Shame, Shame, Shame


Sermon #14 (12th July 2015 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians) 

Shame is pretty much universal, as we heard in the first reading, from Brené Brown’s ‘I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)’… but generally it is a topic which makes people so uncomfortable that we don’t like to talk about it very much in polite company. Some of us might be more plagued by it than others, it’s true, but I doubt that anyone here today is entirely unfamiliar with the experience of feeling shame – that cringing feeling – the ‘painful wave of emotion that washes over us when we feel judged or ridiculed’.

The Unitarian Universalist minister Christine Robinson makes a distinction between guilt and shame which I think is quite useful: guilt is about a thing we have done whereas shame is about who we are.  If you feel guilty about something you have done then you can regret the behaviour and resolve not to do it again. If you feel ashamed you would think ‘I’m a bad person’… (taking this one mistake or failing to be indicative of who you really are) and this sort of thinking has all sorts of negative consequences, for ourselves, our relationships, and society as a whole.

This is a notable characteristic of shame – the way that we tend to rapidly escalate from the particular situation (‘whoops, I have made a mistake of some sort’) – to the catastrophic sense that “something is wrong with me”, “I am not good enough”, or even “I am a bad person”.

As Brené Brown says, ‘shame tends to lurk in all of the familiar places’. She particularly highlights the areas of ‘appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, ageing and religion’ as spheres of life in which people can be particularly sensitive to shame.

I imagine that each of us has got our own particular issues which are especially prone to ‘push our buttons’ and set off a shame reaction in us. Since I have been thinking about writing this service I have noticed some of mine, and I am just going to give you a whistle-stop tour of my shame experiences over the last fortnight, so that you have some concrete examples… though I’m sure that most people can think of plenty of their own.  (Don’t panic – these are all fairly small, innocuous, everyday examples – no shocking confessions!)

– A friend told a joke and I didn’t get it. I sat there looking confused/embarrassed (in fact when I didn’t get that one th