I am the youngest of four. I have two brothers and one sister. When I was about seven or eight years old I was playing basketball with our neighbors next door, along with my brothers. I remember becoming outraged at a perceived injustice that spiraled into a full blown temper tantrum. Understandably annoyed, one of my brothers forcefully said, “go home already, you need medication.” The other boys laughed. As I witnessed this, a deep sadness came over me and I ran home crying. I fell into my mother’s arms as I whimpered, “they say I need medication, what does that mean?”
When I think of shame I think of this experience. However trivial it may appear, I assess this experience as one of my core shaming memories, no matter how routine it may have been, somehow it stayed with me. The injustice, the embarrassment, the humiliation, the feelings induced by my own brothers in the presence of others was devastating. Was something really wrong with me? Did I need medication? Maybe I did, maybe I was broken. These are the thoughts I contended with. I am not sure why this memory sticks with me, I’m sure I had worse before and after.
What is shame? How does shame shape or contribute to our perception of who we are, of our sense of self? Is it possible that only a few select memories shape the course of a person’s entire life? If shame is a central component, or a central characteristic to human experience, how does one identify it and heal? What are the varying types of shame, such as healthy shame and toxic shame? Where does shame come from? How do I contribute to my own perceived shame and the shame of others? These are the questions that I am contemplating as I write this post.
Guilt and shame are categorized as different emotions. Guilt is the feeling of making a mistake or transgressing a value or moral framework. It can be as light as failing to follow through on that run or exercise you committed to yourself. Or it can be as heavy as failing to stop at a red light and causing a fatal accident. These specific acts or events that we transgress are colored with the feeling of guilt, or “what I did was wrong”. Shame on the other hand is not particularly tied to an event or an action, but rather it is a state of being that is related to how someone sees themself. It involves a “self-evaluation of the self.” (Fishkin, 26) It is the feeling of “I am bad.” Feelings of shame can range widely from mortification, humiliation, despair, remorse, and embarrassment, to apathy.
Simply talking about shame creates a feeling of shrinking in me, a feeling of fight, flight or freeze. I do not want to engage. I want to hide and conceal myself. Positivity is sucked out of my consciousness and is replaced with feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. My cognitive abilities are shattered. These feelings conjure up the idea of dementors written about in Harry Potter. Their description so perfectly describes feelings of deep shame made manifest in a fictional creature:
Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life. (link)
When I was in the boy scouts, at about 12 years old, I attempted to complete the biking merit badge. In hindsight this was an incredible undertaking by the boys and the leaders alike. The requirements to complete the merit badge are to complete two 10 mile rides, two 15 mile, two 25 mile, and one 50 mile bike ride! (link) After completing four or five of these rides that were filled with flat tires and sunburns I had had enough. I dreaded going every week, I decided I would not attend any more of the scheduled bike rides. If I was not going to do the 50 mile bike ride, why should I continue now? On one of the nights I was supposed to go I decided I would stay home and avoided telling anyone. My dad was on the couch reading the newspaper and noticed I had not yet left and inquired, “aren’t you going to scouts son?” I told him I didn’t want to go. After some back and forth of me defiantly saying no he said, “what… are you a wuss?” I immediately fell into the shame netherworld. I can clearly remember the feelings that came over me, those feelings of shame are coming back to me even now. Tears began to stream down my face as I ran into the garage. I remember the tears clouding my vision. I hopped on my bike, and rode away, just wanting to get as far as I could from my house. I don’t remember where I went, but there was no way I was going to scouts. My father had placed a label on me. Maybe I was a wuss, what does that say about me?
Shame can be viewed as a wound in the way that we view our ‘self’. A wound that rarely goes away without intense intervention. These wounds often appear in childhood before we can fully articulate the pain that we are feeling. Psychologist Gerald Fishkin says, “the way that we speak and behave toward children becomes their inner voice.” (Fishkin, 31) As children grow, they look to their parents to model their life. These parental voices begin to paint the picture of how a child sees itself. Though shame is often inevitable, it does not have to play a lifelong destructive role in a child’s life experience. Psychologist Robert Karen writes:
“[Shame] is frequently instilled at a delicate age, as a result of the internalization of a contemptuous voice, usually parental. Rebukes, warnings, teasing, ridicule, ostracism, and other forms of neglect or abuse can all play a part … Nothing, apparently, defends against the internal ravages of shame more than the security gained from parental love, especially the sort of sensitive love that sees and appreciates the child for what he or she is and is respectful of the child’s feelings, differences, and peculiarities … Nothing seems to make shame cut more deeply than the lack of that love.” (Fishkin, 30)
I am not sure I can completely say that I did not have parents that exhibited a sensitive love. Certainly my mother was sensitive to my feelings and often told me how much she loved me. My father was often, as I perceived it, aloof and only engaged in activities with me more often than not at the insistence of my mother rather than his spontaneous desire to spend time and converse. Again, at least that is how I remember it. I knew my father loved me, and I love him, we simply didn’t have a deep personal connection. I have since grown to appreciate my dad and effort he displayed, effort that was a part of his own style. As for my mother, I often think fondly of times that she would hug me and tell me she loved me, I can still feel that deep connection now, though she died years ago.
I believe I grew up in a loving household that tried to cultivate a happy lifestyle. I do not think, however, there was an attunement to my “personal differences or peculiarities”. This is especially so when I think about how my siblings were raised. Part of this reason comes from being raised in a very devout Mormon household where the map of my life was singular and not adjusted to my individual needs. There were expectations of me and my siblings that superseded our personal development or unique needs. These expectations were viewed as a plan given to us from a loving god who wanted us to experience happiness. The founding prophet of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, said that happiness is “the object and design of our existence; …if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is … keeping all the commandments of God.” (link) Essentially the way to be most happy, or experience true joy, is to keep all the commandments of God (more specifically the doctrines of Mormonism), anything short of this is veering off that path and thus away from happiness.
My parents engaged in the difficult juxtaposition of loving their children unconditionally while at the same time placing conditions that they follow the Mormon plan that they viewed would give the most joy in life and eternal life after death. How do you both love your child unconditionally and also condition your love on how your child adheres to your commands? This reminds me of the saying between a rock and a hard place. Or the spanish version, entre la espada y la pared or between the sword and the wall. The harrowing journey between conditional and unconditional love as a parent cannot be overstated, and for that reason I don’t begrudge my parents. But I also do believe there was an enduring negative impact on my sense of self from this shame and control vector to which my parents ascribed.
This difficult task of unconditional and conditional love, if not properly utilized, can be a source of deep shame for children. I think this cycle plagued myself and my siblings (though I cannot speak for them) as well as many people who come from fundamentalist religions. The psychologist John Welwood describes the potential disaster of a parent conditioning love for their child:
The parent-child relationship provides our first experience of the confusing ways in which conditional and unconditional love become mixed up. Although most parents originally feel a vast, choiceless love for their newborn child, they eventually place overt or covert conditions on their love. This is used as a way of controlling the child, turning their [parental] love into a reward for [the child’s] desired behaviors. The result is that as children, we rarely grow up feeling loved for our self just as we are. We internalize the conditions our parents put on their love, and the internalized parent (the superego, or “inner critic”) often rules our lives. We keep trying to placate this inner voice, which constantly judges us as never good enough. (Fishkin, 106)
I think this accurately describes the methodology that my parents deployed. In some ways it was direct and overt, but in most ways it was unspoken and assumed. We needed to conform and obey in order to be “on the path”. This compliance would ensure the love of our parents. Also, because most everyone in my neighborhood were members of the Mormon church, including all the leaders of the local congregation, these authority figures would seemingly desire the same level of compliance because the Church is known to its members as the only true and living church in the world. That carries a lot of weight when it is modeled by your parents and then projected from every respected adult in your community. Brene Brown described shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” The inevitability of not living up to the wishes and expectations (as I understood them) of my parents and those around me contributed to my sense of shame.
I cannot pile on all the blame for the shame experienced in my childhood to my parents alone. Often a parent has neglected to stop the cycle of shame that was passed to them, and then pass onto their own children. It’s a cyclical pattern that has been called carried shame. “In essence children carry the burden of their [parent’s] abuse, dysfunction, inadequacy – their sense of shame – and identify with it. (Fishkin, 29) This family shame can be passed on generationally unless interrupted. It is quite likely that each of my parents carried shame from their childhood into adulthood which influenced how their inner voice spoke to their own self. Because of this, I need to be more empathetic toward them, but also accept the reality of how their behavior shaped my inner voice.
