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Can Shame Ever Be Healthy?

Jan 28, 2022

When I first began to research the topic of shame, I was surprised to find so little mention or use of the word in the Fathers. There are a few significant examples in which shame features largely, such as Book 4 in The Ladder. Nevertheless, the word seems somewhat scarce if you think about the profound nature of this experience and its place in the spiritual life. What became clear to me over time, however, is that the great body of writing and thought on the topic of shame is filed under “humility.” This itself is deeply instructive. Our popular culture tends to treat shame as a terrible problem, treating almost all shame as “toxic.” There is certainly a need for understanding toxic shame, and learning how to approach its healing. However, shame itself is not inherently toxic, and the popular writers who fail to make this distinction do a dis-service to their readers.

John Bradshaw, one of the earliest popular writers on shame, was careful to make this distinction and wrote in a very helpful manner on healthy shame in his bestseller, Healing the Shame that Binds Us. I have not seen this same clarity in some of the more recent popular treatments. This is unfortunate. Indeed, I have seen a number of cases in which people have been forced to retract writings on “healthy shame,” being told that “all shame is toxic,” and that speaking of “healthy shame” simply gives support for a diseased culture that has used shame to humiliate and control people. This an unfortunate artifact of the present distress in our culture. Ironically, it is a use of shame that prevents discussion of the topic.

One reason I find this lack of clarity to be unfortunate is its failure to actually understand or engage the neuro-physiology of our body’s shame response. We are hard-wired for a response (one of the nine identified neuro-biological affects) that is accurately described as “shame.” It is not a product of culture. It is universal, timeless, and biological. It can be compared to other affects such as the “surprise-startle” affect, or the “distress-anguish” affect, or the “interest-excitement” affect. The “mechanism” of the shame experience, whether toxic or healthy, is the same, differing only in its intensity and the issues that surround and embed themselves as complex, emotional triggers. For myself, I have found that understanding the mechanism and being able to make a distinction between toxic shame and healthy shame, has been essential in my own healing, as well as a help in understanding more accurately what is taking place in someone else’s life.

The tradition has this:

For there is a shame that leads to sin, and there is a shame that is glory and grace (ἔστιν γὰρ αἰσχύνη ἐπάγουσα ἁμαρτίαν, καὶ ἔστιν αἰσχύνη δόξα καὶ χάρις). Sirach 4:21

Toxic shame is the fruit of abuse. It is the manipulation of the shame response for dark purposes. It is a common result of violence and a primary tool in almost all efforts of control. Its wounds can continue for years, creating an emotional memory within an individual that is crippling, able to color the whole of a life experience. But it must be born in mind that toxic shame is the abuse of something natural, a misuse of our emotional responses. Shame itself is not the problem nor the enemy. Its abuse, which is properly termed, “toxic shame,” is not shame itself. The shame response, as well as healthy emotions attached to it, is a necessary part of our existence and serves a key role in the human life, including our spiritual life.

The tradition of the Church typically enshrines, not a received dogma, an a priori set of assumptions that demands our assent, but a deeply developed and nurtured reflection on human experience in the very depths of the soul. Above all else, the tradition preserves for us the fruit of listening. That listening can be seen in the many volumes of spiritual writings that describe the motions of the soul in its inmost actions and reactions. There is a whole psychology embedded in these writings, frequently with greater depth and insight than much of modern history’s various attempts. [Bishop Alexis Trader wrote a number of interesting works comparing modern psychology and the understanding of the Philokalia during his time as an Athonite monk]. This deeply experiential listening and its observations allows for subtle distinctions, born of viewing what actually is the case, rather than what fits a truncated and distorted narrative.

Its healthy role often serves as a signal. It is a response that accompanies the interruption of an expected pleasure. It can be as innocent as “being caught off guard” or any experience that interrupts communion with others. We can experience this as mildly as embarrassment or an uncomfortable self-awareness. It is certainly possible for this to be an intense experience still without being toxic. It is an almost inherent aspect of our experiences of boundaries (cf. my upcoming webinar on that topic). Just as we are handicapped when we lose our sight, or hearing, so would we be handicapped were we to lose the ability to feel shame. Indeed, sociopaths and psychopaths seem to lack this ability. Narcissism is also bound up with disordered shame responses. It is important to have a normal, healthy experience of shame.

