When I was a child, I interpreted Bible stories literally. I was taught to interpret them that way. So, for instance, I believed, like the adults of my childhood church, that Adam and Eve were literal people who lived in a literal Garden of Eden and who were seduced by a literal talking serpent to eat literal fruit from a literal tree. I believed that, literally. Then as a teenager, I began questioning the rationality of such beliefs (that's what reading books will cause you to do), and I came to dismiss the Bible as book of false myths. Then later, while at seminary to be exact -- at a Baptist seminary -- I began to embrace the Bible as book of true myths. I began to read these narratives as rich metaphors of the human struggle to become human.
This morning I want to revisit the story of Adam and Eve. I'm not going to retell the story because you already know it. Even if you weren't raised in a church, you know it. I want to take a step back from the story and ask how it might be relevant to us here and now. For I see the story of Adam and Eve a paradigm of the dynamics of shame, a dynamic that is always relevant.
In the Adam and Eve story, shame begins as it always begins -- with a violation, a violation of a boundary or of a standard. Then there follows the feeling of exposure, of self-consciousness, of feeling inferior, of feeling judged by others to be lacking in some essential way. Adam and Eve were already naked, but they didn't feel naked until after they had violated God's command. So they sewed together fig leaves, made clothes, and hid from God. Shame makes you want to cover and hide. It makes you want to crawl through a hole, sink through the floor, and become invisible. When you feel ashamed, you lower your eyes because you can't stand the gaze of others. This is captured by the phrase “losing face.” When you feel ashamed, your voice gets soft, your body sinks down, and you feel like you could die.
Other emotions mobilize you for action. Anger makes you stand up, raise your voice, and clench your fist. Anxiety makes you restless. Fear and panic mobilize you to run away to a safe place. Guilt mobilizes you to apologize and make things right. But shame cripples you. The only action that occurs is the involuntary action of blushing, which makes you feel even more foolish and exposed.
Shame is often confused with guilt. Guilt is that feeling of self-reproach when we do something wrong. We feel a sense of debt that must be repaid, and life seems suspended until we make amends. Guilt is about behavior that has harmed others, what you have done. Shame is about you, about not being good enough. Shame is often triggered by something you've done, but it's the way that behavior reflects on you that counts. Guilt is about morality; shame is about acceptability. You feel guilty for something but ashamed of yourself. Guilt requires that you do something -- to make amends. But what can you do with shame? How do you not be a failure if you are a failure? How do you not be weak if you are weak? How do you not be stupid if you are stupid? I believe shame is the most excruciating emotion because it cuts to the core of who you are. You feel that there is nothing you can do. You are stuck with yourself – a flawed, defective self.
Now common-variety, everyday shame can be a good thing (as Martha Stewart would say). We are first capable of experiencing shame at 18 months old. Why then? Because we are able to recognize that we are separate from others. We are capable of self-consciousness, which is the foundation of shame. Shame is what civilizes us. We feel it when we violate some social norm or cross a forbidden boundary. You hit “Reply All” instead of “Reply” on your email, and you have just let everyone in the world know what you really think of Mrs. Johnson. You let out a loud burp, which reverberates throughout the restaurant. You come out of a public restroom with toilet paper hanging out of your pants. People stare at you. They laugh. You feel the sting of shame. You are careful not to let that happen anymore. All of us experience these uncomfortable moments almost everyday. We feel like a nincompoop for a little while, but it passes. Soon the experience becomes a bad memory we choose to forget. Our basic self-worth is dented, but it’s not irreparably damaged.
Chronic, deep-seeded shame is something else altogether. You feel that you are worthless or somehow defective at your core, and it's a feeling that never really goes away. It's always lurking beneath the surface. Any little mistake or minor criticism can bring it to the surface and decimate your fragile self-image and make you feel like a nobody. In your self-portrait, you may feel you’re unattractive, ignorant, phony, selfish, boring, unmanly, unfeminine, and almost anything that happens confirms your view of yourself. Many women feel shame about their bodies or appearance. Many men are shame-prone about being weak or needy.
These lifelong, negative self-portraits are enduring because they come from childhood wounds. In an ideal world, parents accept, respect, and nurture all aspects of their child’s personality. But that only happens if you’re born into the Brady Bunch. What usually happens is that parents cannot fully accept their child for who he or she is. They want their child to be prettier, smarter, quieter, more compliant, more adorable. Depending on how parents were shamed, they usually pass on their particular shame to their children. Through repeated rebukes, warnings, teasing, ridicule, shunning, words of disgust, expressions of contempt, parents let their children know that certain parts of their personality are not acceptable. Maybe their anger is not acceptable. Or their assertiveness. Or their sexuality. Or their neediness.
My family has sense of shame about idleness. In my family, you must work all the time; you must stay busy. I'm sure my family invented the phrase, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop." Any pause, break, or vacation is a sign of laziness. In my family, you don't take naps. I'm not sure, but I assume this sense of shame must have come about from generations of working on the farm, when a severe work ethic was essential to survival. However it got going, it has been passed down through the generations so that I cannot not be busy.
