Lesson 1 - The Science of Shame

A Professional Sinner

The Only Animal that Blushes

Man is not at home with himself; as he is, he cannot come to terms with himself. He desires to be and to express himself as that which he is; yet at the same time he does not want to be what he is. Hence he conceals himself behind his ideals. He is ashamed of his naked existence as it is.

Emil Brunner, Man in Revolt

This is shame—a haunting sense of homelessness, a feeling of inadequacy, a profound discomfort about who we are and failure to become what we’re meant to be. And shame is especially powerful, Curt says, because it entraps us in a vicious cycle: we’re ashamed, and then we feel ashamed about being ashamed. And yet shame simply happens to us; we can’t control it. 

Reflect:  

  • Shame is one of those things that is easy to recognize but hard to define. If you had to define “shame” in one sentence, what would you say?  

  • Without going any further, take a moment to think about the origins and character of shame. Where does it come from? How does shame differ from related feelings like guilt and embarrassment? 

Braking without the Clutch

The Way Shame Feels

Shame is the neuro-pysiologic effect that we experience when an engine decelerates without any clutch being applied.

Curt Thompson

Even if we may not understand all of the technical language Curt uses here, we all know what this feels like: shame is jarring because it halts our natural curiosity like slamming on the brakes without the clutch. 

Every one of us has felt it: you pitch an idea at a work meeting, only to have your boss shoot it down; you work up the courage to ask someone on a date, only to have them laugh; you follow a strict regimen of diet and exercise, only for your body to disappoint you. The problem with shame—of braking without the clutch—is that it trains us to suppress our curiosity and, so, instead of being open to the world as God intends for us to be, we close in on ourselves to avoid situations where we might feel shame. And the irony is, we need to connect with others to cope with our shame in healthy ways, but shame tries to disconnect us from the people we need most. 

Reflect:

  • Think of a time when you’ve experienced a deep sense of shame. Try to inspect that feeling. What makes shame so painful? Why is shame so isolating?  

  • What are some of the unhealthy mechanisms you’ve developed to try to cope with shame? 

The Things Shame Does

“Shame happens early and often,” Curt tells us. Human beings begin to experience shame as early as twelve months: long before our capacities for abstract thought and complex language really begin to develop. 

And that’s because shame is a pre-rational experience that happens primarily in our bodies. Psychiatrists and medical professionals are now telling us something that the biblical writers have always known: human beings are psycho-somatic creatures. That is to say, the state of our spirit impacts the state of our body, and vice-versa. “Heal me, O Lord,” David cries out in Psalm 6, “for my bones are troubled; my soul is greatly troubled.” In other words, our spiritual health and our physical health are vitally connected. Although we may think of ourselves as “embodied souls,” it’d actually be more accurate to say that we’re “ensouled bodies,” as Karl Barth once put it. And that’s why shame is so destructive: it separates our ability to think from our ability to feel and it brings us to a state of stasis rather than dynamic growth and movement. To make matters worse, we all have what Curt calls a “Personal Shame Attendant” lurking behind us each day, pointing out all our failures and condemning us into shame. 

Reflect: 

  • Describe the physiological experience of shame. What does shame feel like in your body?  

  • Think about the voice of the “Personal Shame Attendant” that accompanies you everywhere you go each day. What failures or flaws does this voice continually point out to you in the language of condemnation?

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