His Mercy. I have to be careful not to take on other people’s sin.

    Mt 4:17 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” I find really helpful.

    God be with you.

  33. Seraphim,

    It is easy for me to say as someone who has endured very little suffering in life (grief, yes, but not personal suffering) and as a result likely fears it more than I should, but I do believe Christianity is a faith that embraces suffering. We are made stronger through it. Father Stephen mentioned the Bolsheviks, and I was only earlier this morning saying to my children that I think it was better when the Church was persecuted under the Bolsheviks than to have it co-opted by the government. Christ refused the temptation of earthly kingdoms and power.

    Christ prepared for his temptation by prayer and fasting, and I read time and again that these help in all spiritual struggles; those are practices available to anyone in any circumstances. I have only developed a fasting practice since becoming an inquirer, but I can personally attest to the value of prayer. Given your 30 years in the faith and wide reading, you are likely employing both already.

    In particular as I read your comment, I thought of the Beatitudes and the promises of blessings for those who endure and persevere in the struggles you face. Ultimately, we cannot build our faith on men, for they will always be imperfect. (The Protestant minister who baptized me was less than a week later caught in a sexual sting.) Build on the rock so that you have the strength to love others in all those terrible imperfections we share.

  34. Seraphim,
    One of the bizarre things I most admire in my Spiritual Father, is his mind-boggling respect for others’ freedom, even when such freedom is entirely exploited to unashamedly sin and to proclaim sin and delusion as something ‘good’.
    This magnanimous non-interventionism of his is even more stunning considering he is utterly traditional in his principles.
    What this stance points to is not some “couldn’t care less” mind-set (as one might suppose) – on the contrary, he deeply cares for these sinful persons (priests included here…). So, what actually explains this extraordinary attitude of his is a truly all-encompassing [and, perhaps this is the key to our conversation on healing various traumas] trust in God’s almighty providence for others that can eventually make all of them see the truth in ways we cannot now fathom. Every time I get to witness some of that trait, (rather rarely these last years), I come away with an adorable ‘taste’ of the otherworldly peace that can be generated by deep faith.

  35. Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness, kindness and time you offer towards this ministry. That is no small thing!

    If I am able to “have the eyes to see” what our Elders are telling us, during a careful reading of their Holy works, the distinction between what is toxic and what is healthy shame, (humility being healthy shame) is apparent.

    But I often don’t have the “eyes to see.”

    Obviously reading without “having the eyes to see,” – rather from going through difficult times and/or having poor and undeveloped discernment -is the root of many diseases.

    So we are all told to seek the discernment of those who have walked “the path” before us. But if that guidance is not available, we are left
    to struggle as best we can.

    My souls deep illness and sadness stems from my own failures and sins, and perhaps from inheritance of multigenerational sin. and abuse. It is not the fault of our poor Priest.

    That situation simply unhelpfully complicates trust in a relationship, and the hope of receiving any words of proper discernment.

    The issue of “wokeness” in the Church has macro implications, and micro (if you will.)

    The Church will have to address both, and the sooner the better. As far as Clerical abuse because of “wokeness” this too will become more of an issue, and needs to be better recognized by our Church as a whole. The laymen looses his/her share of “The Royal Priesthood” and any dignity God bestows on us.

    You also note above an “uncomfortableness” with how Elder Thaddeus refers to the dangers of our own thoughts in the harming of others. Something St. Paisios speaks of in Viloume 1 of his 5 books of teachings published by his spiritual Children. I would guess this has something to do with having the “eyes to see,” and the fact we are reading the Saints words off the page, rather than knowing him and having the benefits of his seeing his inflections as he was speaking. But their is much mystery there, “if your eye is dark how much is the darkness in you, and what are the consequences of this darkness” if I may dare to paraphrase our Lord’s words. Probably a foolish thing to do. The eye of envy or “evil eye” is hard to wrap the western mind around and is a bit of a stumbling block for me when reading this material.

    The Fathers deal with Pride resulting in being puffed up, and full of self love quite a bit, as it is a common result. But the opposite side of that same coin is self hate. Here you seem to rightly state we could use some more help.

    That is why I guess your writings on shame are so popular. You seem to be the only Orthodox voice addressing this so clearly today.

    Anyway please let me be a tiny crumb when you commemorate those suffering from illness this Sunday when you celebrate the office to prepare the Host before Liturgy. I am in the OCA, so I would guess there are no cannonical issues that come to bare. Forgive me for being so forward on asking for this grace. There are so many Orthodox Christians suffering from this illness of toxic shame.

    May God grant us the endurance you lovingly council us to strive for!

    Thank you for suffering me,
    Love in Christ,
    Seraphim

  36. Seraphim,
    I am grieved that you encounter such a problem in the OCA. I make it a practice to commemorate all those who read my work each week on the Discos.

    I suspect you are entirely correct about the Elder Thaddeus – our thoughts (like envy which powers the evil eye) can indeed influence the word around us. I’m simply cautious about it, not having but a very little experience regarding it.

    Dino’s sharing regarding Divine Providence is truly the only path to peace. This is so consistent in the Fathers. Indeed in the writings of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, whenever he speaks of the Divine Energies, he’s almost always speaking about Providence. I was struck deeply by that when I first saw it.

    Ultimately, only Providence will ever save us. There’s too much evil around us for us to manage or control (ever). Only the goodness of God, working in the world can work its wonders for our good. We do well to think on this at all times.

  37. Seraphim

    Your experience and responses from Michael, Dino and Father Stephen, are for me a guide for acquiring an Orthodox mindset. Focus on my sins and repentance and judge no one trusting in God’s Providence. Pray for the enlightenment of all.

    However, Christian compassion is misplaced if it results in condoning sin. You have stated the truth of the Gospel with respect to marriage, acknowledging the “boundaries” (per Father Stephen’s previous article) that God set on His creation. This is witnessing our faith peacefully, without judgement and bearing the rejection of others.

    Let’s be strict with ourselves, gentle with others, but also remember not to be ashamed of the Lord so He will not be ashamed of us (Mark 8:38).

    Today we celebrate the Mother of God the Quick to Hear (Gorgoypikoos). This is for me the most important name of Panagia, as she gave it to herself, it is not one of the hundreds of names that we attributed to her. Get to know her in this attribute of her, ask her to bring your way the right Spiritual Father and guide you in every step of your life. She responds quickly. (https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/10/miraculous-icon-of-theotokos.html).

  38. Nikolaos
    Time and again, that particular attribute of the Mother of God in immediate response to those who turn to ask for Her aid, has been attested in the lives of numerous faithful.
    In times of need, you hardly manage to complete a single phrase of your cry to Her, and her mighty help arrives faster than a flash of lightning. We have repeated proof of this from the present to the thousands-years past.

  39. Please forgive me, I venerate the Holy Theotokos, and I am a witness to her loving kindness and help. But I find the story about a monk being punished with blindness a little disturbing. This doesn’t correlate with my own experiences with her help. Some might think of punishment such as this as ‘strong medicine,’ but I’m not so ready for it.

  40. Dear Fr Stephen,

    I want to just briefly echo some of the things said by other men above, and thank you for your writings. I am 34 now, was exposed to pornography when in elementary school, and have struggled with this addiction and it’s shame since then. My wife and I just entered the Orthodox Church last Pascha, and just last week had our marriage blessed by the Church. Just a week before our wedding ceremony, I began to sense that I really needed to confess to my wife and ask her forgiveness for the damage that my addiction and sins had done to our marriage, even if it was somewhat unknown to her. Even though I had confessed to my Priest and believe God has forgiven me, the experience of looking at my wife face to face when she heard my confession, was a feeling of shame, and freedom. I think this must be what it means that the way down is the way up. The next day I noticed that a chronic infirmity that I’ve had for a couple years, was gone. Not exactly sure what to make of that. A week later my wife and I stood in the Church and our priest crowned us, and I clearly felt unworthy of this crown, and of my wife, but humbled and comforted that she and God will forgive, and that healing is possible and already beginning. My wife and I both have benefited from your writings on shame and look forward to your book. Lord have mercy on us.

  41. James,
    There is a divided opinion on confession to one’s spouse in such matters – but I’m very glad it was so salutary for you. Not everyone is able to bear the burden of hearing someone’s sins. There is, I think, a special grace given to priests to be able to do this – though I admit there are times that it takes several days for that burden to dissipate.