Family secrets are a rich source of shame. Perhaps there was alcoholism. Perhaps there was a bankruptcy. An affair or an illegitimate child or an abortion. Sometimes a family doesn't even know what the secret was, but they still live with its shame.
Childhood physical or sexual abuse deeply wounds one's self-image because the perpetrator passes on their shame to the child so that the child feels shame. The child can believe that he or she somehow deserved the abuse and brought it on. They can see themselves as dirty, unlovable, or worthless. Neglect is even more wounding because neglect implies, “You are not worthy of even being noticed.” Parents who ignore their children or their needs treat them as if they are invisible, as though they don’t exist, and these children grow up to be adults who feel they are not worthy to take up space in this world.
However the wounds to one’s soul are inflicted, it begins with a parent or some significant other who repeatedly regards the child or some aspect of the child’s personality with contempt. The child, who is exposed before he or she is ready to be exposed, internalizes the parent's contempt and grows up to become an adult who is hounded by self-contempt. None of us emerge from childhood without wounds to our souls. Some of us are just more wounded than others, and some of us are just better at hiding our wounds.
Society can inflict its own wounds. People of color can internalize society’s racism as self-loathing. Gays and lesbians can internalize society’s homophobia and see themselves as defective human beings. Classism shames those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder by convincing them that because they have less, they are worth less.
Adam and Eve sewed together fig leaves to cover their shame, and so do we. Adam used a common ploy to deflect his shame. He blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent. If you feel flawed, you can transfer your humiliation by picking out and picking at the flaws in others. Offense becomes the best defense. And we can always find others who will take our blame because lots of people were raised in shame-based families where they learned to feel defective.
Rage can be a fig leaf. Rage is a hundred times more intense than anger because to be shamed is the deepest insult. When you feel inadequate and insignificant, rage can bring immediate relief because it brings the feeling of power. In fact, because rage gives a quick fix of power, it can be addictive. It was John Bradshaw who coined the term "rageaholic." Sometimes rage is turned against oneself, turning one into a bitter, sarcastic person, which is also not pleasant to be around.
Addiction can be a fig leaf. Every addict, whatever the addiction, suffers from shame. Shame produces intolerable pain, and there is no hope for a cure because you are defective. But alcohol, drugs, or any other mood-altering substance or experience promises to take away the pain. But then you're in a Catch 22. You feel shame, so you drink, and then you feel ashamed of drinking, so you drink more.
Perfectionism can provide cover for shame. You feel defective, but you can prove you're ok by doing everything perfectly. For perfectionists, there is no internal sense of value. They feel valued only for what they do. Therefore, there is no rest for the perfectionist. No matter how hard you try or how well you do, it's never good enough because you can always do better. For the perfectionist, there is always the nagging feeling that you're never good enough.
Narcissism is another cover for shame. Narcissists appear to think that they are better than everyone else, but their arrogance is compensation for their feeling inferior. Narcissists believe they're superior to you because they disown their shortcomings and project them onto you. Narcissists not only hide from others – they hide from themselves. They don't know themselves.
Shame is failure of self-acceptance. We cannot accept some aspect of ourselves we judge to be inferior, inadequate, or flawed. We cannot accept our whole selves because early in life, when we were dependent on others for our self-worth, they could not accept our whole selves. Since personal relationships originally set up our deep-seated shame, it will take personal relationships to heal our shame. But not just any relationship. It will take healthy relationships. Our healing requires us to choose to be in relationships and in community with people who can accept us as we are and affirm our basic goodness.
As you know, I write editorial columns from time to time, and I receive all kinds of responses. I make it a point to thank all expressions of appreciation, and I take the time to respond to people who may disagree with me and who engage in a genuine, respectful conversation. But I will not waste my time with people who simply want to argue and especially with hostile people who want to attack me. I don't need that. There is already too much negativity in our world, and I refuse to allow more into my life.
Now it is easier said than done to engage in healthy relationships because we seek out what is familiar and comfortable. If you are shame-prone, you will tend to seek out people and form relationships with those who will shame you in all the familiar ways.
Alcoholics Anonymous is successful at helping people recover from their addiction because it helps them heal their shame. Their method is revealed in their introductions. "I'm John Smith, and I’m an alcoholic.” Shame pushes us to hide, but alcoholics in AA present themselves honestly and openly, putting their dependencies and embarrassments out there for all to see. Instead of being judged, they are welcomed, befriended, and accepted by people who share their dependencies and embarrassments. In time, the defect that you have been working so hard to deny and cover up is embraced as just a part of who you are. The acceptance of others leads to self-acceptance.
Isn’t that a wonderful model for a congregation? Wouldn’t it be great if you and I could come to a community of faith and introduce ourselves honestly? "I'm Neal, and I’m a human being. I’ve accomplished some things, and I've made some stupid mistakes. Some parts of me I'm proud to show you; others parts I keep hidden away in shame." Wouldn’t it be great if we could be welcomed to such a community and befriended and accepted as we are? "Come on in. We’re works in progress, too." If I could be accepted by a community like that, I might be able to accept myself more graciously.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Articles and Sermons >