As noted earlier, within the tradition, healthy shame is most often discussed in the context of humility. Indeed, humility can be defined as our willingness to bear the truth of ourselves as God sees us. Because this experience requires an extreme vulnerability, a nakedness akin to that of Adam and Eve, it necessarily triggers the shame response that is hard-wired into our bodies. To experience such vulnerability and not have a shame response would be unhealthy, even pathological. However, shame is shame, regardless of whether it is healthy or toxic. It is thus the case, that, if we are enmeshed in the after-effects of toxic shame, experiences of what would normally be healthy shame can and do trigger the frightful burden of toxicity. We become over-reactive, unable to bear what should normally be both bearable and healthy. As a result, there is most commonly a need for toxic shame to be addressed and healed in order for us to make the deep journey into the depths where healthy shame resides.

Clinical researchers have dubbed shame the “master emotion.” As we move from situation to situation (boundary to boundary), the shame response is unconsciously triggered and sets off the cascade of emotions that mark our day. Something as innocent as being cut-off in traffic or interrupted in a conversation (or ignored) can trigger any number of responses. However, the truth of our inner life is that it is often marred by toxic shame. Even experiences of mild, healthy, shame can trigger a storm of toxic shame when that is a dominant part of your inner world. This reality is made more complex by the fact that the experience of shame is so painful that it is generally morphed into other, less painful emotions (most commonly, anger or sadness), meaning that we live unaware that the pain of our life is actually rooted in shame. The result is a culture (and a Church) filled with people who are often clueless about the true nature of their inner life. That which is broken within us (or which functions in a broken manner) is often too toxic to touch. It colors our perception of the world around us, as well as our perception of ourselves and God. When this is translated into a growing culture of wounded anger, the result is predictably disastrous.

This stands in sharp contrast to the tradition. There, the road map for healing toxic shame is set forth in a path of supportive nurture and gentle truth-telling. Such a pastoral practice is, unfortunately, often not what is found. Parishes (as well as dioceses and whole jurisdictions) can themselves be as dominated by the demons unleashed in toxic situations. Anger, greed, and dysfunctional personalities can easily rise to the top and become a source of sin rather than a balm for wounded souls. Perhaps this has always been the case.

Nevertheless, there is a road map. Patience, gentleness, kindness, and supportive listening establish the basis for pastoral relationships in which shame, including its toxic forms, can slowly be healed. The acquisition of humility through the practice of “bearing a little shame,” can be fostered in the safety of a nurturing pastoral relationship. Often, much can be done in professional clinical situations as well. Shame is healed by being exposed to the light. Toxic shame consists of lies, abusive messages that tell us that “who we are” is wrong (ugly, incompetent, stupid, clumsy, worthless, etc.). The Church’s message of sinfulness is not a message of toxic shame. It does not tell us that we are worthless, etc., much less that we are evil. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Sin is not us (you are not your sin). Sin is “anti-us.” Sin is the contradiction of the truth of our being. The good news is that this toxic burden can be lifted, forgiven, destroyed, and healed.

It is in this process of forgiveness and healing that we encounter healthy shame. In the presence of God, we are revealed as creatures, the beloved offspring of His work. In His presence, the false images which we labor so hard to construct are allowed to fall away. Our failures and our successes pass into shadows. There is a form of emptiness that we find in that moment, while at the same time, discovering that God does not see us as worthless and sinful. Indeed, the truth and fullness of how He sees us is a mystery that exceeds description in its wonder.

Humility is learned by practice.

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! … Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. I John 3:1-2

The journey to this vision does not come all at once. It is a battle. We wrestle against the toxic lies of the enemy (as well as our own and those of others). We struggle to accept the abiding and continual balm of the love of God that is poured into us from Liturgy to Liturgy. “Holy things are for the holy!” This movement in which the lies of toxic shame are banished by the purity of the face of Christ, and the truth of our being as children of God is affirmed, is the daily motion of salvation. This is not a declaration that we have no sin, but a proclamation that we are not sin. It is the declaration that we renounce the devil, all his works, and all his pride. It is the declaration that we accept Christ as King and God, together with His original word spoken at our creation: “It is very good.”


Fr. Stephen Freeman


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