“The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson

“Shame is something we all experience at some level, more consciously for some than for others.” People tend to overlook or underestimate the presence or power of shame; in the process they fail to recognize the loss of a part of their potential. Shame shows up as that critical voice that invades the narrative of your life which is continually being re-written in the back of your mind. Shame strives to make you ineffective as a leader or whatever your endeavor. “The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves” by Curt Thompson, MD helps us understand the source of shame and how we can manage or quiet that critical voice. Different from many other books on the subject, Dr. Thompson weaves together neuroscience, psychology, and Biblical theology to provide a grass-roots understanding of shame, how it endeavors to defeat us, and the means to quiet or control that voice.

Shame is a word that makes many people uncomfortable but we know shame as the “critical voice”, the “internal judge”, the “saboteur”, or other names. Some people hear shame loudly and some hardly recognize that it is there. But everyone has occasion to hear that voice in the back of the mind that says “You are not enough.” It might say that you are not ____ (smart, hard-working, beautiful, sexy, caring, worthwhile, perfect, talented, lovable, etc.) enough or it might criticize you in some other way. Shame differs from guilt. Guilt says “I did something that was bad” while shame says “I am bad.” Shame can grow on the platform of guilt but it doesn’t really need any basis or root in reality. Shame not only colors our current perceptions but also our view of the past and our expectations of the future.

soul of shame

In “The Soul of Shame” the author explains how shame is a part of who we are as human beings. In doing so Dr. Thompson presents these four major additions to our understanding of shame:

  • Shame plays a part and provides some explanation of the redemption story described in Scripture.
  • As humans, we have a constant narrative in our minds about ourselves and the life around us which shame is constantly attempting to subvert.
  • While shame is often seen as an individual thing, individual shame affects the relational dynamics of groups such as church, community, and work.
  • In fact, groups also have a group narrative and there can be a group shame that attempts to defeat the group purpose.

In the introduction to the book, Dr. Thompson writes, “From the beginning it has been God’s purpose for this world to be one of emerging goodness, beauty, and joy. Evil has wielded shame as a primary weapon to see to it that that world never happens…….It is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity.”

Humans are created for relationship. We have an innate desire to know and be known. In healthy relationships we are accepted just as we are and we can be vulnerable so that we become more fully known. Shame tells us that if we are known we will be found to be flawed and not enough, therefore we must hide our flawed self. Hence, shame attempts to isolate us, hiding us from the very need, vulnerable relationship, that can inoculate us against shame.

Dr. Thompson spends chapters two and three explaining the brain, the mind (a higher level concept of who we are), and the neuroscience behind shame. He references Daniel Siegel’s nine domains of the mind. To become a more complete and creation-designed person requires continual further integration of these nine domains. Shame, on the other hand, seeks to disintegrate these domains at the same time that it is disintegrating us from relationships. Throughout the rest of the book, Dr. Thompson refers back to what he terms IPNB, interpersonal neurobiology, and the functions of the brain. One of shame’s tactics is to short-circuit our effort to use our thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and instead keep the limbic system of the brain involved in flee, fight, or freeze modality.

In the book Dr. Thompson personifies shame by calling it the shame attendant, the voice that is whispering in our ear. He traces this voice back to the experience of Adam and Eve, who had a perfect relationship with their Creator yet felt that they were not enough. As a result they went from “naked and unashamed” to finding their fig leaves, hiding in the garden, and blaming each other and the Creator for their decisions. Later in the book the author spends time explaining how Jesus, by taking on a human body, experiences and conquers shame (especially the time of temptation in the wilderness), and completes the redemption story by hanging “naked and unashamed” on the cross. Throughout the book there are enlightening discussions of Scripture as it relates to relationships and shame.

Shame is both ubiquitous and shape-shifting. As we go through a day there is a subconscious narrative that takes place in our minds. We are often trying to make sense of what is going on inside of us and of what is going on around us. These narratives have different paths and purposes and there can be multiple paths overlapping. It might be as simple as “I wonder if that police officer is clocking me?” to trying to understand how we are being perceived by our spouse in our actions and words. Shame is looking for opportunities to subvert these narratives to undermine our relationships and integration. Shame can find its fertile ground most anywhere. It can twist words and imagine intent from people near or far in relationship to us. “Shame, as it turns out, lives in the smallest of details, the commonest of life’s moments, and that is exactly where it wants to remain.” Shame wants not to be known and, in so doing, wants us not to be known. In that way we remain less than the integrated, creative beings that we were made to be. Shame interrupts or disturbs our relationships both with those around us and with God.

“We will not be rid of shame this side of the new heaven and earth; rather, we grow in our awareness of shame in order to scorn it.” We cannot fully defeat shame but we can turn the table on shame, shaming it instead by knowing it and making it known. We do this in large part by taking the bold step of finding or developing healthy relationships of vulnerability where we can be known and accepted for who we are. We were created with a need for vulnerable relationships and a part of that need is to expose and shame shame. Other elements of quieting the voice of shame include developing our understanding and awareness of shame and contrasting it with what we were created to be.

Throughout the book Dr. Thompson provides helpful case studies where the presenting problem seemed clear but the causal roots were actually found in underlying or hidden shame. He explains Scripture with the story of shame and he explains the story of shame with Scripture. He demonstrates how ubiquitous shame can be and provides guidance for finding it and guarding against it in our family relationships, in our churches, communities, and workplaces, in all the places where shame might seek to defeat us or those around us.

This is a great book and I highly recommend it. For another, more extensive review of this book, see Leslie Vernick’s summary. Also, for more on the subject of shame, see the books by Brené Brown.

Is shame, by whatever name you call it, isolating you and hijacking your effectiveness?

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