Bearing Shame

Shame has fallen on hard times. Much of this is due to increasing concerns about the public shaming of people on social media. See the recently published book by Jon Ronson So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

I share these worries about the public shaming of strangers on social media, how our outraged Tweets can do serious harm to people--relationally, psychologically and economically. But I'd like to say a few things in praise of shame. Not public shaming, but how shame, as an emotion, is a vital component of what it means to give and experience love.

What I'd like to do is bring into conversation the ideas of Brene Brown (Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection) and Virginia Burrus (Saving Shame).

To start, if you are familiar with Brown's work you know she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is "I did something bad." Shame is "I am bad." Thus, in Brown's scheme, guilt is good--it encourages you to take responsibility--and shame is bad.

And that's how a lot of us now think about shame. Shame is bad.

And yet, if you ponder it, shame is actually a pretty important and vital human emotion. To be sure, shame can be toxic. Shame can be weaponized. But shame isn't all bad. We'd worry about living in a world where shame didn't exist.

So let's push back on Brown a bit. "I am bad," isn't shame. It's self-contempt. To be sure, shame can prompt self-contempt and self-contempt can be a toxic or pathological outcome of shame, but shame shouldn't be reduced to self-contempt.

So what is shame? According to Burrus, shame is the confrontation of human limitation, the exposure of our weakness, failure, brokenness and vulnerability. Shame is this experience of exposure.

And Brown gets this. The hot burn of shame we feel in this exposure is what Brown calls the "excruciating vulnerability" we experience when we allow ourselves to be imperfect in front of each other. Shame, at least partly, is what makes vulnerability emotionally excruciating. Shame is the emotional threshold that must be crossed to get us to connection and intimacy.

In short, Brown really isn't against shame. She actually preaches shame when she talks about "excruciating vulnerability." We must risk the exposure--the shame--of being imperfect in front of each other. Connection requires vulnerability, excruciating vulnerability. Shame is at the heart of connection.

As Burrus suggests, shame is the advent of love. Shame creates the opportunity of love. When I expose myself to you--showing you my sin, failure, imperfection, brokenness and weakness--I feel the flush of shame. I stand naked before you. 

And as I stand there--scared and exposed--what I'm seeking is empathy and acceptance. In the words of Brene Brown, I'm looking for "Me too."

In short, what I'm looking for is the bearing of my shame.

When you love you carry the failure, weakness and brokenness of the Beloved. The Beloved hands you their shame and you bear it, you carry it, you share in it. And the Beloved, in turn, carries your shame.

Love is the bearing of shame.

Love is sharing the burden of our common humanity, sharing the burden of our failures, imperfections and weaknesses.

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25 thoughts on “Bearing Shame”

  1. I don't think it's good to go to that place of "excruciating vulnerability" with another flawed person if I need to be accepted by them. It seems like this space would be for a perfectly loving being only. If I expose myself needing to experience "me too" and don't get it, then what? The only way I can bear the other person's failure to accept me is to not have needed anything from them in the first place. Dr Mello asks, "Can I love someone if I need them?" I don't think you can.

  2. To clarify, I'm not saying don't be excruciatingly vulnerable. I'm saying we need to be vulnerable without needing to be accepted by people. "I'm an ass, your an ass, now let's be friends".

  3. Not to make light of the subject, because it is a good meaty one, I have often learned through my observations from things that made me laugh just a bit. One of those observations came during a Bible class a number of years ago when weaknesses and mistakes were part of the discussion. I remember anger, judging, the love of money and power, gossip, and all sorts of good juicy sins being part of the conversation. No one person admitted to any of these sins. Then, the problem of "Perfectionism" came up; suddenly, if I remember correctly, three people confessed to being perfectionists. Not one person admitted to being unkind, to loving money, or talking about people; but when perfectionism came up, a few were ready and quick to confess. I could not help but laugh a bit to myself. Maybe we truly desire to share our weaknesses, but only in the "best possible light".

    On a bit of a more serious note, being that I have no idea what heaven is like, I simply cleave to the thought that, whether in life or death, I am with God. However, in my day dreaming moments I have often thought that an eternity of being perfect would be quite boring. So, what appeals to me is another life in which I meet the challenges to be a better person, a better child of God, better than I have in this one. Someone is now saying, "you're talking of a 'do over'"; I guess you could call it that. But like I said, it is only day dream. But what it does do for me is that it keeps me aware, it keeps me from falling into denial as to what what I have done and have not done. And in that awareness is an amount of shame that fuels my prayers and helps me ask of God, "Please help me to be a better man", a request that comes from the heart more so in my sixties than when in my thirties.

