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 they told another one, to try and help me out, and redeem the situation, and I didn’t get that one either and it escalated!) (So in this situation the voice of shame was saying something like: “they will think I am stupid for not getting the joke – I am an idiot”)

– A group of friends in the pub were having a conversation about films and books and I hadn’t seen or read any of them (in fact there were quite a few I had never even heard of) so couldn’t join in and sat silently nursing my pint of orange juice. (and the voice of shame said: “they will think I am culturally illiterate and antisocial – I am out of touch”)

– I was taking part in a dance routine where it had been impressed on us that the key thing was that we all had to be in sync and I forgot the steps half way through. (and he voice of shame said: “they will think I am an incompetent dancer – I am not good enough”)

– I missed a deadline for a piece of work and had to push it back twice and this delayed a project that I was working on with a team of other busy people. (and the voice of shame said: “they will think I am lazy and incapable – I am a bad person”)

I’ve got plenty more where those came from… but I’m sure you can call to mind similar situations of your own, where the voice of shame has piped up to ruin your day. Perhaps you will have noticed that in all of these instances there is a leap from ‘I have done a bad thing’ (or just a less-than-ideal thing) to ‘I am a bad person’.  Another thing to notice is the recurring refrain ‘they will think I am…’ Shame is very much about how we are perceived by other people. We generally want to fit in, to impress, or at the very least not to look foolish. We want to be connected to others and shame is the fear of disconnection. The UU minster Sam Trumbore notes that ‘Shame is unavoidable if we want to be a person who loves and cares about others and wants love and care and a sense of belonging in return… As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.’ 

Brené Brown’s words on the front of your order of service spell this out very clearly: ‘Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about…. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection? In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.’

If we are going to try and tackle the issues associated with shame, to develop ‘shame resilience’, as Brené Brown calls it, both for ourselves and for society as a whole, perhaps we need to start by sharpening our critical awareness of the factors in our culture which prop up our ‘inner voice of shame’ and perpetuate the problem.

The UU minister Colin Bossen offers an insight into what is going on: ‘Shame develops when an idealized vision of the self is not met with the self’s reality. The idealized vision is usually created, in some form, by others – society, family, friends, the community in which one participates. It is not who we are but who others would have us be… Instead of trying to be who we are not, trying to fulfil some idealized vision created by someone else, we can accept ourselves. This is a great challenge… We are constantly bombarded with images and ideas that suggest we are inadequate. Such images and ideas might come from the media, from our parents, from our children, from our friends… Often they are offered up unintentionally or with benevolent motives… Conflicts between the idealized self and who we actually are cause a sense of shame. And we suffer. And we lash out and damage ourselves and those around us.’ Words from the UU minister Colin Bossen.

So shame is related to a kind of perfectionism based on unattainable expectations. Not just expectations about our behaviour but about who we are in ourselves. (I frequently experience a meta-level of shame about how I am supposed to feel). These expectations are shaped by the people around us, and by the media and culture, but in the end we internalise them, and all too often we pass them on to others in turn.

When people mess up, make mistakes, fall short of these unattainable standards, there can be a tendency to make an exhibition of them, to distance ourselves, to put ourselves in the right by putting them (whoever they are) in the wrong. People in the public eye, in particular, are almost not allowed to be human. Many of you will have witnessed the eruption of twitter-storms where a public figure has made a single ill-judged comment on social media and then been torn to shreds over it. Jon Ronson’s recent book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ is all about this phenomenon. There’s a sense that we haven’t come that far as a society since the days of the pillory.

Brené Brown talks about various tactics that help to counteract shame: Firstly, by becoming more critically aware of the cultural context that sets unrealistic      expectations,  so we can begin to take those expectations with a pinch of salt, and be more realistic and humane towards ourselves and those around us; Secondly, by cultivating empathy and compassion for each other,   sharing our stories, and talking about life as it really is; and thirdly, by embracing our vulnerability, finding the courage to take risks, to feel a bit exposed, and to stick with difficult feelings rather than running away to hide. When we let our masks drop, admit we are struggling, stop trying to be perfect, and say how it really is for us, the people around us will often breathe a sigh of relief. By doing this, by being real, you are doing everyone else a favour, and giving them permission to be real in return.

Those who were found to be most shame-resilient, in Brown’s research, were those who fully embraced vulnerability. She says: ‘They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this [way of being in the world] was fundamental.’ And I would add that this kind of unilateral vulnerability is not without risk but it can be truly liberating.

I should at least acknowledge at this point that some people would argue that shame is a necessary mechanism to tackle ‘bad’ behaviour of various sorts and that perfectionism can drive us on to higher things (as a chronic perfectionist I’m pretty attached to that idea myself).  But Brené Brown reports that the research does not back this up. Although you can use shame to make short-term changes to people’s behaviour you generally cannot create lasting change by shaming people. Shame can make us defensive, entrenched, and alienated.  Shame damages people. As The Jewish teacher Dov Peretz Elkins says: ‘Shaming a person leaves an  indelible scar. A physical wound may heal in time, but a wound on the soul is less likely to fade and heal… We humans are made in the image of God, and any diminution of someone created in the image of God is no different than demeaning God. Preserving the dignity of a fellow human, whatever the effort and cost, is always considered worth the endeavour.’

These words from Dov Elkins point at the religious dimension – we might even say the religious obligation – to develop shame resilience in ourselves, and to play our part in transforming the culture of shame and shaming we find ourselves embedded in. One way of putting it is to say that each one of us is a spark, a fragment, of the divine. Our purpose, the very thing we have been incarnated for, is to live and love fully. And shame prevents us from living out that sacred purpose. Shame constricts and limits our lives. It leads to withdrawal and disconnection. It shrinks our horizons and reduces our sense of what is possible, what we’re capable of. If we try something new, and fail or fall short, and feel ashamed, we might not try again. Shame stifles our growth, prevents our flourishing, and ‘deprives the world of our best selves’ (Robin Tanner).

So, in conclusion: let’s ask what we can do – as individuals, and together – to combat shame. I’d suggest, for starters, we can refrain from personally shaming others; we can challenge and resist  shaming wherever we witness it (in conversation with friends and family, on the internet, in the media); and we can work positively to create safer spaces – like this church – where people can share their stories and be fully human – real, flawed and vulnerable – and trust that they will be met with gentleness and generosity of spirit.

That is my hope for this community. May it be so.  Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: