14 April 2016

The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves



Do you ever feel like people are counting on you to have the answers? To have it all together? To be strong? Do you feel like you fall short? Like you aren’t enough? Like if anyone found out what you’re really like, you would be pushed aside and forgotten? This is the feeling of shame.

Aristotle defined shame as “pain or disturbance in regard to bad things, whether present, past, or future, which seem likely to involve us in discredit.” This definition meshes well with the way Curt Thompson talks about shame in his book The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves. Shame is the feeling that you’re not enough, will not be enough, cannot be enough. It’s a fear that you can never meet the expectations that people have for you, or that you’re not good enough for people to care for you.

According to Thompson, shame is a key component of the lives of all people. While shame comes in many forms and in varying levels of intensity, it is always there, whispering in your ear, causing you to reshape the story you tell yourself about your life and relationships with others. The main fear that shame promotes is the anxiety of separation from others, the fear of abandonment and lonliness. Paradoxically, shame causes us to hide who we really are in response. We can’t show our weaknesses. We have to appear strong, with it, and put together lest people reject us as not good enough for fellowship. As this shame creeps like a pernicious weed into every part of our lives, we can end up withdrawing from people altogether and experiencing the lonliness that we feared at the beginning of our shame journey.

Thompson points out that shame is different from guilt. Shame can exist alongside of guilt, but unlike guilt, which can be good for us, shame is always negative. Without guilt, shame separates people. Because of the fear of separation, shame drives us to hide ourselves from one another, not willing to be vulnerable and weak. Alongside of guilt, shame causes us to hide from God, wearing our fig leaves and avoiding confession. Shame coupled with guilt also prevents us from confessing our sins to one another for fear of the rejection we may experience from others if our sin should become known.

This book shows how shame begins to have its effect on us from our earliest childhood experiences. It is inculcated, usually unknowingly, in our families. It features strongly in schools for both students and teachers. It infiltrates all organizations and workplaces. It can especially be prevalent in church communities, the one place one would expect to find freedom from shame.

Through the course of this book, Thompson talks about how to be attentive to shame and deal with its lies that it feeds us on a daily basis. He gives a reaffirmation of vocation the way God intended it to be, and shows how we can combat the way shame strips us of joy and fellowship in our lives.

This was an excellent book in every way. Thompson does great research into the neuroscience of shame. There is a lot of information about the brain and how the experience of shame affects the operations of the brain. Apparently shame can actually shear off neural pathways and affect our ability to form accurate memories of events that we experience. Shame is a state of mind that we slip into unconsciously, and by being consciously attentive to the process when it happens, we actually alter the physical functioning of our brains to combat shame. Thompson pays special attention to what it means to be humans, embodied creatures with body and soul. While our mind and our brain are not identical, the functioning of our brain has a great effect on the health of our souls.

I appreciated Thompson’s numerous expositions of Scripture. He shows how shame was present and active at the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. He shows how shame was active in the early church communities and addressed by Paul. He shows how Jesus dealt with shame and guilt in the way he talked to others and interacted with individual sinners.

I also appreciated the numerous case studies of his patients and clients. As a practicing psychiatrist, Thompson has a wealth of personal experience to draw on. It would be very surprising if you were to read this book and not find a situation that connected with you directly.

For me, this book has already changed the way I talk to my children on a daily basis. From finding ways to encourage hard work and creativity without the fear of falling short, to finding ways to deal with sin and bad behavior in order to restore fellowship rather than shame, this book would be helpful to any parent. I think this book is going to greatly affect the way I deal with students as a teacher as well. Schools, especially schools with a strong academic reputation, are hotbeds of shame. This book definitely explains the burnout I’ve seen in many students over the years. Oftentimes shame is a chain reaction in educational environments affecting administrators, teachers, parents and students. And this holds true from large schools to homeschool co-ops.

In conclusion I don’t think there is a person, family, school, organization or church community that would not benefit from this book, and I’m going to be recommending it like crazy to everyone I know.

No comments: