Shining Light on Shame
Curt Thompson, Angulus Wilson, Steve Beers, and Morgan C. Feddes
Shame, writes psychiatrist Curt Thompson in the introduction to his latest book,The Soul of Shame, “is a primary means to prevent us from … [being] a light-bearing community of Jesus followers who work to create space for others who wish to join it to do so. Shame, therefore, is not simply an unfortunate, random, emotional event … It is both a source and result of evil’s active assault on God’s creation.”
Thompson’s first book, Anatomy of the Soul, explored the connection between the field of interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation. In his research for that book and in his own psychiatric practice, he repeatedly saw how shame “eventually makes its way to center stage. … It is ubiquitous, seeping into every nook and cranny of life. It is pernicious, infesting not just our thoughts but our sensations, images, feelings and, of course, ultimately our behavior.”
Though there are certain scenarios in which shame can be beneficial in ensuring appropriate behavior, Thompson’s focus, both in his work and in his practice, is on figuring out what is required in healing shame, particularly for people of faith. He shared some of his research and insights with CCCU leaders at both the Presidents Conference in Washington, D.C., in January and at the gathering of provosts, campus ministry directors, and senior student development officers in San Diego, California, in February.
Following his February presentations, Thompson sat down for the following discussion about how Christian college campuses need to address issues inherently tied to shame. The conversation was held with Angulus Wilson (university pastor at Fresno Pacific University and chair of the CCCU Commission for Campus Ministry Directors); Steve Beers (vice president for student development, athletics, and facilities at John Brown University and chair of the CCCU Commission for Chief Student Development Officers); and Morgan C. Feddes (editor of Advance). The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Morgan Feddes: Curt, I’m particularly interested in your research on shame, and especially in the community aspect of shame. What are some of the things that we as leaders in Christian education should keep in mind when we’re addressing issues that are inherently tied to the feeling and neurobiological essence of shame?
Curt Thompson: If you look at the [psychology] literature, shame is understood as an artifact of nature – it just happens to be something that we experience. We don’t like it, but there’s not much we can do about it other than regulate it. But if you read the biblical narrative, it would suggest that shame’s actually not just an artifact – it’s a vector. It’s something that evil is actively and intentionally using to disintegrate the universe and to devour it. There is an intention behind it. …
Whatever [shame] we have to address [within the community], the first thing that’s going to happen is going to be the activation of my own shame in this process. [We’ll think,] “I’m not going to have what it takes to have this conversation. I’m going to feel stupid, I’m going to feel inept, I’m going to screw this up.”
[What will make a positive difference in dealing with shame is] our willingness to do the advanced work so that when [shame] shows up, we know what’s going on. Then we can vulnerably, confessionally say, “We want to have a conversation about this topic in our community, and I’m really afraid to have it because I think I’m going to screw it up. I’m worried that at the end of the day I’m going to say something that’s really going to hurt your feelings, and I’m telling you this because I don’t want to do that.”
We can’t give people what we don’t have; I can’t expect people to engage in a conversation that is vulnerable if I am not regularly in a conversation of vulnerability with people in whatever vocational domain I occupy.
Now, evil does not want us to say that. But I don’t think that after his baptism, Jesus went to the desert waiting for the Devil to find him. I think Jesus went looking for the Devil. I think Jesus went pursuing those parts of his own story that were potentially going to find their way back into his life and his ministry. So I think if we’re doing this work – identifying the things about my life where shame has taken root and lives on a regular basis – then when we have these harder conversations and shame shows up, we will know it immediately and we will have the tools available at our disposal to deal with it.
We can’t give people what we don’t have; I can’t expect people to engage in a conversation that is vulnerable if I am not regularly in a conversation of vulnerability with people in whatever vocational domain I occupy. …
Angulus Wilson: I love that framework, Curt. I agree; I think shame is a major tool in three enemies that the believer has – the world, the flesh, and the devil. We have to always be on guard, because shame attacks the soul, and if the world can get me to be ashamed of my Christ, I’m not going to speak for him. If the flesh can make me ashamed in some area of my life, I’m not going to live out the biblical principles that God has called me to. And if the enemy can get me with shame, then I’m not going to be this witness I’m supposed to be.
For campus ministers, we wrestle with how to engage with the enemy of shame in the spheres in which we work. I’m the pastor to the president, I’m the pastor to the faculty, and I’m the pastor to the students. This [shame] is at work in all three of those areas all the time. So I need to be encouraging and need to know, “Am I living my life in such a disciplined manner that I’m aware of what shame is trying to do?”
A second big [aspect] is that as the demographics of our campus change, we are dealing with a diverse student population that’s immersed in shame.… [So we have to consider] all the things these students are dealing with – how are we thinking about integrating our faith in such a way into our curriculum that they’re able to deal with this? Because if we don’t, they become smarter, but they suppress that thing that’s eating away at their soul.