    On your experience of healing… I think that we are often unaware of how deeply shame can affect our health. We become so used to being sick that we do not remember what health feels like. For myself, I endured an anxiety/panic disorder from age 19 to age 58 – finding relief only when I discovered the shame that was energizing it. And, sadly, it was not a shame about anything I had done but about something done to me. Of course, I added my own actions over time.

    It is, though, deeply healing to find these burdens lifting. May God preserve you in peace and strengthen you and your wife in your marriage!

  42. I just want to Thank Fr. Stephen and all of you here on this blog, for your honesty, love and advice.

    Healing from toxic shame is no small thing. Indeed sometimes it takes a life time. Often this toxic shame is a result result from something that happened early in our lives.

    But no matter what shape these spiritual battles take, no matter how they manifest themselves, they go very deep. And they are fierce!

    Mine tend to manifest themselves in doubt, anxiety, and deep despair. That is enough to cause us all of us to fall into all kinds of other traps the Enemy sets for us as well!

    But no matter how each spiritual battle manifests itself, and what particular individual medicine we may each need to receive, we all share the same common Enemy! Who roaring like a lion, wishes to consume us.

    It is through our communion together-in Christ -that will help us towards victory.

    Thank you all for your encouragement of endurance, patients and faith in God’s Providence! Thank you all for your courage and honesty! I do believe that these virtues are the key. Waiting on God to act when He knows best is part of our test. Until then, we muddle along, together as Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

    Thank you my Brothers and Sisters!

  43. Seraphim, my wife and I will hold you in our prayers. May the intercessions of the Theotokos be with you.

  44. Nikolaos & Dino, thanks for that, it is one of my most favorite icons, and I always remember the small ancient church with the ancient stones next to the Metropolitan cathedral in Athens. I did not know today was the day

  45. Toxic shame kills joy… And without joy you end up in despair. My priest told me: seek the joy of faith… I notice such words take time become a thread in my spiritual life… But what about the joy of forgiveness, of mercy? Would I still be walking on earth today without it? Sure not! Everyday can become a day of celebration, to enter the feast of the Lord…

  46. Jan-Peter
    I sighted you wrote that ‘Toxic shame kills joy… And without joy, you end up in despair’.
    That is a very good point. There is something tremendously pedagogically healthy regarding the spiritual ‘gauging’ of one’s joy, and remembering that its diminishment is a fairly certain signifier of a spiritual problem.
    Having been a recipient of that type of spiritual pedagogy for decades – which originated from the late Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, I recall how it took me a very long time to come to escape its misinterpretations, and grasp the hidden depths of wisdom this unassuming “joy-counsel” contains.
    The abovementioned (in the previous comments) grateful focus on God’s providence is part and parcel of the same.

  47. I am looking forward to reading your book on this topic, Father!

    After reading one of your blog posts, I often make it a point to come back and read through the comments. I find that the discussions help me understand the topic more deeply, and that was definitely the case here. I was struck by your comment that “Humility is the ability to bear ‘healthy shame.'”

    Over the last several months, I’ve repeatedly had to confess my sinful habit of procrastinating and avoiding. It seems to be triggered by feeling overwhelmed or incapable of handling a particular project or task. Unfortunately, avoiding only makes the situation more difficult to handle later, so it becomes a vicious and increasingly painful cycle. The habit has become so ingrained that the distractions I turn to feel like the only way to calm myself when I am stressed.

    I think it would be accurate to say that I’ve been refusing to bear the shame of my own weaknesses and limitations – work projects I can’t finish as quickly as I think I should, health challenges I can’t just “push through”, etc. I love Fr. Zacharias’s work and appreciate the counsel to “bear a little shame.” However, it feels like facing my shame means facing ALL of it at once. How does one bear a little?

  48. Abigail,
    Working through this stuff is greatly helped by partnering with someone – priest, therapist, etc. With toxic shame, it’s hard to “bear a little.” It’s just so overwhelming. God help us find good helpers.

