How Shame is Secretly Affecting All of Us with Dr. Curt Thompson
This week on the podcast I interviewed Dr. Curt Thompson. Curt is an author, a speaker, and a psychiatrist. He's the founder of Being Known center, an organization that develops resources to educate and train leaders about the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology, Christian spiritual formation and vocational creativity. He has written two books, The Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. We’ve included some key points from the podcast below, but make sure to listen and hear the full episode!
THEOLOGY OF THE MIND
What does Paul say about the mind?
Paul tells us to think on true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, etc. (Philippians 4:8) but what does it actually mean to think on those things? It means to consider it. To be present with it. It means to allow yourself to feel the presence of beauty. It is to direct your attention to these things. Part of our problem is we want to be able to just do it logically and linearly. But taking in beauty requires our emotions.
Thinking logically and linearly isn’t the enemy, but we also need to bring in emotions and feelings. Some of us who are linear, logical thinkers don’t find much value in emotions.
THE VALUE OF EMOTIONS
There are things about our emotional lives that we work very hard to not pay attention to and then we burn lots of energy regulating those afflicting emotions pretty non-consciously. And because we’re not aware that we’re doing it, we’re burning all this energy and wondering then why am I so tired? Why am I so irritable? Why do I have such a hard time being patient with my kids? It’s not helpful to say “think on these things” to that person.
The problem is not that we don't know logically or literally that it's not a good thing to be impatient with our kids. The problem is that the part of us that is driving our impatience is our emotional state, but we are not accessing that area.
In that sense we’re not taking that part of our minds captive because we don't even know it's in play.
When we ask someone, what do you feel, we help them expand their awareness of the parts of their mind that are in play. The person who feels so overwhelmed in the first place now senses that they are not alone in the process.
It is in our being connected to others that we have the courage to make the different choices that we really want to make.
We can do that now, not because we now know what the right thing is to do, but because we feel safe enough and courageous enough and confident enough to do it precisely because we are not alone in our anguish.
THE CROSS, SHAME, AND COMMUNITY
This is what atonement in part is all about. The English word atonement comes from “at one ment”. This notion that on Good Friday, God is as “at one with us” as he possibly could be. Stripped naked and put to death on a cross. The beautiful thing about it is God comes and he joins us in that space. On Easter, something beyond our imagination happens because God takes Jesus, raises him, and we being in him are also raised. This is what we do when we come to our friends and neighbors and enemies in their shame and say, “I will not leave you alone with this. I'm going to be present with you.”
The sense of shame that keeps us from wanting to be open with people finding us is primarily a thing we feel before it is a thing that we think.
Shame is something we feel first, and then has huge implications on our brain and thoughts.
THE MESSAGES WE TELL OURSELVES
Evil starts the conversation with a woman first by making sure with the woman. At the very beginning there is a sense that this conversation is intended to isolate her.
Isolation is one of shame’s primary neurophysiological features.
When we are alone and isolated, we are left to figure out the meaning of the story shame is telling me. Evil doesn’t come to us in explicit, logical, linear thought. He gives us a bit of information and leaves us to spiral.
Everyone can sense shame. Children can sense this as early as 15 to 18 months of age. The turning away of the eye, the downcast gaze, the turning away of the shoulders. We do not need our thinking brain to experience shame. We sense it.
For example, if I grew up in a house where every time I bring my best work to my dad or my mom, they say, “I know it's a 92% but where's the other 8%?” At some point that felt sense is going to have to be translated by me into a message. It's a message that says, I'm not working hard enough. I'm not a smart enough person. I'm not a good enough student. I'm not enough in some way.
We have 100,000 ways of sending those messages to ourselves. So we come up with coping mechanisms to deal with it. The kid who believes he’s not smart enough will work harder as a way to cope. Then if he achieves enough, the sense of shame he’s feeling will be diffused enough to dampen the intensity of his feelings. Then he doesn’t even have to pay attention to his emotion of shame.
So where is the hope?
One of evil's primary methodologies of accessing people's hearts and minds is through this implementation of shame. This is why God comes to us in such a vulnerable way. He sees the whole of us. God coming to us is the model by which we then go to others. This is why we want to be in communities which we are able to be vulnerable. Because one of the antidotes to shame is vulnerability. It is the activity of being fully true. Confession is my embodied action of revealing the whole truth of who we are in the presence of someone else, that is the gospel being reflected to me. When we express our deepest and darkest secrets to someone, and they still choose to love us after, that is a reflection of the gospel. That dismantles shame.
RENEW YOUR MIND
“Therefore do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind such that you may know what the will of God is” (Romans 12:2).
This is an incredibly beautiful verse. We are learning about the capacity of the brain neurons, the 100 billion of them, that are in our head. They have the capacity to make new cells and new connections. It is real regeneration in time and space. This is how the God of the Bible has made us. It is through continual regeneration and choices that we can literally renew our mind.
The Importance of Rhythms
If we look at the creation narrative we read in the first chapter of Genesis, there’s lots of rhythms going on. There's day and night, there's water and land. Birds and fish. Stars and sun. Male and female.
We as humans need solitude and community as rhythms. We need solitude more than anything. That solitude is one of the places where we grow. But it’s solitude in conjunction with community. You can go off in solitude and read a book for a week and find great growth of that. But the growth is not sustainable if you don't come back and have it as a shared experience with your community.
We have this illusion because of technology that we are more connected, but in fact we are becoming increasingly disconnected.
HOW DO PEOPLE CHANGE?
People change by being willing to vulnerably allow themselves to be known over time by God and by others. It is stepping into the invitation of the next courageous thing that God calls them to do as they are freed from the shame that has kept them in their negative behavioral cycles in the first place.
Negative cycles can be broken.
Evil does his best work in the middle of good work being done. It's not going to show up at your house at three o'clock on a Thursday afternoon and say, hey, let's go rob a bank.
God's vision for us was that we were made to make things. We were made to create goodness and beauty all around us.
We can't love the Lord our God or the others around us or those things that we are called to make with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength if we are working so hard to contain a great deal of it behind our wall of shame. this wall of “I will not have my wall breached.”
Vulnerability or to be vulnerable is not something that we choose to be or choose not to be. It is something that we are. The question is: to what degree am I going to live into my vulnerability? What are you paying attention to? Are you living fully into what you have been created to be? Are you accessing parts of your heart that carry burden, so you can share that burden with others.
WE HAVE A CHOICE
We have a choice of what we pay attention to. In Romans 8, Paul writes about how the mind that is on the spirit is life, but the mind that is on the flesh is death. We want to, as much as we are able, to be attentive in each moment, to delight in the presence of God. To choose to pay attention to the Spirit and allow that to inform whatever is happening in the moment. To choose not to pay attention to whatever message of shame that will always be in competition with my desire to be attentive to the Spirit. Everything else becomes a byproduct of my choice to pay attention to one or the other of those two things.