Curt Thompson: I deeply appreciate everything you’re saying. One of shame’s primary neurobiological functions is creating isolation – I don’t tell anybody, and I’m left in my own head. But I cannot afford to be left in my own head. … If I don’t have people coming to find me, no amount of Scripture, no amount of prayer, no amount of any of this can substitute for my friends who are literally coming to make sure that I don’t end up losing my mind.
Morgan Feddes: So how do you develop those kinds of relationships when things are good, so that when those hard challenges come, you have that network that will come to you?
Curt Thompson: First of all, I think the model that we have in the Gospel is one that invites us into a pace and a place that, given our current world, will take a lot of effort. [Regarding the pace,] Jesus had people who were with him for at least three years, and they were with him, it would appear, more days than not. They also shared a lot of places together. They didn’t just come and meet at a certain time – they shared meals together. They shared activities together.
So when people want to start this practice of being known, one way to do it is to pick two or three other people at the most and meet once a week for 90 minutes. [You’re] going to hang out, and each person is going to have a chance to tell their story. You get 20 minutes to tell your story every week. [Over time,] you get eight different versions of what it means to tell your story in 20 minutes. People begin to practice telling their story in such a way that they then allow themselves to be open to questions: who, what, where, when, how.
Now, for people who’ve never done this before, this takes some practice. People think that telling their story is really just giving the surface details about things. … It’s important to know that we’re really trying, as hard as it is, to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly. …
Then, we need to create confessional communities where people are confessing the truth about their life – some of which includes confessing sin or doing things that show my brokenness. Some of it is just things that have happened to me, or things that I feel; things that I sense; things that I dream; things that I long for; things that I’m conflicted about. But I’m trying to tell the whole truth about my life – but not so that anybody can just hear it and then move on. …
When it comes to our sin, it’s important for us to hear someone else acknowledge that what we’re talking about really is sin. Neurobiologically, it does me harm if I confess to you something and you say, “That’s okay. No big deal.” Because in confession, what I’m really looking for – in your eyes, in your body language, in your voice – is for you to be able to say, “You’re right, Curt; you were wrong to do that. You’re forgiven. I’m not leaving.” I need to know you can bear the weight of what I know to be really wrong [with me], and that you will still stay. If it’s minimized, it will continue to linger with me.
When it comes to our sin, it’s important for us to hear someone else acknowledge that what we’re talking about really is sin. … I need to know you can bear the weight of what I know to be really wrong [with me], and that you will still stay. If it’s minimized, it will continue to linger with me.
[We see this] in John 21 with Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter. Peter was grieving in his heart that [Jesus] asked him a third time. I could easily see Peter being grieved, because at some point, Peter knows the jig is up: “My little foray into trying to avoid Jesus exploring the truth with me has run out of gas. The reality is, if I loved you [Jesus], I wouldn’t have thrown you under the bus six weeks ago, would I?”
I think Jesus knows this. There’s this sense in which Jesus says, “Look, if you’re going to be a leader in my group, I’m going to need everybody in the group – you included – to know what everybody knows. I know that you’re feeling ashamed. I know that you’re grieved. We know that you denied me three times. I want everybody to hear that we’re good. Now I want you to stop paying attention to that [shame] and pay attention to me. I want you to pay attention to the work that I have for you to do. If I have to say this three or 33 more times in order to get you to be persuaded that this is what you’re called to do, then that’s how long it’s going to take.”
Short of that kind of public calling out – pulling him right back through his shame in order for that to be redeemed – if I were Peter, there would always be that seed of doubt: “When am I going to do it again? I’m not really worthy to be a leader.”
Steve Beers: In the residential collegiate experience, we have a lot of opportunities to have some of these vulnerable conversations. But as the institutional representatives – whether it’s a chaplain or a student development professional – at some point, we are thrown into this relationship where we might not have had the opportunity to establish some of those deeper trusting relationships, but we have a responsibility to the larger community to call out sin.
We find ourselves in a difficult spot trying to communicate, “No, we’re not just doing this because we don’t like you. We’re not doing it because we think you’re a horrible person. We’re calling sin a sin, and we’re trying to help you think through how you move forward [out of sin].” How do we not partner with, in a sense, the Evil One in using shame to beat up the students that we’re trying to minister to?
Curt Thompson: Yes, that’s a good question. I think evil does its best work in the middle of good work being done. It waits for good work to be done and then it joins the parade – twists everything, screws things up. You want to do the right thing. You want to bring a community correction and so forth. Then [we admit], “We’re just going to screw this up, however we do it.” One thing that is important is being confessional about our imperfect ways of doing things.
Steve Beers: Confessing so that the institution and the community can be reminded of that?