Welwood asserts that ego defenses are built in the spaces where love is absent. These defenses attempt to protect individuals from emotional pain but instead contribute to their separation from their self by blinding them to the realities of their own feelings and critically skew their own perceptions of their self. Ironically, humans so often live in a darkness created by their own need to feel safe and secure.
Victims of all types of abuse “often lack compassion, both for the self and others.” (Fishkin, 139) These victims are often raised with broken attachments to caregivers. This creates a sense of fear and worthlessness because they get the message that their wants and needs do not matter beyond the needs of the caregiver. Because of this environment, there is anxiety related to the sensitivity around not being safe, or feeling fight or flight emotions. For these reasons the bond with the self is diminished. The self is constantly orienting its sense of worth against the self worth of someone else.
Theological guilt and shame
Shame comes in many forms and from various sources. One source that, in my opinion, takes the top spot of producing more shame than any other, is shame directly from God through religious teachings. Accountability is central to all forms of religion, let alone all forms of ideologies. This accountability can and does produce beautiful transcendence in many of its adherents. If you obey these rules, as it goes, and grow with God, he will be pleased and will bless you with joy and a spiritually fulfilling life. Nietzsche put it this way, “Do this and this, refrain from this and this – and you will be happy!” (Nietzsche) In this way you will thus find meaning and purpose. This accountability to an ideal is like a judge. The more rules there are the more ways you can judge yourself to make sure you are good with God and have that pass to heaven for all of eternity.
This happiness recipe sounds promising right? Like most things, it can be, but it depends on how shame and guilt are integrated into your sense of self as a result of learning and applying those teachings. The depths of accountability in a religious system are important to observe. How do you judge yourself against the requirements of obtaining what is promised? Joseph Smith taught that “a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” (link) If you do not live up to the ideal, do you feel guilt or shame? How does the disappointment of parents, friends, and God impact your sense of self? As I see it now, it is a sort of balancing act. Some parents do a better job at teaching it than others. Some ecclesiastical leaders teach it better than others. The adherents receive teachings in a variety of ways. It is important to be conscious of the variety of experience and how religious teachings can result in feelings of shame and attempt to reframe that accountability to an ideal. Shame in a religious context can look like, “God thinks I am bad” or “I am not going to heaven, I am a sinner” or “I’ll never be worthy of God’s love.”
Perhaps the most damaging form of shame is that associated with value judgements surrounding sexuality. Shame is a natural companion to sexuality because it is both deeply personal and thrives in secret. The history of sexual shame in religion is long and complicated. Some of it’s roots are found in hellenistic and greek philosophy through the idea of dualism. It started with Plato where he “divides the cosmos, placing greater significance on the invisible world which exists beyond earthly life,” and “also divides the human person placing greater value on the soul because it too belongs to the invisible world.”(link) The dualism taught by a greek philosopher Empedocles “viewed the primordial sphere of the universe as undergoing cycles alternately under the dominance of the antithetical principles of love and discord, which periodically break and then reconstruct it. In this context there exist daimones (“souls”), divine beings that have fallen from a superior world into this world and exist clothed in the “foreign robe of the flesh.”(link) Put simply, the material world is basically evil and the human body, of which it is apart, is a burden to the eternal and divine soul that originates from a world beyond. The burden of the human body is expressed in the Book of Mormon as “the natural man is an enemy to God… and will be forever and ever unless he yields to the Holy Spirit.” This dualism fosters a type of self-hatred, wherein your body is deemed as devious and sinful, but your soul is clean and pure. In this dualism there is a sort of beautiful dance of order and chaos, a ying and yang. As the case for many things, beautiful teachings can be twisted and used in perverse ways.
What can garner more dualistic feelings than those of sexuality? It can go something like: “Are these romantic feelings coming from heaven? No, they are from my body, therefore, they are from the devil.” In this way natural romantic feelings that are a central part to the human experience is often weaponized by religion. For example Mormonism teaches homosexuality is exceeded in seriousness only by the shedding of innocent blood.(link) Imagine your sexuality as it currently is. Now imagine if you were told by prophets of God that your sexuality is nearly as bad in the sight of God as murder. This is the rhetoric that is taught to homosexuals in most christian churches. Imagine the shame caused by such teaching.
