I have come to realize that shame is the devil’s tactic of choice in his efforts to ruin our human existence. Certainly he entices and allures, divides and distracts. Occasionally he openly attacks, but he would much rather not. In those moments we might call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. If there’s anything the devil can’t stand, it’s being defeated yet again.
Rather than an open fight, the devil much prefers to lurk in the shadows and undermine us without our even noticing. As Kevin Spacey famously said in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
The devil subtly shames us with his lies, keeping us from becoming fully ourselves. If we don’t unmask him and expose him, if we don’t even notice that he’s there, he can deceive us with ease, convincing us that we are unlovable, that we must avoid being vulnerable, and that we must hide ourselves from others and even from God.
Curt Thompson wrote a marvelous book on the subject entitled The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He offers the image of a “shame attendant” who follows each of us around, pretending to be a loyal servant, eagerly whispering his counsel in our ear. I think immediately of Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings, who kept sapping and undermining the strength of King Theoden with his whispered distortions and lies.
Shame is all about distorting our true story. We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Even though we only know some of the facts in any given situation, we generally cannot resist filling in the gaps with assumptions about the parts of the story that we do not know. This is how rumors get started. This is why twenty different witnesses can give twenty different accounts of the same event. This is why one momentary interaction in daily life can sometimes feel like just a normal human interaction and other times can send us on a downward spiral for hours or even days.
An acquaintance walks past without stopping to talk. A co-worker asks for a status report on our project that we are behind on. A parish member asks us how our struggling child is doing in school. A friend posts social media photos of amazing family activities. A spouse offers a suggestion for how to do something differently. Any one of these innocuous experiences can cause a sudden shift. We might immediately feel the urge to withdraw or isolate or procrastinate; we might lash out at the person; we might find ourselves replaying conversations over and over in our mind, trying to find just the right response.
Behind those reactions are the whispers of our shame attendant: There you go again; you always fail at those things… You’ll never be as successful as him… You’ll never be beautiful like her… Of course she would walk away from you; why would you let someone get close to you like that?… He wouldn’t understand – no one will ever really understand you… If you make mistakes like that, no one will want to be around you anymore… You’re stuck; nothing will ever change… People will always let you down; they’ll leave you once they really get to know you…
The devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He sees God’s glory in us and cannot stand it. Often very early in life, he begins his carefully planned attack. He sneaks in when we are the most powerless and vulnerable, and whispers lies and half-truths into our ears. He uses a few facts to begin distorting our story. This constant whisper becomes so much a part of our life that we cease noticing it. We learn to hide and isolate, for fear of feeling vulnerable.
The hiding and isolating can come in many forms: avoidance and withdrawal, shifting the blame to others, putting on a fake persona, overachieving, or addictive behaviors. Every addiction is fueled by shame. Whereas intimate relationships run the risk of abandonment or rejection, the soothing of an addiction (sugar, alcohol, shopping, pornography, binge watching) will always be there for us, won’t make any immediate demands, and will numb the shame if only for a brief time.
Perfectionism is also fueled by shame, and often goes hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Behind every perfectionist is a shame attendant whispering why failure is not an option: I am only lovable if I am accomplished and successful; I am not lovable when I make mistakes or fail; I have to…or else… When the pressures of perfectionism become crushing and unbearable, the escape of an addiction can feel irresistible.
Shame doesn’t just infect our minds in the form of negative self-talk or accusations; it also affects our emotions and even our bodies. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. So we typically feel shame and even carry it in our bodies. That is why our shame reactions can be so strong and so lasting in certain day-to-day human interactions. Many of us have shame-laden memories, unresolved moments in our story that we keep hidden away – moments in which we felt totally worthless or unlovable, threatened or powerless, rejected or alone or abandoned. In those memories, our body felt certain sensations. If we ever feel those again, our brain immediately sets off its “smoke alarm” (the amygdala) and warns us that we are in grave danger – even when we are not. We react. We hide. We isolate.
The solution is so counter-intuitive. We need to be seen and known, to come to the light, to be loved and to belong. It only works if I surrender and allow all of myself to be seen and accepted and loved (including the “bad” parts I would rather lock away). If I pull back and only project an avatar of myself, a “safe” and edited version to share with others, I will never truly be known and loved – and shame can stay in the driver’s seat, ever reminding me that there are other weaker parts of me that must be kept hidden at all costs.
To be human is to be vulnerable, whether we like it or not. The whispers of shame convince us that we must not allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. So long as we are beholden to those whispers, we are unable to be healed and integrated as a whole person. We continue to experience what Mother Teresa described as the greatest form poverty – to feel alone and unloved.
And you – what are the parts of yourself that you hide from others or from God? Are you willing to be known and seen and heard by at least a few trustworthy people, and by God? He does not pull back; he loves us for who we are and he has always loved us. He has loved us “even when…” If we ask, he will also help us find others who can play that role of loving us for who we are. Those people are there to be found – we are just afraid!
Stepping out into the experience of vulnerability can be terrifying at times (believe me, I know!). But the shadows of shame take flight the more that we allow it to happen.