How Do We Counter Shame? Answer: Vulnerability

How Do We Counter Shame? Answer: Vulnerability September 14, 2015

This post is a contribution to the Patheos book club discussion of Curt Thompson’s recent work, The Soul of Shame.

As I discussed in my first post on Thompson’s excellent book, shame can have a profoundly disintegrating effect on our sense of self. Shame is distinguished, Thompson shows, from guilt, in that shame impacts (more than guilt does) our inner sense of self–of who we are.

From Pixabay, free/fair use, Creative Commons CCO
From Pixabay, free/fair use, Creative Commons CCO

When we experience guilt, we sense that we have done something wrong (i.e. against a moral law), but when we experience shame, we sense that we have been exposed as a fraud. The “shame attendant,” that little, cutting voice in our heads that tells us we are not good enough, not adequate, a failure, etc., has done its work when we begin to retreat from ourselves, from others, and from the world. When shame has its way, we become “turned in upon ourselves” (in curvatus in se, to use Luther’s latin phrase) or, to channel Kierkegaard, we experience an “enclosing reserve,” which results in the disintegration of our personality, our sense of self.

Given over to shame, we lose the power of creativity, of courage, of vibrant spirituality, and we are cut off from genuine relationships.

The counter to this debilitating effect of shame, Thompson argues, is vulnerability. It is “shame’s remedy.” This is counter-intuitive because when we feel shame, our common first reaction is to pull away from others, to withdraw, so that we are not further exposed. To be vulnerable in that moment feels like the kiss of death. But it’s the only way to truly counter shame and to have real life.

The biblical narrative, Thompson argues, is one that shows the profound debilitating effects of shame and that puts forward a life of vulnerability as its antidote. Even God, he says, shows us the way by modeling vulnerability:

To be fully loved–and to fully love–requires that we are fully known. Absolute joy comes not just in my having some random joyful engagement with something or someone. Rather, absolute joy must eventually include my being completely known, especially those parts that in subtle, hidden ways have carried shame, often without my conscious awareness. This is the language of the new heaven and new earth. This is the work that God alone has initiated and in which he longs for us to join him. For God longs to be known by us as much as he longs for us to be known by him. He desires us to join him in his trinitarian life of being known. It is not unreasonable to suggest that in Eden God was as interested in a conversation, real engagement, as much as he was interested in pointing out what the man and the woman had done wrong. He was more eager to be known and for them to be known than he was for them to be shamed. This has not changed.  (p. 126)

You might protest that Thompson’s reading of the “biblical narrative” is not shared by a great multitude of conservative Christians. You would be right. For many theological conservatives, God is hardly a vulnerable God–a God who can be truly impacted by relationships with human beings–with creatures.

The “invulnerable” God of conservative Christianity probably compounds the difficulty of being vulnerable with each other. And if you value self-preservation, independence, and purity, over relationships, inter-dependence, and vulnerability, you are probably going to find that in God (and vice versa).

I suspect this is another example of the myriad ways our theology and our “real lives” intersect.




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