“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

“ Merely to write the words ‘my shame’ is to perform a subtly transgressive act, albeit one already native to writing itself. What, the reader may wonder, with an impending sense of vicarious shame, is the author about to reveal? (Shame is peculiarly infectious.) Writing, however, is a place where we hide as well as reveal ourselves. Be reassured—and warned.” – Virginia Burrus, Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects    

In E Lawrence’s recent, fantastic, post reflecting on some of what she learned last year, there were a number of points where, had I printed out the piece instead of reading it online, I would’ve written “AMEN!” or “Fuck Yes!” in the margins (and may have actually muttered them aloud while reading, to be honest). It was one of the best things I’ve read on theology and the body (and each category of literature on their own, for that matter) in awhile, perhaps ever, as my hypothetical marginalia would suggest. One of those points in particular is when she leads into her second point, that our bodies deserve care, by giving some context about the intermittent vaginal pain she’s suffered from this past year, and begins with a sort of justificatory proviso, writing: “The feminist in me dictates that I write the next part, because fuck silence.”

I was thinking a lot about this sentence in particular, in part because, while I think it is spot on, I also think, I would add something to what she so profoundly and yet plainly said. Yes, fuck silence. But also, fuck shame. I actually had a similar sentiment when I read Janice’s recent, also fantastic, post on the recent Sia music video for “Elastic Heart” that’s been stirring up a bit of controversy.

Or, at least, that’s what I initially thought. But then I started doing a little research on shame, because I didn’t know what to add—how to expound upon my elaboration from the critique of silence to the critique of shame other then “fuck it.” And then my research efforts got the best of me, and I found myself nose deep in shame literature in a variety of different fields. I’d happily—but also shamefully, given the number of pressing things on my to do list—fallen down the rabbit hole to the wonderland of shame studies….which ended up taking me down some rather unexpected paths…. [1]

my "traveling library of shame"...
my “traveling library of shame”…

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While some scholars have mused that in America today we’re ashamed of shame, shame has actually gotten some quality airtime as of late, though by quality I certainly don’t mean positive—who would want shame to have “positive airtime,” you ask! Why? Well, more on that later…[2] Rather, shame, when we do speak of it, gets spoken of much in the same way that Obama gets spoken of my Bill O’Reily or Sean Hannity.

Brené Brown, a social work professor at the University of Houston, is probably the most well-known and popular public scholar talking about shame and its ill effects—her first TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has been, and remains, one of the most watched TED talks in history (the others that make the top five are on orgasm, creativity, leadership, and happiness, which makes the fact that a talk on vulnerability and shame making the list all the more impressive), with over 18 million views; her follow up talk, “Listening to Shame,” has over 4.5 million views, and two of the books she’s written on the subjects of shame and vulnerability—The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly—were #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Shame is a somewhat confusing, a big, thing to define and describe (hence my tumble down the rabbit hole). Brown, in an effort to describe it simply enough for a twenty minute talk, explains that:

“…shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it:it’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” — which we all know that feeling: “I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen” (4:18).

Brown goes on to explain her research on shame and what made some impervious to its ill effects—what gave them a sense of worthiness. What she found was two common factors: that 1) “these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect,” and 2) they “fully embraced vulnerability” (8:20, 8:39). I bring that up because, in her second, follow-up talk, “Listening to Shame,” Brown explains that “addition to really finally understanding the relationship between vulnerability and courage…we have to talk about shame” (6:21). Brown goes on to define shame as “the gremlin who says ‘Uh uh. You’re not good enough…’” (12:49). Shame, then, is what prevents us from “daring greatly,” and vulnerability and empathy, then, are the antidotes. But shame often prevents us from taking the risk of being vulnerable, thus it functions as a sort of feedback loop, shame putting up more and more obstacles, making us feel more and more disconnected, which makes it harder to be vulnerable, etc…etc… Wash, rinse, repeat. This is why Brown calls shame “lethal,” and “deadly.”

