Book Review: The Soul of Shame

Book Review: The Soul of Shame October 24, 2017

Thompson, Curt.
The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves
Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015.

Review by Graham Stanton

In June 2010, Brené Brown delivered a now famous talk at a TEDx gathering in Houston called, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Brown spoke of her research that had identified vulnerability as the common feature of people who lived wholehearted lives, with a strong sense of worthiness, love, and belonging. In a follow up talk in March 2012, Brown recounts her feeling of personal vulnerability following the presentation in Houston. Having spoken about having a breakdown before a crowd of 500 people, she was anxious about the talk being put on YouTube and the possibility that it might now be seen by 1000 people. At the time of writing this article, Brown’s talk on vulnerability has been viewed 31.5 million times on TED, and another 6.8 million times on YouTube.

Vulnerability drives shame. Brown identifies shame as the fear of disconnection arising from the feeling that “I am not good enough”. Unlike guilt that is attached to our behaviour (“I did something bad”), shame attaches to our sense of self (“I am bad”). The fear that we are not worthy of connection keeps us from making connections with others and traps us in an unrelenting cycle of shame, fear, and excruciating vulnerability. This cycle is not the burden of a few, but is, according to Brown, an epidemic in Western culture. And though we try to numb the pain of vulnerability with shopping, food, alcohol, or medication, or remove vulnerability by replacing faith and mystery with certainty, or by making everything perfect, or by pretending our actions don’t have an impact on others, our vulnerability and shame remains. And without vulnerability we lose our way to creativity, innovation, change, joy, belonging, and love. The only way out of shame is, according to Brown, to embrace our vulnerability.

To let ourselves be deeply seen, to love with our whole hearts, even when there’s no guarantees, to lean into gratitude and joy, and to believe that we are enough. Her message has struck a chord in many peoples’ experience, adding four books that reached number 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list to the millions of views of her recorded talks online.

So, given Brown’s extensive and popular body of work, what does Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame add to the picture? Thompson references Brown favourably from the very first page, and agrees that the negative consequences of shame are universal. Like Brown, Thompson describes the feeling of shame as some version of “I am not enough; There is something wrong with me; I am bad; or I don’t matter” (p. 24). And, with Brown, Thompson points to vulnerability as the necessary pathway out of the morass.

Thompson’s particular contribution comes from his perspective as a psychiatrist specialising in interpersonal neural-biology (IPNB) and its intersection with Christian faith. IPNB is an interdisciplinary science that understands human behaviour as a result of the interaction between the brain and personal experience. The neural pathways laid down in our brains both drive our behaviour and are the result of our personal experiences. This inter-relationship between personal experience and neurobiology means that our brains can be re-wired through therapeutic behaviour. Working from the perspective of IPNB, chapter 2 of The Soul of Shame explores the origins of shame; chapter 3 considers the mechanics of shame; and chapter 4 explores the way our experiences of shame arise from the stories we tell about ourselves. Particularly instructive was the idea of envisioning shame as a personal attendant who is “attuned to every sensation, image, feeling, thought, and behaviour … not to care for you but rather to infuse nonverbal and verbal elements of judgment into every moment of your life” (p.93).

The most significant contribution of Thompson’s book comes in chapters 5, 6 & 7 where he locates shame within the biblical narrative, and grounds the call to vulnerability in the gospel promise of being known by God. Beginning with the shameless nakedness of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:25, Thompson offers a reading of the stories of creation and fall through the lens of shame and vulnerability. He picks up these same themes in the life and ministry of Jesus, reflecting in particular on Jesus’ own (literal) naked vulnerability on the cross. It is Jesus’ story of “enduring the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2) that Thompson draws our attention to as offering a way forward. Instead of listening to our personal shame attendants, Thompson calls us to listen to the Spirit who “echoes the voice of our Father telling us that we are his daughters and sons, whom he loves and in whom he is pleased” (p.177). Where Brené Brown’s prescription can leave us with an over-reliance on self-help and the power of personal belief, Thompson leads us to reflect on the resources of the gospel, that we might be known by God who, in Christ, holds our vulnerability with gentleness and love.

The final chapters of the book broaden the perspective from the personal to the communal and vocational. Chapter 8 looks at ways we might bring healing to shame for our children in the home, in our church communities, and in places of learning. Chapter 9 turns to our workplaces to explore how vulnerability offers a pathway to renewing vocational creativity.

Particularly helpful throughout the book are the various stories of shame drawn from Thompson’s patients and other contacts over the years. I found the large number of stories, from the small vignettes to extended narratives, helpful for identifying similar patterns of experience in my own life. For pastors, Thompson’s stories will help in identifying the seed of shame in various situations of pastoral counselling.

At some points I was uncertain about how much Thompson was reading his contemporary understanding of the dynamics of shame into the biblical narratives and positing the feelings of shame and vulnerability of God himself. Thoroughgoing Calvinists will be unsettled by Thompson’s suggestion that God makes himself vulnerable through “risking everything” in creating us (p.124). The doctrine of the incarnation gives Thompson a more secure footing to reflect on the dynamics of vulnerability in Jesus’ human relationships.

I was also put off a little by Thompson’s personification of shame. The notion of envisaging shame as a personal attendant is a useful metaphor, but frequent references to “Shame” doing this and that was, at least for me, a distraction from the core idea that feelings of shame result from the patterns of behaviour and repeated scripts that I persist in as a result of the neural-pathways laid down over years. There are personal choices that lead to shame, and choices that can begin the journey out. The idea that shame might be a third-party that is somehow wreaking havoc in my life was slightly disempowering, and seemed to undermine the scientific grounding of Thompson’s analysis and proposals. I also felt like the final chapters that extended the personal response to shame into the realms of family, church, school, and work were underdeveloped (though perhaps the problem was just that my mind was full after being so deeply engaged with the earlier material). Maybe Thompson will follow up with a sequel or two on The Soul of Shame in the Family, and The Soul of Shame at Work.

Despite these small concerns, overall I found this to be an eye-opening and even healing book. It has already led to new ways of thinking and opened up productive conversations. I am sure I will need to return to Thompson’s thoughts again. I am also keen to reflect on Scripture being alert to the destructive power of shame and with a keener ear for the affirming words of God’s love for us in Christ.

Graham Stanton is Lecturer in Practical Theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.

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