Spirituality as Shame Resilience

Spirituality as Shame Resilience May 3, 2023

People often associate religion in general—and Christianity in particular—with shame, and for good reasons. 

Recently I’ve been exploring religion and shame from a couple different angles (saying “no” to religious shame and what religion can look like when it doesn’t shame). 

Today I’d like to take a third angle: exploring ways religion can dispel shame in our lives. In other words, to use Brené Brown’s language, exploring spirituality as shame resilience.

illustrate resilience
Resilience, in tree form / Photo by Pedro Sanz on Unsplash

From Fake Psychology Studies to Real-World Shame

When I was in college, I took a psychology class whose final project was basically a fake psychology research study. 

We were tasked with developing all parts of the study except actually doing the research itself. We posed a research question and read the relevant prior studies. Then we made up some results, and we analyzed and wrote about the significance of our “findings.”

I chose to explore the relationship between religion and mental health. I noticed that many studies treated religiosity as just one variable. But I knew religion to be a complex thing, very different in different contexts and for different people. So I tried to break apart some of the different variables that might be involved. 

My (fake) results focused on the difference between attending church services regularly vs. engaging in individual, self-motivated spiritual practices like personal prayer. I “found” that the latter contributed positively to people’s overall wellbeing, while the former was more mixed.

There’s a lot to unpack here—particularly the individualist mindset that assumes expressions of faith to be more genuine if practiced privately rather than communally. But that’s probably another topic for another time.

Individualistic or not, though, it’s certainly true that there are many different things religiosity can mean to different people. The same religion can have a very different impact in different people’s lives. 

In particular, some forms of religion elicit shame, while others help people build resilience to shame.

What the Actual Studies Show

Of course, while I was doing this fake research as a college student in introductory psychology courses, others were doing actual research. 

Shame researcher Brené Brown has done an awesome job of bringing some of this research into the public view. In I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (Avery Publishing Group, 2008), Brown reflects on the questions people often ask her about religion and shame. 

From her (actual) research, Brown reflects, “The relationship between spirituality or faith and shame is a complex one” (p. 260). 

When studying how women experience shame, Brown noticed that, on the one hand, “the women who talked about feeling shame used the words church and religion more.” But on the other hand, “the relationship that women have with God, their higher power or their spiritual world . . . often serves as a source of [shame] resilience” (p. 260).

The difference, according to Brown, is that religious experiences of shame often come from “the earthly, man-made and interpreted rules and regulations and the social-community expectations about religion” (p. 261). These rules are a very different thing from the sense of spiritual connection many women experience as part of the religious beliefs they hold. 

Brown concludes that religion is not “inherently shaming” (p. 261). But religious institutions can easily become that way, when “individuals and groups in leadership positions . . . use shame as an instrument of control” (p. 261). Which they can do all too easily.

The Best Thing They Could Be Doing

I remember when I was on staff with a college ministry organization, and my supervisor sat our staff team down to talk about an upcoming student conference. “I want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said. “This is the best possible thing students could be doing with their spring break. Do we all agree about that?”

I did not agree. But I didn’t know how to say so. I wasn’t quite sure, in the moment, how to put language to my feeling that there were actually lots of worthy things students could be doing with their spring break. 

I liked the conference we were inviting students to. I had good experiences there when I was a student. But I also recognized that some students might want to go home and spend time with their families instead, and that was a good thing. Or they might want to participate in a school-sponsored “alternative spring break” service/learning trip. Or spend a week shadowing someone in a career they might aspire to. 

Were any of these things better or worse than going to the Christian conference we were planning? I couldn’t say definitively. I felt like it depended on each student and their own discernment about how best to spend that week in ways that aligned with their values and priorities.

Those are some of the things I was thinking at the time. 

Looking back, now, I also wonder if the very idea of “the best possible thing they could be doing” is inherently shaming. 

It feels like an expression of the kind of institutional religious control that Brown warns against. It seems like a case of religious leaders assuming they know what’s best for everyone, rather than encouraging people to connect with God and faith community in ways that are meaningful to them—which may or may not involve a particular Christian conference at any given time.

Spiritual Connection, Shame Resilience

I think I’ve moved beyond the individualistic view of faith revealed by my fake psychology study in college. But I do think it’s worth reflecting on which aspects of our religious traditions have proven healthful and helpful for us—and for others, especially those most vulnerable or marginalized—and which ones have caused harm. 

And I think it’s worth going into the particulars. Religion is not just one monolithic thing. Brené Brown helps us see that there are aspects of religion that reinforce shame, and aspects that help us build resilience against shame.

At its best, religion offers structures, support, and community that bolster a sense of spirituality that builds shame resilience. When we’re looking for healthy forms of faith, we’re looking for the kind of spiritual connection that does not enforce shame but actively works against it. 

This kind of religion exists—and I think it’s worth continuing to look until we find it.

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