Brown is by no means alone in seeing shame in such a hostile light. The psychological and popular literature is overflowing with research on the pernicious effects of shame that Brown points to and preaches against. For example, Gershen Kaufman explains that

“…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem, diminished self image, poor self concept, and deficient body-image. Shame itself produces self-doubt and disrupts both security and confidence. It can become an impediment to the experience of belonging and to shared intimacy….It is the experiential ground from which conscience and identity inevitably evolve. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness, inferiority and perfectionism. It plays a central role in many psychological disorders as well, including depression, paranoia, addiction, and borderline conditions. Sexual disorders and many eating disorders are largely disorders of shame. Both physical abuse and sexual abuse also significantly involve shame.”[3]

As Kaufman points out, a whole panopoly of negative traits are associated with, and understood at least in part as consequences of, shame. Two of the three of the “dark triad” of personality traits—narcissism and Machiavellianism —are highly associated with shame (the third, psychopathy/antisociality, not so much). Shame, studies have shown, in addition to playing a major role in depression and anxiety, is shown to be a significant factor in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,[4] is known to contribute to victims of intimate partner violence staying in dangerous and abusive situations,[5] is connected with relationship problems in general,[6] is linked to disordered eating[7]… the list could go on and on… Shame has even been shown to negatively effect our immune system functioning.[8] Psychology Today has—aptly, considering the literature—dubbed shame a concealed, contagious, and dangerous emotion.

Shame, as the studies and articles I’ve already cited (along with a host of others) has been closely linked with silence and secrecy. This is a point Brown makes throughout her talks and writings. “If you put shame in a Petri dish,” she suggests, “it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment” (“Listening to Shame,” 18:53). I think this point Brown makes is what made me, on the one hand, utterly love E Lawrence’s fuck you to silence, and on the other hand, also what made me want to extend it to say fuck shame… and then, with that, what fucked up my own sense of saying fuck you to shame. Let me explain…

On one level, it’s easy. I think in wanting to put up my middle finger to shame, I was really pointing to the third aspect of what causes shame to grow according to Brown—judgment. Brown suggests that the antidote to shame then is speaking, and, concomitantly, empathy; “if you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy,” she explains, “it can’t survive.” So in calling out shame, I was thinking: people really not better pitch a fit at this post (and, since I last checked the comments/touched base with Lawrence, nobody had—thank you, dear blog readers). But that’s also where it gets complicated, and where I started to get all kinds of confused and descend down the rabbit hole, because I got to wondering… what do we do/what happens when empathy isn’t offered, where judgment is overflowing in abundance (a pretty common occurrence in Christian communities, at least in a wide range of communities I’ve been a part of, whether they’ve been evangelical or mainline, conservative or progressive…)? What do we do then? Are we just stuck in a place of shame? And then, if shame is an emotion that we alone can’t manage—because it’s so contingent on our relations to and with others—what do we do with that?

Given my queerness, I couldn’t help but think about shame and sexuality—of my own sexual identity, my history of shame in relation to my own coming out process (both developmentally speaking, as well as in terms of the everydayness, the “being out” of the coming out process); and how shame tends to play a pretty significant role in the coming and being out processes to varying degrees in many, if not all, of us who identify somewhere within what Mark Jordan has referred to as the queer alphabet, as LGBTQQIA.[9] This history/affect of shame in relation to my sexuality, both explains a great deal of my desire to “fuck shame,” (think here about Gay Pride: the movement, the various parades and events, etc…), as well as my own confusion about it all. Shame has played an enormous role in my own history and still lingers in various forms and manifestations in my present. While there is part of me that hates that feeling and some of what it can sometimes produce in my life, it’s also a part of me… I’ll get into this more in a little bit, but Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of the foremothers of queer theory, suggests that, “at least for certain (‘queer’) people, shame is simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity…”[10] Building on Sedgwick’s point, Ellis Hanson, calling shame “my curse and my oldest friend,” points out that, “without my shame, I could hardly recognize myself—indeed, I would not have a self to recognize—and so to banish shame would be absurd.”[11]

Michael Warner, I think, sums up this sort of ambivalence I feel towards shame—my paradoxical eschewal of shame and simultaneous need for it…my finding the eschewal of it all too simple, at best, and perhaps even problematic.[12] In his essay “Pleasures & Dangers of Shame,” he explains:

“Gay pride, and much of the movement organized around it, entails a theory of shame as a thing of the personal and collective past—shame about shame, if you will. For many, this picture has come to seem not only empirically false and subjectively thin, but worse: too safe to be sexy and too dishonest to be safe.[13]

What, then, to do with shame? If not (gay) pride, if that’s too dishonest and too boring (what a sad combination!), what’s the alternative? How else to think of shame….? In my next post, I’ll explore some queerer pastures….

[1] I don’t know whether the various literature in psychology, theology, and queer theory that I consulted actually constitutes a discrete field called shame studies, but alas…

[2] As Virginia Burrus puts it in Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), ‘Shame is an emotion of which we frequently seem deeply ashamed” (1). A few pages later, she notes, “I have already implicitly raised the question of whether the Christianized, if also secularized, modern West has, by becoming ashamed of shame, in face effectively evacuated shame” (5).