Religions are inherently insulated. Some so more than others. Mormonism claims to be the one true church, and now matter the outcome on this earth eventually in heaven everyone will become Mormon. This creates a very clear demarcation line. You are either with us our against us. Jana Riess is a religious author in the space of “why people leave religion”. In an article(5) she points out two main tactics the faithful use in an attempt to persuade those that have stepped aside from the religion that contribute to shame and fear. One is saying things like “don’t be caught like the ten virgins in the Gospel story.” This comes from a place of fear. Another is from a letter that expressed concern for someone that was not fully active in the church and had at some level stepped away. “Come back and let us be friends again,” it read. “We really can’t be friends unless you believe and act the way I do” is basically the message. For those that are used to the shame produced in religion, this tactic is familiar, but unhealthy.
Theology can be beautiful and inspiring, but also traumatic and deadly. There are levels and then gradations within each level. There is the doctrine, the teachers, the parents, the individual, the community and culture. All play roles in developing a complex belief system. In my estimation, one of the main problem with theological implementation at the individual level is its depth of dogmatism. Where there is little room for nuance, there is bound to be high levels of shame and guilt. If you cannot challenge the doctrine through discussion and personal self-discovery, there will be a lack of authenticity. This lack of authenticity contributes to a sort of weakened groupthink horde. When you are not a part of the group, or you don’t live up to the commandments as you should, it’s recognized that you are not part of the group. But who do you turn to when there is little to no room for authenticity? Brene Brown said “shame derives its power from being unspeakable.”(6)
The way out
The way out is soberly identify shame and flooding it with compassion. Compassion for yourself, and compassion for others. Compassion is described as a spontaneous experience that triggers “a deep, harmonic, autonomous affective response.” (Fishkin, 139) Interestingly it is described as not being a feeling toward another person. It also is something that “transcends language.” Empathy on the other hand is “the skill or the ability to tap into our life experience in order to connect with an experience someone has related to us.” (link) As I think of compassion explained in these terms, it seems to be something related to spirituality. This deep connection that we feel for our fellow humans. The connection we feel to the universe and to all conscious creatures. This phenomenology can lead to compassion for all people, but perhaps even more importantly to self love. But how do we cultivate compassion? The Dalai Lama has said that “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.” (link)
There is a lot of things lurking in your psyche that contribute to shame. As has been discussed, shame lurks in darkness, in secret. People do not like to speak about it, it makes them feel small, it conjures dementors. Unfortunately this secrecy gives shame its power over you. We can combat this with willfully facing our shame dragons. “If we cultivate an awareness about shame, to name it and to speak it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”(6) When we name our sources of shame we can begin to disinfect its influence by shedding light on it through authentic self-talk and self-compassion. Often times there are deeper levels of shame that need to be uncovered and integrated properly. Carl Jung said, “until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Shame and its impacts are slippery and complicated. Trying to acknowledge and explore the impact of shame on your life is like exposing mold under the basement you’ve either forgotten about, or vowed to never go into. Like literal mold that rots the interior of a home, this mold of shame can rot the very foundation of your sense of self. Like the moldy basement, it needs to be confronted with bravery and care. Conversations and compassion is the disinfectant that can lift you up from the depths of despair and defeat the dementors of shame.
- Fishkin, Gerald Loren. The Science of Shame and Its Treatment. 2016.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Twilight of the Idols. 1889.
- Brene Brown talk on TED – there is something inside of me that was trying to engineer me into staying small. Staying right under the radar
- Place shame in a petri dish and feed it secrecy, silence, and judgement. It will live forever. Place empathy inside and it can’t survive. Me too.
- “If You Want to Win Mormons Back to the LDS Church, Shame and Fear Are Not the Ways to Do It.” Religion News Service, http://facebook.com/religionnewssvc, 10 July 2020, https://religionnews.com/2020/07/10/if-you-want-to-win-mormons-back-to-the-lds-church-shame-and-fear-are-not-the-ways-to-do-it/.
- Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly. Penguin UK, 2013.