When launching this blog last April, I encouraged us to reflect on the stories we live by. What narratives shape the way we see the world, the way we make sense of everything – faith, identity, meaning, and all of our beautiful and painful experiences? While listening to an episode of The Liturgists podcast on shame, one of the contributors, Hillary McBride, reflected on the messages we hear and live by (sometimes without being aware we are doing so) in shame systems. She says, “There are certain messages that we carry in shame cultures that make it really hard for us to thrive as human beings.” As we begin this new year, I’d like to encourage you to evaluate how these messages may be shaping the story you live by. Listening for and identifying these can help us deconstruct them in order to build something that promotes flourishing.
Message #1: Control
“You have to be in control, otherwise bad things will happen. And if bad things happen then someone needs to be blamed. And if you can’t blame somebody else, you are blamed.”
Message #2: Perfectionism
“You always have to be right. Because if you’re not right, then you have no value here.”
Message #3: Denial/Silence
“We don’t talk about hard things. There’s a no talk policy. We don’t talk about things that are wounding. We don’t talk about how you’ve been hurt. We don’t talk about how I’ve hurt you. We don’t talk about that here… Don’t talk about the things that you need. Don’t talk about anything important. Don’t talk about anything vulnerable.”
Message #4: Disqualification
“The things that hurt you don’t matter here because they’re not as bad as somebody else’s pain… I’m sorry that that happened to you. Or maybe not. But it wasn’t as bad as what happened to [fill in the blank]. So your pain doesn’t count.”
Message #5: Unreliability
“Don’t expect things to go the way you want them to. Don’t expect consistency. You can’t trust anybody. You’re just gonna get let down again.”
Message #6: Incompleteness
“Don’t ever try and finish anything. Don’t ever try and go to the hard places or let yourself be seen. It just won’t happen. And if you do try it, you’re gonna be pushed away and denied.”
Ultimately, shame messages produce disconnection, often by an overarching story of exclusion. “We don’t do those things here. And if you want to be fully you, that thing isn’t welcome. That part of you isn’t welcome. That thing that you want to say, or want to acknowledge, not here… You don’t dress like that in this community. You don’t love that person. You don’t talk like that. You’re not interested in that.”
Belonging is core to human well-being; thus “rejection is threatening to our vital sense of existence to being alive.” Especially if we feel we cannot escape shame’s story, in order to survive, “often we’ll choose to cut [the unacceptable] part [of ourselves] off just to stay loved.” There are unlimited ways we try and “protect ourselves from not being hurt. But they end up costing us. They end up costing us the experience of being fully human and fully alive.”
Hillary McBride asks, “What does it take to undo shame?” She draws on Brené Brown’s work when she proposes, “Shame needs to be spoken, it needs to be talked about. It needs to be acknowledged. Not just the shame itself, but also the thing that we’re feeling ashamed of… What we need is to undo that aloneness, to take our pain to someone who says, ‘I see you.’ And not everybody is safe to do that with.”
One reason we may be unsafe for someone else trying to find liberation from shame is that we have not done that work of liberation in our own lives. Then when we encounter someone else’s shame or pain or struggle, it threatens the stability of our own constructs of self-protection. If we cope with our own shame by silencing or controlling or living out any of the shame scripts, we have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Disrupting that control or breaking that silence might mean we have to face what we want to avoid. It is easier to extend that silence or control onto the person on a journey of liberation. When we do that (even subconsciously), we create unsafe spaces that serve to protect the shame system rather than promote healing for anyone within it.
I am incredibly thankful for the people in my life who have offered me safe space to work toward liberation “with fear and trembling.” As I have invested in that journey, I have noticed an increased capacity to be present to others wrestling with shame and pain, and that has opened up opportunity for us to mutually support each other toward greater wholeness and flourishing.
Walking this journey requires an intentional choice again and again to live out a different story. That may mean deconstructing the current dominant narratives influencing your life so that you are able to reconstruct a story in greater alignment with your values and wellness.
I would be honored if you’d share an experience you’ve had or piece of wisdom you’ve learned in your own journey. I would also love to hear your articulation of the story by which you aspire to shape your life. I’ve used the language of “liberation,” especially in relation to shame – what does that look like for you? What other words or phrases resonate with your journey?
This year let us courageously identify the stories at work in our lives, choose an ongoing journey toward the stories that lead to our (and all of creation’s) flourishing, and share those stories so that we might learn from and support one another.