[3] Gershen Kaufman, The psychology of shame: theory and treatment of shame-based syndromes. 2 edition. (New York: Springer Publishing, 1996), xvi.

[4] Andrew Stone, “The Role of Shame in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 62(1), January 1992, 131-136; Jennie Leskela et. al. “Shame and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” International Journal for Traumatic Stress Studies 15(3), June 2002, 223-226; Judith L. Herman, “PTSD as a Shame Disorder” Online Trauma Training Webinar, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, October 14, 2014.

[5] Jacquelyn C. Campbell & Linda A. Lewandowski, “Mental and Physical Health Effects of Intimate Partner Violence on Women and Children, Stress in Health and Disease 20(2), June 1997, 353-374; Jacquelyn C. Campbell & Karen L. Soeken, “Forced Sex and Intimate Partner Violence: Effects on Women’s Risk and Women’s Health,” Violence Against Women 5, 1999, 1017-1035; Belle Liang et. al. “A Theoretical Framework for Understanding Help-Seeking Processes Among Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence,” American Journal of Community Psychology 36(1-2), September 2005, 71-84.

[6] Judith A. Feeny, “Hurt Feelings in Couple Relationships: Towards Integrative Models of the Negative Effects of Hurtful Events,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21(4), August 2004, 487-508.

[7] Stephanie M. Noll & Barbara L. Fredrickson, “A Mediational Model Linking Self-Objectification, Body Shame, and Disordered Eating,” Psychology of Women Quarterly 22(4), December 1998, 623-636; June Price Tangney et al. “Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior,” Annual Review of Psychology 58, January 2007, 345-372.

[8] Sally Dickerson et al. “Immunological Effects of Induced Shame and Guilt,” Psychomatic Medicine 66(1), January/February 2004, 124-131.

[9] I couldn’t really figure out how to frame this sentence well… I realize that queerness just sounds like “strangeness,” and/or just sounds, well, strange, like a personality trait or something…. While I am most certainly also strange, here I’m talking in particular about sexual identity. Given “that I identify as queer?” Framing it like that avoids the ontologizing of identity that I so often fear, but also makes it seem a bit flippant, a little too casual, given the weight that “coming out” has had in my life. Given “my rampant lesbianism?” That gets the point across, but that definitely ontologizes gender and sex, even more then the previous option. Given “that I fall in love with/become romantically involved with/sleep with women?” That just seems a little clunky, and perhaps, at least for some, a little too straightforward (though, I mean, that’s what sexual identity is/means, right? But the way we talk about or don’t talk about sex is a conversation for another day… which definitely speaks to my broader point about shame and sexual identity—it’s definitely not only queer folk who experience sexual shame…). So, in light of all that, I’ve stuck with the awkwardness of “given my queerness”… Also, to expound on the queer alphabet acronym, in case some of y’all don’t know the whole thing, it’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Ally, Asexual… I’m also sure I am missing a panopoly of other sexual minority/queer identifications that have made their way into the every growing acronym, so my apologies for whatever I’ve left out…

[10] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel. In David M. Halperin & Valerie Traub, eds. Gay Shame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 49-62 (61).

[11] Ellis Hanson, “Teaching Shame,” in Gay Shame, 132-164 (138).

[12] To “eschew shame” = the academic/fancy way of saying, “fuck shame”…?

[13] Michael Warner, “Pleasures and Dangers of Shame,” in Gay Shame, 283-296 (287, emphasis mine).

5 thoughts

  1. As I log into WordPress to work on a section of my post on the shame I experienced growing up gay in the church, this pops up in my feed. Thank you for writing this, you really helped clarify some of the thoughts I had and what I need to write. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3!

  2. Thanks Brandy for a great post, especially timely for Christian communities.

    Would it be worth exploring Jesus’ rejection of shame eg lepers, the bleeding woman, eating with sinners, rejecting judgementalism, preaching compassion?

    A great deal of caution, theological humility and a careful testing against sacred scripture and the deposit of faith needs to go on before we heap shame on each other eg in matters of sexuality.

    God bless

    1. Chris- absolutely. I try to begin to get into some of the more explicitly theological stuff in my third post on this topic, but here, I just wanted to begin to tease out the unexpected ambivalence I had when I started to reflect and dig into the literature on shame…

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