Blind to Love
All addictions begin in shame. They don’t begin with troubling behavior—a binge on pom, a night of overdrinking–but with a sense of lack or limitation. An addict may be loved deeply, but sense of lack or limitation.
An addict may be loved deeply, but like Narcissus he is blind to it, trapped in a desperate cycle of attempted self-salvation. Adam and Eve had everything, but they perceived that something was missing and then took satisfaction into their own hands rather than embracing their creaturely, God-given limits.
Defeated by Satan
Many Christians . . . find themselves defeated by the most powerful psychological weapon that Satan uses against Christians. This weapon has the effectiveness of a deadly missile. Its name? Low self-esteem. Satan’s greatest psychological weapon is a gut-level feeling of inferiority, inadequacy, and low self-worth.
This feeling shackles many Christians, in spite of wonderful spiritual experiences…and knowledge of God’s Word. Although they understand their position as sons and daughters of God, they are tied up in knots, bound by a terrible feeling of inferiority, and chained to a deep sense of worthlessness.
It’s a word we do not often use in daily conversation, book groups, or church pulpits, but shame is something we all experience. It’s the feeling that we have missed the mark according to our own standard or our perception of someone else’s standard for us. Shame keeps us from being honest about our struggles, sins, and less-than-perfect moments. Fear of shame drives us to perfectionism in all areas of our lives, so that there would be no imperfection to be noticed and judged. Shame is what we heap on others when they fail us. Shame keeps us holding onto bitterness and refusing to forgive. We are impacted by the shame of sin committed against us, and this drives a wedge into our relationships.
Shame can be darker and deeper too. It’s what a perpetrator gives to his victim as he violates her. She will carry that shame forever unless she can find a way to bring it into the light of day. To disown it, she needs to name the shame as his. Shame can be the lack of parental affection and attention that leaves a child with the indelible mark of “not worthy.” Shame arises from past sin that seems to forever haunt you. You know, that sin that you feel like you can’t share with anyone. So you stay in hiding, holed up in your lonely bunker of one, never letting anyone get close enough to see you, to see that part of you.
A Different Perspective on the Narcissus Myth
In his important book When Narcissism Comes to Church, Chuck DeGroat makes an important connection between shame and narcissism by looking at the myth of Narcissus.
The myth of Narcissus tells the story well. While often told as a tale of excessive self-love, it is precisely self-love that Narcissus was lacking. It’s a story of being stuck, immobilized, fixed in a death dance. In his youth he ran free, hunting in the forest, loved and desired by young women. But he would let no one touch his heart. This is the wound of shame. One who is ashamed cannot connect and cannot become vulnerable. He is immovable, untouchable.
Narcissus finds himself thirsty one day and makes his way to a clear pool for a drink. In the water he sees his reflection, an image so striking that he reaches in to embrace it. But the image is lost when the water is disrupted, as it is with each future effort. Leaving Narcissus all the more desperate. Immobilized before the pool, he pines for the image that will never return his love and eventually succumbs to the neglect of his basic needs.
… Narcissus is trapped in a vicious narcissistic feedback loop. The name Narcissus comes from the Greek narc, which means numbness—a kind of stupor. It is the sting of addiction that Narcissus experiences.
Fly at Once
Arthur Conan Doyle, the ingenious creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, once found great humor in a practical joke he played on 12 famous friends. Each of these men was virtuous and highly respected. For the joke, Doyle sent every one of them the same telegram: “Fly at once, all is discovered!” Within 24 hours, the dozen men of noble reputation had taken a trip out of the country!
Nothing to Hide
The relationship between wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt has been well chronicled by historians of the period. On one visit to the United States, Roosevelt wheeled himself right into the British Prime Minister’s bedroom, opened the door to find Churchill completely naked and yet unashamed. Churchill’s response was classic: “You see, Mr. President, we British have nothing to hide.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Judging Others Stems from Self-Judgment
But it is important to be aware that the act of judging others has its origins in our self-judgment. As I often tell patients, “Shamed people shame people.” Long before we are criticizing others, the source of that criticism has been planted, fertilized and grown in our own lives, directed at ourselves, and often in ways we are mostly unaware of.
Suffice to say that our self-judgment, that tendency to tell ourselves that we are not enough—not thin enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not . . . enough—is the nidus out of which grows our judgment of others, not least being our judgment of God. The problem is that we have constructed a sophisticated lattice of blindness around this behavior, which disallows our awareness of it.
R.C. Sproul & The Social Paraiah
The pastor R.C. Sproul was studying in the Netherlands in the last 1960s and randomly struck up a conversation with a Dutch woman. The conversation was a common, enjoyable interaction, but when it was over someone nearby came up to him and asked, why were you talking with that woman?