Curt Thompson: Yes, and that we confess as a community.
Steve Beers: What does that look like?
Curt Thompson: First of all, every group needs somebody who’s going to be willing to step into the center and say, “I’m going to take the lead with this.” It is difficult to do these things if you don’t. [At a university,] if presidents are the ones who set the tone, then if you don’t have a president who’s willing to be vulnerable in this way, it will be hard to get the community to move. …
We can’t ask students to go anyplace that we’re not willing to go. It is hard work to become institutionally confessional, because it takes time, and it takes the opportunity to get buy in. Of course, the minute that you even start to name it, everybody’s going to be nervous, because this is a good thing you’re going to do, and evil is going to be right there. [So it’s important] to say, “I just want to acknowledge the fact that this is, I’m sure, making people nervous here. Jesus is not nervous about this. He’s not worried.” …
Evil hates this kind of light; it can’t survive this kind of light. When I was in medical school, we worked with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and they had a barometric chamber. If you had a really pressing infection in one of your limbs, they’d put you in the chamber, which basically forces oxygen into tissue. No matter where [the infection] is, there’s no place it can go that the oxygen’s not going to find it and kill it.
Evil hates this kind of light; it can’t survive this kind of light. … This is what we want to do [in our communities]. We want to bring so much light that there’s no space left for shame to hide and do its work.
This is what we want to do [in our communities]. We want to bring so much light that there’s no space left for shame to hide and do its work. But it takes courage. Peter and Judas both run, both throw Jesus under bus, but [only] one of them is willing to come back.
Steve Beers: In the confessional experience as a community, what I hear you say is it allows the act of correction, the act of calling sin a sin [to shift the posture to where] I no longer am judge – I’m a fellow disciple.
Curt Thompson: Right, right. But it’s hard, too, to acknowledge that this is hard to do. When this [correction and confession] is what you have to do, it will be important for you to have people who are saying to you, “This is really hard to do. But you are not by yourself with this.” … We need to have people around us who are hearing us, and we need to know that we aren’t by ourselves.
There is [also] some comfort, in a sense, in the story of the rich young ruler [in Luke 18]. We live in a world in which Jesus says [to the rich young ruler, who had followed all the commandments and wanted to get into heaven], “The one thing you still lack,” and the ruler was downcast, and he went away. Now, we want to continue the conversation; [we want to say], “Wait, don’t leave. Let’s keep talking.” But there’s no sense that Jesus went to chase him down. There are times when we are left with unfinished conversations. We wish that we could be close enough [to the person], because we are fully convinced that if you know exactly just how much [we] love you, in the end … we’re going to be able to work this out. But that doesn’t always happen.
Angulus Wilson: We’re living a situation like this now at our institution. Corporately, we did something [that hurt a lot of people.] … It’s been two to three years now, and we’re trying to do this [confession and reconciliation]. We’ve had to meet in town halls; we’ve had to meet in silos; we’ve had to come out publicly with statements; we’ve had to try to reverse some things and some practices.
Shame has been the byproduct of that. … This [treatment of shame, this] very strong biblical principle that you’re talking about – our office has had to carry a lot of that. Meeting with groups weekly in chapel, praying, practicing confession, bringing in clergy from the outside to come and sit in places and spaces. Some of our psychology department [faculty] on campus have been leading groups as well. It’s been a very interesting piece. That’s why I was so intrigued [at this morning’s session] when you discussed Genesis and God coming to find [Adam and Eve] in the midst of [their sin]. I’m literally watching that happen right before our eyes. It’s a beautiful thing.
Curt Thompson: Shame always requires outside help for healing. My shame needs you. If it’s a small thing, I might need only one conversation with you. But, if it’s much bigger than a very, very small thing, I’m going to need multiple conversations with multiple people, because shame will come through multiple different doors into my head when I’m left by myself. …
When you extend this to something that’s beyond a single person – when you go to a marriage, a family, a university – now you’re talking about an institution that needs outside help, because shame is always going to need somebody outside the system. If the system’s just in my brain, I need someone outside the system. If the system is our marriage, I need someone outside the system. Because it’s an institution and all the complexities of that, it’s going to take a long time. …
[The recovery time] is something else to know. People have expectations. Things happen and we think, well somehow we should be over this in a few hours, days, weeks, months, or whatever. But there is some benefit in being able to say, “This could take a long time – and that’s okay. This is the nature of how important this is. It’s a big deal.”
Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia, and author of The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves.
Angulus Wilson is the university pastor and dean of the Office of Spiritual Formation at Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California, and serves as chair of the CCCU Commission for Campus Ministry Directors.
Steve Beers is the vice president for student development at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, and serves as chair of the CCCU Commission for Chief Student Development Officers.
Morgan C. Feddesis the communications specialist for the CCCU and editor of Advance magazine.