  49. Maybe I might need to clarify that the counsel to “always be joyful” (Philippians 4, 4, Thessalonians 4, 16), is clearly not in order to simply (selfishly) ‘avoid disturbing my peace’, that would of course make me indifferent!
    Spiritual meekness is the polar opposite to such a ‘meekness’ springing from indifference.
    It is not a worldly, secular joy we speak of then, but one that has at its very core, the trust in God’s love and providence.
    Its owner might be all pain, yet, he is rewarded for this pain with divine consolation.
    He feels pain for the sin he perceives in him and in the world all around him, but he also feels within him divine consolation, because God showers blessings from Heaven on the soul that trusts in Him despite of all this and then this soul rejoices in divine love even in the midst of problems, traumas, tribulations (even passions that he might be still struggling with). His soul’s eyes are turned to the Lord rather than the “waves” threatening him. (Matthew 14, 30)
    This is the spiritual joy that floods the heart and which the heart vigilantly guards after tasting it – as it recognises the might hidden inside of such a God-centred joy, a power that somehow heals all problems, traumas, tribulations, …the “resurrectional” power of the Cross.

  50. Dino, after reading your post through several times I can only concur. Especially with the resurrectional power of The Cross. A power we recognize and appreciate on the Third Sunday of Great Lent when we venerate The Cross with the hymn: “Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master , and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify. ”

    Shame, even deep shame, when approached in humility, can lead to a great Grace and Joy not created by mankind or desire.

    Thank you Dino for your succinct reminder.

  51. Best of luck with the publication of your book, Father Stephen.
    The term “psychological” has been used as a slur in the Orthodox circles I frequented, as something lowly and shameful.
    Sadly, we all suffer consequences of the psyche’s illnesses, possibly caused by shame.
    I often wonder why things take as long as they do. In business, we would certainly challenge your publisher as to why we have to wait this long!
    And I’m sure the answer will be a meak “these things take time”.
    Maybe if Jesus says it, but harder to hear from people who do not know Him but use it as an excuse for browbeating.
    Your blessing, it is good to be back reading your articles.

  52. Thomas,
    As to how long things take…in this instance, the release date has been somewhat delayed on account of paper shortage from the various problems that followed the pandemic. Also, I had to finish the writing. And, in God’s divine providence, because it wasn’t time. 🙂

  53. Father Stephen,
    Indeed! The main lesson for me in life to learn that matters move at a pace not set by me, to please or suit me.
    I find others around me share this struggle in different fields: health, marriage, work.
    It appears many of us want developments sooner or later than God allows them to come to be.

    They sure could publish the electronic copy or audiobook if you have recorded it, surely? 😊
    Fine I’ll wait through gritted teeth.

  54. Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank God for your healing words. God bless you and God bless each of us when we touch our keyboards. May God guide our thoughts and desires toward holy things.

    Yesterday I experienced a shameful educational/ theatrical program at my higher education workplace. What was advertised as an inspirational one-person retelling of the story of a black woman struggling during the Civil Rights Era, turned out to be a confused jumble of anger at God and neighbor, remembering wrongs, pride and worldly, material priorities. In one scene, the actress relived a beating in jail. It was a viscerally painful re-enactment of evil. As the scene unfolded, I prayed for an end to the misery and prayed that it would not turn out to be an even more horrific rape scene. Minutes later, the lights came on and actress urged us to hold hands and sing “We shall overcome.” In a word, manipulative.

    On one hand, this was an opportunity to say the Jesus Prayer and the Serenity Prayer. I recalled with consolation and joy the loving witness of Fr. Roman Braga of blessed memory as a worthy alternative response to suffering. Dear God, did it ever illustrate the value of proper and frequent confession.

    On the other hand, I feel sorrow for those who were entrapped in a shaming experience with such an obviously political agenda. The actress depicted, then rejected, her false image of Jesus. I got the point. I experienced some kind of impression of her pain. I simply know that any expression of my understanding of deep forgiveness and total trust that Thy Will be Done would not be welcomed. It appears that they have a whole other agenda (voter registration) that does not welcome the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They claim to value dialogue and yet turn away from Christ’s healing. Then again, so do I turn away from Christ so many times each day. Here I am—still cleaning the specks out of my eyes.

  55. Fr. Stephen,

    I read the first two-thirds of Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame that Binds You”, so the descriptive section. It read like a clinical textbook with personal comments and anecdotes added in. And then I read this article – along with those you’ve penned over the years on the same topic. With this as a background I want to echo Seraphim’s comment. Not everyone has “eyes to see”.

    But you have given those of us who don’t have the “eyes to see” or the time and clarity to discern, a much deeper and more straightforward understanding of many important concepts, like the differences between healthy and toxic shame, the place of healthy shame in our lives, and how to live in a shame-based world.

