Q: Archbishop J, how does the family move past shame?
Shame is a break in harmony with God, neighbour, creation, and self. It leads the individual to believe something is wrong with himself or herself. It is very different from guilt that focuses on the wrong the person has done. Shame labels us as deficient and defective and causes us to hide.
Shame came to the first family—Adam and Eve—and is present in all families. Because shame causes a person to hide, it creates barriers between people. It creates conflict and can destroy the family. It makes the afflicted hypersensitive and causes them to hide from the truth. This is the covering up of which the Book of Genesis speaks.
Remember, in the beginning Adam and Eve were naked without shame. One day, through God’s grace, we will again learn to be naked before our beloved without shame. Brené Brown, in her book The Power of Vulnerability, gives us the steps to this path to redemption.
In her research into what leads to the happy life, Brown learnt the unexpected: shame is the greatest cause of unhappiness and vulnerability is the royal road to recovery and happiness. She outlines five steps to recovery.
Don’t bottle up your emotions; become self-aware: I don’t know if you are like me but bottling up emotions is just what I do. Stuff happens constantly and if I do not stop and name my emotions and reflect on them, they get bottled up. This stuff is everywhere: in the family, at work, while driving, among friends, etc. It gets pushed into a bottle till the bottle cannot hold any more, then I push some more and some more again. Until, finally, there is too much stuff and it comes tumbling out at some unsuspecting person.
Why do we bottle up stuff? Well I tell myself, “It’s small stuff, don’t sweat, leave it alone”. But small stuff becomes big stuff and ultimately explodes. I have learnt that when I am not at my best, when I am unable to process my feelings, I am at the greatest risk to myself and others. It is much better to speak through the small stuff in an ongoing way.
Here, the daily Examen is invaluable. Many years ago, I read a book about the value of the mother telling bedtime stories. In that liminal time between wake and sleep, the mother takes the children’s feelings of the day, sorts them out, launders them, folds them up and places them neatly in the right places so they will be ready for use the next day. That is a beautiful image.
This, too, is what the Examen does at the end of each day. It invites the Holy Spirit to sort out the feelings, emotions, and impulses of the day, launders them and gets them ready for the new day.
So, the first discipline: sort out your emotions with God and speak through the stuff with a brother or sister so there is no bottling up.
Vulnerability takes courage: Yes, this takes courage! Why do we not speak through the small stuff? Well, it is easier to sidestep. It also calls for vulnerability. I remember an occasion when I knew my remarks wounded someone. I carried the problem for a few days until I could not anymore. When I eventually made my apology, the person denied knowing what I was speaking about. I had gone vulnerable and the individual was unready to receive it. I am happy I did it though; I did not need to hide anymore. It changed the relationship, although the person was unready to acknowledge the hurt at the time.
Show up, face fear, and move forward: Why do we resist vulnerability? Fear! We are afraid of rejection. Or, afraid to be told we are the problem. We think, what if those whom we approach say they do not know what we are speaking about.
If there is a relationship which causes you to hide, show up and face the fear, and be vulnerable. This will breathe new energy into the relationship and bring you a new freedom.
Fear is the paralyser; it pushes us to not name and own the stuff—to hide, protect ourselves, cover up. These actions lead us down the path to destruction: the path to redemption is to show up, face the fears and move forward.
Seek excellence, not perfection: This is the big one. It is the underlying mental structure that causes much of the challenge. When you think of the verse of St Matthew’s Gospel, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), what comes to mind?
Our understanding of perfection is the real problem. There is a Jewish and a Greek notion of perfection, and they are very different. The Greek sees perfection as the absence of all imperfections. So, when you see imperfection? In yourself you are to root it out in a radical way. If you cannot, then hide it. This causes much psychological stress.
In the Bible, the perfection of God is described as having a love that includes all. When speaking about God and perfection, it says: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45).
The Greek notion of perfection causes us to hide in shame. The biblical notion invites us to incorporate the good, the bad and the ugly in us. This is the invitation to vulnerability and to redemption, to become the best version of ourselves.
Dare to be yourself: When we can incorporate all aspects of ourselves, regardless, we can dare to be ourselves. Then, each of us can say: “I have done bad things, but I am not a bad thing. I am wonderfully blessed, a mixture of grace and weakness and loved and redeemed by Christ.” This is true freedom where we can stand naked without shame.
Key Message: Vulnerability is the antidote to shame and covering up.
Action Step: Make the choice to be vulnerable and not to leave stuff to bottle up. Use Brown’s five steps to move to true freedom.
Scripture passage: Matt 5:43–48