Shame is a painful, pervasive phenomenon in human relationships. At the core of shame is the emotion of disgust.1 Mick and
I mention this to make a larger point: shame, whatever thoughts we have when we experience shame, is an intrinsically relational/social emotion. When disgust is direct towards oneself, it isn’t just that we are disgusted with ourselves, but rather we are imaging the disgust that other people have for us. Our sense of self and identity is so tightly intertwined with the social relationships we consider important, that we view ourselves with disgust because we believe that others view us in a terribly negative light, whether this belief is actually true or false. There is some value to this emotion when it is based upon
Consequently, there are two things that can cause shame. 1) Something we said or did that we believe, against whether true or false, that makes important people view us negatively. 2) Important people actually distancing and rejecting us, even if we are unaware of anything we did. In other words, shame is the result of being rejected by people we consider important or imagining something we did has or will lead them to reject us. While the emotions of shame in certain cases of pathology may take on a life of its own that becomes very distant from this social reality, the basic foundations of shame
Given that shame is a very painful emotion as it can also lead to the emotion of loneliness and panic due to feeling isolated, we tend to want to avoid shame. Therefore, there are various tactics we tend to employ to avoid shame relate to behaviors and perceptions. Firstly, we try to control our behaviors so that we don’t do something people might view negatively. We can call this the behavioral route. Secondly, we try to influence people’s perceptions of ourselves and our actions, by trying to tell them what things we did or did not do, providing an interpretation of their significance, and trying to manage people’s impressions of ourselves; this is often times joined with placing blame on others if there is a question of fault. We can call this the narrative-hermeneutic tactic. Thirdly, we can emotionally distance ourselves from those people, reducing their importance in our lives, so that we don’t feel the pain of rejection. We can call this the distancing tactic. Fourthly, it is not something we really do but we receive people’s positive responsiveness towards us, recognizing that we are not viewed negatively because people are letting us in, whether it be due to false perceptions or due to the provisions of forgiveness. We can call this the receptive tactic. Fifthly, we can
Whether it is the behavioral, narrative-hermeneutic, distancing, receptive, or
But herein lies the problem; when
Another example can frequently happen in relationships where there are feelings of intimacy and closeness by one person but they come to believe it isn’t shared by the other person and feel rejected. One common tactic is the combination of the narrative-hermeneutic tactic combined with the
A darker example is people who routinely mask themselves through the narrative-hermeneutic tactic, where they always control people’s impressions of them to the point that they lie about what happened and consistently portray themselves in a positive light and/or others in a very negative light. People who are telling the truth can do this also, but what commonly distinguishes the truth-tellers from the maskers is how consistent their narratives and interpretations tend to be. All other things being equal, truth tellers will tend to have a more consistent and coherent narrative that doesn’t dramatically change from one situation to the next. Maskers, by contrast, pay more attention to the perception’s of others to the point that they will dramatically change their narratives and interpretations to suit different circumstances.
One final example of one I am pretty familiar with personally is the avoidant tactic of deattaching. Some people to avoid shame just simply disconnect themselves. Whenever they don’t get the type of response they want from others, they tend to distance themselves. Depending on how many significant relationships that have and whether those relationships are enough for them, they may try other tactics such as conciliation or narrative-hermeneutics if they feel the pain of isolation and loneliness.
However, while some of these tactics and style can sometimes be employed in ways that does not contradict with what is true and to be valued. Our perceptions of reality and who or what is good and bad are determined by our instinctive usage of these tactics. Much of the time, these instincts are based solely upon perceived needs for survival and not based upon reflective deliberations on what happened or thoughtful consider of what we should value. Put differently, the habitually instinctive attempts to avoid shame can disconnect us from the goodness of grace and the realities of truth.
However, there is one tactic that really falls upon others to address the feelings of shame: the gift of presence that those who feel shame can receive. This stands as one of the foundational points of the Gospel, where instead of God keeping distant from us due to our sin, overlooks our sin and draws near to us to show us who he really is; this undergirds the Apostle Paul’s point in Romans 3:25 and in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. God’s drawing near challenges many of the feelings of shame we can have, at least insofar as it relates to any sense of rejection from God. Similarly, as God’s People are called to be forgivers and to give the grace and forgiveness as they have been given grace and forgiven, they too can provide the gift of openness and presence. Here those who feel shame receive the gift of presence, challenging the constant need to engage in the other tactics. Sometimes, the gift of presence comes with some rockiness, as commonly the parameters and boundaries for the giving and/or receiving of the gift of presence need to be established for it to be truly received and understood for what the gift of presence really is, and this act of contextualizing and clarity can sometimes activate our sense of fears and need to avoid shame, but God is gracious and patient and ideally so should we as the Body of Christ learn to exhibit that same grace and patience for those whom we wish to reconnect.
In other words, the dynamics of shame are not something that can be readily satisfied with most of our tactics that we try to employ. The best, most effective form of eradicating shame is seen in the work of Jesus Christ, who as the Son of God is both simultaneously the fullest demonstration of God’s holiness and righteousness and yet also the fullest demonstration of God’s grace and mercy. In other words, the gift of presence entails both