    In fact it seems to be your particular mission to take the ancient faith and apply it to our modern lives in a way we can understand and digest it. I thank God once again for your ministry. While it’s tempting to already start worrying about who will guide us when you’re gone, I know that your own answer would be that we should always look to Christ first. Nevertheless I pray that God blesses you with long life, and then He welcomes you home with those beautiful words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

    yours, drewster

  56. I wanted to address something Andrew said above…

    “…writings of the Saints and monastics of the Church with regards to their internal condition…can often get pretty dark. Terms like “vile”, “baseness”, “unworthy”, “nothing good dwells in me”, “everyone else will be saved and I alone will be lost” etc.”

    This is very true. It does sound like either toxic shame or false humility at first glance to modern ears.

    Part of Fr. Stephen’s response was to point out that, “What is actually the case is that we’re reading prayers and such, written by people who are whole, who are able to speak words of true humility (and thus “healthy” shame) without it crushing them, etc.”

    I believe this is crucial. I have found that if you have a relationship which is based on unconditional love (unfortunately pretty rare in this life), you can discuss all kinds of things between you because nothing said is going to destroy that bond. In fact you can sometimes fight like cats and dogs and it never occur to either party that this will end the relationship. All is built upon and protected by that unconditional love.

    So those ancient writers can talk about themselves being worthless and in their minds the next logical step is never that they should go ahead and rid the world of their existence. In essence, I can accept that I am worthless from any human standpoint because God loved me into existence and all my worth comes from Him. Therefore I am happy to be worthless if it means I can be filled with Him and reside with Him for eternity.

    This is a radical paradigm and not one most of us possess. This is one of the reasons most Christians are not advised to start reading the Philokalia or The Dark Night of the Soul or any number ancient texts. You first have to possess the skill and character and lens through which to understand and digest such works.

  57. Drewster,
    Thank you for the kind and very generous words. As God gives me grace, I will continue to work. It’s always a gift – none of us is necessary. And God bestows His gifts on us abundantly!

  58. Drewster,
    one aspect of this healthy, non-toxic, (yet extreme) self-abasement of those saints’ humble words is that it springs not so much from the realization of ‘my darkness’ alone, but rather more from the realisation of God’s love for me no-matter-what…
    This joyful self-condemnation (actually focused on God’s goodness rather than self) tends to intensify with greater holiness not just because of a clearer vision of one’s sinfulness or ‘fruitlessness’, but, because of the wondrous vision of God’s unrelenting unwarranted gifts (His Providence) showered ceaselessly upon us, so it is our ‘fruitfulness’ if you like that generates such humility (rather than pride).
    As they say, a barren tree never stoops as low as a tree filled with fruit that is humbled by the fruit’s weight.

  59. Father and everyone,
    I was contemplating today the reading in which Jesus comes down from the mount of Transfiguration, and finds the other disciples (besides Peter, James, and John) struggling to cast out a demon, to heal a boy. This becomes an important discussion of faith in the various Synoptic Gospels.

    But I got to thinking about bearing a little shame in context. Everbody first of all has to deal with Jesus’ rebukes: the crowd, the father, the disciples. It takes humility to listen to a teacher correct us. It takes bearing a little shame. But it seems like it’s just that kind of “little shame” that tests and strengthens our faith. We learn sacrifice or even embarassment in front of the world in following Christ, and it is a way to learn deeper faith.

    From my perspective of having a lot of toxic shame to heal, I think the “little shame,” or maybe even scandal for the sake of Christ, is the way to break through the scars left by the toxic variety. I was very happy to read that in the text today, as He directs them immediately after with teachings about his own betrayal (scandal) and their need to receive even a little child (bear a little shame) if they want to be truly great.

    I was quite pleased to see Fr Stephen’s words in this context. Hope I got it right. Correction welcome!

  60. Dino,

    What you said was more or less what I was trying to say. However, attaining that mindset in this part of the world is quite difficult. We are swimming in a very strong current of individualism and therefore self-abasement looks a lot like suicide to most. “The ascetic life is all well and good as long as the main focus remains me taking care of #1 first. God helps those who help themselves,” and all that kind of thing.

    Nowhere in this world do you count yourself as worthless and utterly depend an “other”. The reality of God is so upside-down and inside to us that most people never get there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.