Mental Health Monday: Shame on You
Last night I did a “late” Faith on Friday post about the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Part of the post contained some strong words criticizing my church, or at least my experience at church yesterday morning. Later last night I deleted the post, although my subscribers received it by email. This morning I woke up pondering what it was that made me delete the post. And then I read the next chapter in Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, and it hit me—I was feeling shame about what I wrote. (My earlier posts about Daring Greatly are here and here.) Or more about how people might respond to what I wrote, since shame is integrally connected to anxiety about how others perceive you.
Chapter 3 of Brown’s book, which I read this morning, is titled, “Understanding and Combating Shame.” There way too much to “review” in a short blog post, so I’ll just hit a couple of highlights, and encourage everyone to get this book and read it!
“Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.”
I could go on and on about how shame affects relationships with other people—spouses, children, friends, co-workers—but for this post I’m going to focus on my relationship with God. As a Christian, fear of disconnection with God is as real as fear of disconnection with other people. Every religion, every church, has its own way of dealing with our failures. The Orthodox Church offers the sacraments of confession and communion as healing for those failures. I get that. But sometimes—like yesterday—the message can come across a little tangled.
Guilt and shame, according to Brown, aren’t the same thing. I am guilty of sin, that’s for sure. And when I sin and own that failure, I should have guilt. I should acknowledge that I did something bad. But shame, again according to Brown, tells me that I am bad. There’s a huge difference. Guilt can have a positive influence in changing behavior, but shame “corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying…. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness.”
That’s what I was feeling when I went to church yesterday morning, for the first time since January. I was desperate for worthiness. I was also exhausted, having just spent several days hostessing my daughter and ten-month-old granddaughter, who were visiting from Denver for a funeral. It was a stressful time for my daughter, and I was able to find the strength to help in her time of need. After they flew back to Denver on Saturday, I crashed and slept for hours. Then I got up on Sunday morning, hungry for a connection to God. I wasn’t feeling guilt or shame. I was just tired and hungry. I needed some warmth and encouragement. So now I’ll share part of that post I deleted last night, tweaked slightly.
Yesterday was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in the Orthodox Church. It’s the first of three Sundays leading up to the beginning of Great Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Calendar. Kind of a warm-up for serious repenting and aesthetic struggle. I say “warm-up” because our faith can get cold when we aren’t actively massaging it, and it’s a shock to suddenly jump into Lent without some preparation… like muscles that we don’t use for a long time and then suddenly we try to run a marathon.
But here’s the thing—the preparation didn’t feel helpful to me yesterday morning. I knew what Sunday it was, and I tried to prepare my heart to enter into the service—to let the music, the prayers, the sacraments warm my faith. Somehow it didn’t happen.
The theme for this Sunday is repentance, and that’s pretty much the only message I heard yesterday morning. I felt like a child who had been away and upon arriving back home, gets fussed at. My heart was already sad because of a death in our family. I had been working hard and doing good deeds and I was exhausted, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I had been away from Church for several weeks, and I needed the Church to be the father in the Prodigal Son story. You know, the one who ran out to welcome his son when he returned? The way I understand it, the son had already repented—that’s why he returned home, right?
We have a large print of Rembrandt’s beautiful painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” in our home. I love this painting. My favorite part is that the father is bathed in light—he is the warmth, the love, the life of the event pictured. The emphasis seems to be on welcoming. It’s a fairly dark painting, except for the father, who is full of light and love. And his light pours out on the son.
I’d like to see the Church—and especially its leaders—welcome all comers with open arms and words that will warm their faith. Not with constant reminders to repent. I’m sure that many people reading this (especially if any pastors are reading it) will take issue with my words. The Orthodox Church calendar sets the agenda for each Sunday. The priests don’t have a choice about what scriptures to read. The choir director can’t decide to have us sing something other than the hymns prescribed for the day. The Gospel reading is set. The homily will be preached on that Gospel reading. What else would I expect?
To have a healthy reaction to my experience at church yesterday morning, I need to learn what Brown calls “shame resilience—the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy-the real antidote to shame.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that definition, but for my purposes in this post, I’ll just say that it was shame that caused me to delete my blog post last night, and resilience that enabled me to repost part of it here this morning. I’ll share more about this chapter on shame in a future post, but I’ll stop for now and let this much sink in. I’m still processing it myself.
And Church? I’ll probably keep showing up. But as we enter Great Lent, I will draw on what I’m learning about shame resilience. I hope it will help me sort out what is and isn’t mine to own. I hope it will help me draw closer to God—to the loving Father who runs out to greet me with open arms.