Earlier this year, I developed a little obsession with Brené Brown. I read her book Daring Greatly and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Though the book is actually about how vulnerability is vital to healthy relationships, Brown dives pretty deep into the research she has done on shame. In her view, you can’t be vulnerable unless you’ve dealt with your shame.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that turned on more lightbulbs for me in such rapid succession. (I wrote about my initial response here and here.)
Simply put, shame is the identity-based message that “I am bad,” as opposed to more choice/action-oriented message, “I’ve done something bad,” which researchers tag guilt. I was amazed by the difference in outcomes this simple distinction makes. People who live with strong internal shame messages lead one kind of life. People with strong internal guilt messages lead an entirely different kind of life. I am not exaggerating.
For me, Brown’s research is a fantastic example of how faith and science aren’t at odds with each other. In Daring Greatly, at least, Brown doesn’t mention the Bible, what she thinks of it, or whether she believes in it. But I find her research so incisive at demonstrating some very specific and very damaging ways in which our culture (and even the church within our culture) have failed to believe and live out the Bible. Here’s the best example I can think of:
We regularly act on a deeply held belief that our worth is up for debate. For some of us, that means monthly or weekly; for some of us, it’s on a moment-by-moment basis. It might mean we question our value as human beings, or it might mean that we question our worthiness to be loved. Brown especially focuses on the latter because, she reports, it’s the watershed in her research, dividing those who live a life shrouded in shame from those who don’t.
What I’ve realized in the past few months is how often questions about our worth come into play in our daily lives. And how often it’s not others who are bringing them up, but we ourselves. Shockingly often, actually.
For example, a-hypothetical-girl-named-Maria hears that a friend has gotten engaged and is planning her wedding. Maria expects an invitation to be part of the wedding party, but it doesn’t come. And suddenly, what may have been a very practical decision for the friend about headcounts, logistics and the coherence of the people involved can become a relationship-ruining accusation that Maria is not worthy of her love. And it likely has little to do with the friend or the friendship, but on the messages that play on a loop in Maria’s head and heart.
Messages of shame usually come to us from somewhere or someone else initially, but after a while, we get practiced enough that we can turn them on ourselves. And here are two nasty consequences when we do:
1) When we’re in uncomfortable or conflict situations with friends and family, shame seriously distracts us from the real issues at hand. We might be having a communication problem or a genuine misunderstanding. Difficult maybe — perhaps even dicey — but shame hijacks the situation and elevates it to the metaphysical level. It’s awfully hard to resolve a communication problem when one of us suddenly makes his or her entire human worth part of the stakes in the game.
2) It places a truly unbearable burden on our friends and family. Our worth is a fixed thing. It is not dependent on anyone else’s opinion of us. But when we make it dependent on someone else’s opinion, that’s a burden others aren’t meant (and aren’t really able) to bear. I’m increasingly convinced that shame is what sabotages so many relationships and keeps people who are desperately seeking closeness and connection from finding it.
But if our worth is not dependent on others’ opinions of us, what is it based on? Two things, and these have already been irrevocably settled. First, we are created in the image of God. That makes each of us humans incredibly unique and valuable, for each of us reflects the character and nature of God in a unique way. Second, we were purchased with the ultimate price. That speaks definitively about our worth in God’s eyes.
I write that last part hesitantly, because it sounds like such a trite Sunday School answer. And then I realize: The fact that it sounds trite means that we believe our shame more than we believe the Gospel. We believe our worth is up for debate more than we believe that it has already been established by our Creator and Savior. That’s hideous!
I’m not saying shame — and the resultant jeopardizing of our own worth — is the root of every problem we have. But I’m certain it’s 1) more prevalent than I previously realized, and 2) easiest to defeat when we recognize it and call it what it is. Brown’s research bears this out: When we name shame, she says, it loses its power over us.
In times of conflict, alienation, discouragement and depression, I’d love to see followers of Christ lead the way in culture by examining whether we’re putting our own worth up for debate when it’s really not. And one of the best parts about it is that in doing so we get to tell the Gospel to ourselves again, with the hope that we will come to believe it truly.