  4. It sounds like it is the risk of shame that is important and necessary, not the experience of shame itself. The vulnerability is what is necessary -- it happens to be excruciating, but the pain is not the point. Isn't it just about how being willing to walk through that pain is the (or a) path to becoming more one's true self, undefended and open?

    Or is it not possible to be open to one's (and others') failures and weaknesses without being ashamed of them -- is it not possible to just accept that it's part of the process / journey / being human? Is it possible to hold on to the fact that failures and weaknesses have real and significant consequences, cause real pain and harm, and yet not be ashamed?

  5. I know that sounds like a better way forward--let us not feel ashamed--and one that I think a lot of people would be attracted to. But I don't know if we can be human beings without shame. I don't know if it's psychologically realistic to say that we've caused "real pain and harm" and "yet not be ashamed" but that. At least shame some degree. Without shame we'd all be sociopaths.

  6. Without shame we'd all be sociopaths.

    I have always thought of sociopathy to be the lack of feeling empathy rather than shame. Are the two related?

  7. It seems like 'shame' is being used in a variety of senses here which is muddling thins a bit for me (could just be Spring fever). I think of shaming as a weapon as calling people out for breaking a cultural more. But you also speak of shame as regret over damage we have done and as revealing something we would prefer to keep hidden for fear of rejection or reprisal. Are you making the case that these all share something in common, or just teasing out different definitions to avoid tossing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

  8. Shaming is different from shame. Shame is an emotion, a vital moral emotion, that regulates our moral performance before others. We feel shame when we're exposed before others as "failing" in some way.

    Shaming, as you say, is weaponizing the emotion of shame, bringing and calling attention to a person's failures as a means to an end. Shaming couldn't exist if shame wasn't a part of our innate moral software.

  9. Let me also add this.

    Shaming isn't always bad. It can be bad and we often talk about how and why it is bad. But a lot of oppressed groups think that shaming is an effective tool of critique and protest. Speaking "truth to power" is often a matter of shaming power.

    That said, I think it's a morally safer and more effective to shame power rather than individuals. Power structures endure over time with individuals taking up their places within them for a season to be disposed of or replaced by others. By shaming people we can often miss the forests for the trees.

  10. ....but we can't help pick up the pieces

    Wow. This strikes me as a really important point. Glad you continued adding.

  11. Is the difference one between feeling shame about particular things, and feeling shame about our own being? Is the one better called remorse? Or is shame getting at some deep truth, "the heart is desperately sick" -- and yet we're not talking about the poisonous view that our brokenness / sinfulness / sickness makes us totally evil. Somehow it's one of those tensions that has to be held -- as C. S. Lewis said (Magician's Nephew?), something about being children of Adam giving us both shame and glory?

    I think I am getting your emphasis, though -- about shame being borne -- that we are able to carry it -- because? because we are all in that boat? because we also bear glory? because God is for us and working in us?

  12. Re: "Is the difference one between feeling shame about particular things, and feeling shame about our own being?"

    It think that's the part in Brown's definition of shame that I think doesn't work. "I am bad"--feeling shame about our own being--isn't really shame. In the post I call that self-contempt. But most psychologists wouldn't define shame that way. Shame is a social emotion that, at it's most basic, is the feeling we get when we fail before others. Shame isn't an internalized self-loathing or self-hatred.

  13. Shame is this experience of exposure.

    Yes. Shame is inherently both social and somatic, in distinction from guilt which is more inward, private and cerebral. One experiences shame when one publicly loses honour; and when one experiences shame, one feels it physically, viscerally (thus one often blushes). The two combine in the expression "to lose face".

    If you look closely at the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, I think you will see that it is more a story of sin and shame than sin and guilt. When our parents sin, they mutually recognise their nakedness (one imagines them turning scarlet) and don some primal underwear to hide it; and then, further, they try to hide from God, to escape the piercing exposure of his gaze.

    Note also the emphasis of shame in the Paul's presentation of the kerygma in Romans 1:16: "For I am not ashamed [epaischunomai] of the gospel .." (The GNB's "I have complete confidence in the gospel" entirely misses this crucial point.) And why should the apostle feel shame? First, because Jesus suffered both the most physically painful and also the most publicly humiliating of deaths, and, second, because the gospel invites social contempt because to Jews it is scandalous and to Gentiles it is foolishness (I Corinthians 1:18ff.)

    Yes, to feel shame needn't be toxic, it may be a sign of spiritual health; indeed never to be able to feel shame is a sure sign of sociopathy.

  14. That makes sense and is helpful. I haven't had any therapists make this distinction, by the way.

    Would you say there is something objective about failures, too? I mean, it's not just that others would disapprove, but that they would be right to do so?