His response was something to the tune of, why wouldn’t I? And their response was quite telling. It was because she had collaborated with the Nazi’s some 30 years go. She had become a pariah, an exile of sorts, in her own city because of a decision she had made decades before. This was the kind of animosity that one could expect when you collaborated with a foreign power despised by the local population.
Now working for the Nazis is no small matter, and it was probably quite understandable for people to resent her decision to work with them. But does that also mean she should never be forgiven?
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Shame is an Emotional Weapon
Shame is not just a consequence of something our first parents did in the Garden of Eden. It is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity.
These gifts include any area of endeavor that promotes goodness, beauty and joy in and for the lives of others, whether that be teaching our first graders, loving our spouse well, managing forests, conducting healing prayer services, creating a new medical technology, offering psychotherapy or composing symphonies.
Shame Takes Shape in Hiding
Another feature of shame’s presentation is that of hiding. Whether it is the involution into the silence of our own minds or the literal turning away from someone with a downcast facial expression with eyes lowered, shame leads us to cloak ourselves with invisibility to prevent further intensification of the emotion.
It is not hard to bring to mind a secret you have worked hard to keep as a countermeasure against the rejection you anticipate you will have to endure should someone find out the truth about you. The expense of this labor is often buried as hidden cost, as we collect multiple secrets and keep them neatly stacked in our closets—until the closet can no longer contain them.
Shame vs. Guilt
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
A Shaming for Taking Selfies
Did you follow the shaming of sorority girls that were caught on camera taking selfies during an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game? The male television announcers bemoaned “every girl locked into their phone.” “Oh, Lord.” “Welcome to parenting 2015; they’re all just completely transfixed by the technology.”
They mock their “selfie with a hot dog, selfie with a churro, selfie just of a selfie.” The announcers conclude, “Help us, please, somebody, help us! Can we do an intervention?” Online condemnation was also swift: “They have the combined IQ of a burnt tater tot.” Afterward, it was discovered that the D-backs’ stadium announcer had just asked the crowd to take selfies as part of a contest/promotion.
Shaming Vs. Accountability
I was recently brought in to talk with a group of corporate leaders who were trying to manage a difficult reorganization in their company. One of the project managers told me that, after listening to me talk about the dangers of using shame as a management tool, he was worried that he shamed his team members. He told me that when he gets really frustrated, he singles people out and criticizes their work in team meetings.
He explained, “I’m so frustrated. I have two employees who just don’t listen. I explain every single detail of the project, I check to make sure they understand, and they still do it their way. I’m out of options. I feel backed into a corner and angry, so I take them down in front of their colleagues.” When I asked him how he was holding these two employees accountable for not following the project protocol, he replied, “What do you mean by accountable?” I explained, “After you check with them to make sure they understand your expectations and the objectives, how do you explain the consequences of not following the plan or not meeting the objectives?” He said, “I don’t talk about the consequences. They know they’re supposed to follow the protocol.”
I gave him an example, “Okay. What would happen if you told them that you were going to write them up or give them an official warning the next time they violated protocol and that if it continues, they’re going to lose their jobs?” He shook his head and said, “Oh, no. That’s pretty serious. I’d have to get the human resources people involved.
That becomes a big hassle.” Setting boundaries and holding people accountable is a lot more work than shaming and blaming. But it’s also much more effective. Shaming and blaming without accountability is toxic to couples, families, organizations, and communities. First, when we shame and blame, it moves the focus from the original behavior in question to our own behavior. By the time this boss is finished shaming and humiliating his employees in front of their colleagues, the only behavior in question is his.
They Were All Laughing at Me
Several years ago, when I was about to speak in a seminary chapel, the seminary’s president introduced me and noted that my sons were with me in the front row. He announced each of their names and asked them to stand while the congregation applauded. When he arrived at my then – three – year – old son, the service took a turn.
My son — knowing the eyes in the large room were all on him — turned ashen – faced and bolted down the aisle toward the doors. I went after him, but could barely keep up. I caught him right as he was hurrying out the double doors into the sunlight outside.
“Where are you going?” I asked. He, through tears, said, “ I just had to get out ; they were all laughing at me ! ” I tried to explain that the congregation was not, in fact, laughing at him, but were instead just trying to make him feel welcome. By the pull I felt as his body still leaned toward the exit, I could tell he wasn’t convinced.
The Two Conflicting Instincts with Shame
Shame has two conflicting instincts. It needs to isolate and hide, and it needs a community in which to be transparent. Hiding, of course, usually wins. It is the easier and more natural of the two. But we are savvy enough to know that the easy way is rarely fruitful, which leaves us with the hard way—and that seems impossible.
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.