    Do you think the core of human identity includes a fundamental brokenness? or a fundamental glory? or both? or neither?

    And what would it mean for someone to bear the shame of your hypothetical infidelity -- how would friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners show love to you in light of such failure? How would they also show that they are bearing the shame, and not just dismissing it or trying to get past it?

  15. Sarah, I ache for you. It is absolutely as crippling as you feel and as brothers and sisters in Christ we need to expunge it from our communities. Shame is constantly used by closed church communities to control the young and vulnerable and to ensure conformity. It took me 50 years to recover from the damage done by a lifetime of being shamed and ashamed. It leads to dishonesty, secret pain and incredible unending suffering.

    To contend that it is in any way virtuous to allow shame to control your conduct is deeply flawed, particularly within any context of counselling or healing. It is not shame that ought to unite us in being willing to expose ourselves it should be love. If our motivations toward vulnerability come out of love, then the relationships will be strong. If the community builds itself on a foundation of common shame, then it is toxic from the outset.

    And, I also think that the attempt to rescue shame as virtuous by redefining it is disingenuous at best.

  16. I think, just to comment separately from my post in support of Sarah, there is an inherrant weakness in the definition as offering the opportunity for love. It is an inherently egocentric definition focused on gaining liberty for the self in advance of a loving interaction.

    "As Burrus suggests, shame is the advent of love. Shame creates the opportunity of love. When I expose myself to you--showing you my sin, failure, imperfection, brokenness and weakness--I feel the flush of shame. I stand naked before you."

    Instead we ought to see that the suffering caused by shame in ourselves is a burden that others feel too and so go to them and say, "Let me help you with that, in Christ we can cast off the burden of shame." That is an act centred on the suffering of the other, not first focused on the liberation of the self.

  17. Kim I think your point about Adam and Eve's response is key to rejecting shame as useful or helpful to the community of believers. Shame led directly to further secrecy, hiddenness and dishonesty as it almost always does, which in fact deflects from culpability. They weren't trying to hide their shame from God, they were letting the shame motivate them to hide their sin.

  18. Shame has been (and sometimes continues to be) a crippling factor in my own life as well, and I find Brown's shame/guilt distinction very helpful. Shame is the single biggest barrier to connection with other people for me, so "shame resilience" is a pretty vital life skill. And the things I feel the most shame about have nothing to do with "sin" - or at least not mine. My relationships are healthiest when I am experiencing the least amount of shame. I can't conceptualize what it would mean to experience the emotion of shame without self-loathing.

    Maybe shame functions as a preventative barrier for keeping some people from doing bad things, but for me it doesn't. I don't cheat on my husband because I don't want to hurt him and blow up my marriage - what other people would think about me is pretty far down the list as a reason to maintain fidelity.

    I'm sure things may be different for people who grew up differently than I did, but in my experience, shame is pretty destructive most of the time, and usually gets in the way of people admitting and changing their behavior.

  19. I am thinking that shame might properly and healthily function as a signal that there might be something wrong -- just as fear and anger and pain are signals that something might be wrong. To be able to bear the shame is not so much to celebrate or pursue shame, or to be driven by it (whether to hide / avoid or act out or some other response) as much as to allow, accept, and listen to it -- to see if its signal is accurate or not, and to then respond accordingly.

  20. yes! I spent a lifetime it seems avioding the consequences of my violence and rationalized my hatred of those I had harmed. In recovery I now see that I lacked shame. Even now when I have flashbacks I see that there is an absence of feelings of compassion for my victims and numbness where shame should go!

  21. I think there is a major dif bt being ashamed for what one does that harms one or others on purpose and what one is that one can't help being.

  22. I think there is a connection bt avoiding shame producing activities (like stealing & incest for example) & keeping a clean conscience. I think keeping a clean conscience is a way to stay confidently connected to god and others in one's love relationships. I think society can significantly increase the possibilities of creating a 'new normal' where sociopathy is accepted and prefered behavior for a nation that considers itself 'exceptional'.

  23. at some times in my life i have felt guilt for not being ashamed and shame for not feeling guilty. this became somewhat more understood by me when iI read camus 'the stranger'.

  24. Very interesting post, thank you. It resonates a lot.

    It also instantly got me to thinking how that might map onto the God-human relationship. If shame provides the opportunity for love, that demonstrates how God can love humans. But how does human love for God work? Perhaps that is what is meant by God's love being perfect.... it loves in the absence of need for reciprocity. Or perhaps in Jesus' 'taking on the sin of the world' there is in the Godhead a shared experience of shame? Perhaps that is a part of the mechanics of the incarnation/salvation/atonement...

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