Let’s Talk about Shame

 

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It’s only taken me several decades to work out what a powerful motivator shame has been in my life. As an idealist and dreamer, the need to make things right has so often been driven by an exhausting sense of shame.

Psychologist Michael Lewis calls shame the ‘quintessential human emotion’. In many ways, shame is somewhat of a normal feeling about ourselves and our behaviour. The problems occur when shame or humiliation become an integral part of our self-image and worth. Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., differentiates guilt and shame as guilt being the feeling of ‘doing’ something wrong, whilst shame is the feeling of ‘being’ something wrong. Gershin puts it this way: “Shame is an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self-judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not valid as a human being.

Brene Brown would say shame is the unspoken epidemic, the secret behind broken behaviour because shame shuts down vulnerability: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” That’s why the fastest way to stifle creativity and pioneering adventures in your organisation is to foster a culture of shame. Shame is a most powerful form of control. When we take a moment to consider our place of belonging, or our social ‘tribes’, that provide not just protection, belonging and nourishment, but also meaning, we realise these tribes tell us not just who we are, but what to believe and how to behave. Shame can become a tribe’s most powerful and degrading tool. Tribal shaming is a dark magic and a form of social control that ensures people do not dare question the status quo because questioning presents a threat to the tribe. If you are anything like me you have been both victim of tribal shaming and perpetrator. Change starts with recognition.

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Shame undergirds fundamentalist-type religions, and it is a match made in hell. In these sort of groups, judgement is based on a “goodness vs. badness scale”. A person’s inclusion or exclusion in these groups depends on where they are perceived on this scale. Therefore, to remain in the ‘in’ group of belonging one’s perceived ‘goodness’ is foundational. Acceptance and belonging are extended to those who fit the groups’ philosophical ideals of ‘good’.

Boschen sums up the rules of shame-bound persons, marriage, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples:

1. Always give the impression of being in control of one’s life at all times. This is the cardinal rule of shame-bound religion and relationships – all other rules flow from here.
2. The second rule of shame-bound fundamentalism is that one must always be right and do the right thing according to the laws of the group, especially the leadership.
3. Blaming is vital in ensuring that a person remains above reproach. Blame the other. Blame helps maintain an illusion of control and keeps the system pure.
4. Denial is very important in a shame culture. The person controlled by shame must deny certain feelings, especially the negative and vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear, loneliness, grief, rejection, neediness, and caring. In the shame-controlled family, group, or church, remaining task-focused can keep dangerous inner realities hidden.
5. Unreliability and inconsistency: a shame driven culture can create a person who shines with ‘holiness’ on Sundays and abuses their partner the following day.
6. Incompleteness – resolving hurt and conflict in families or church is not important. Issues can remain unresolved for months and years.
7. And Golden Rule number seven weighs in at ‘Do Not Talk’. Never discuss the disrespect, abuse and shame you feel. To talk about it would be to bring up the past and with that a sense of shame. For religious fundamentalism, this is vital as to talk means to transfer information, and with that power. Ideas about ‘honour’ keep this ‘no talk’ policy in place, along with excusing the shaming behaviour as ‘preserving the integrity of Scripture’ or ‘defending orthodoxy from liberalism’.
8. Last lucky number eight is the rule of disguising shame. Shame-bound behaviour is minimised and outworked in other addictive behaviours.

Boschen concludes with: Religious fundamentalists are shame-bound persons in shame-based systems. They are guided by a set of rules generally designed by those in positions of power, who require conformity in order to be acceptable.

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The effect of shaming on children is extremely detrimental. In shame-bound settings, a child’s behaviour reflects directly on a parent’s ideal image or their sense of shame. Therefore, shame is used in turn to modify a child’s behaviour. This is often seen as an acceptable form of ‘discipline‘ in homes or schools, where a child can be reduced to nothing more than their behaviour. Self-concept, the way we see ourselves, is formed in our earliest years by our parents, caregivers and figures of authority. Therefore, if a child is consistently shamed, told they are ‘bad’, ‘naughty’, or ‘sinful’ because of their childish behaviour, this is the perceived reality of themselves that they will take into adulthood.

This blog post is only a tiny tip of the iceberg on this enormous subject of shame that so drastically affects human thought and behaviour. I am still unravelling the role of shame in my own life, especially the years of tightly held fundamentalist philosophies that disguised themselves as ‘pleasing God’. Shame’s need to have it all together only produces hypocrisy and judgement. I am learning to trust grace in a whole new way and rediscovered the words of Jesus, “I have come to give you life, life to the full”.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare. – Brene Brown

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Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others

“The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.”
–  Aung San Suu Kyi –

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We find our Scapegoats at a young age.

Her name was Helen. She wore glasses that were too big for her face. Her school skirt nearly touched her ankles. She smelt of mothballs. She was the perfect playground scapegoat. And we all reminded her of her role everyday. Our need to deflect from our own anger, guilt, aggression, rejection, and project it on someone else, starts very early in our life. In fact, it seems like we have a genetic human default of wanting to blame someone or something else for the angst we carry as vulnerable
humans.

History eagerly awaits to be summoned and reveal its countless files on scapegoats. Animals often wore the brunt of the blame game. The early pilgrims to the USA brought a religious superstition to its shores that
resulted in wariness of anything not defined in their worldview. Black cats were among their targets in looking for explanations for disasters. Unfortunately, this irrational belief lingers to this day as black cats are five times more likely to be euthanised and continue to be subjected to horrendous abuse. Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked and pigs killed by Sunni Muslims who blamed the pigs and the Christian farmers for spreading the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 (a pointless carnage). And, of course, then there’s Mrs. O’Leary’s famous scapegoat cow who was blamed for the Great Chicago Fires.

Charlie Campbell’s excellent book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, devotes a great deal of attention to the scapegoating of women throughout history. He contends that the witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe were mainly motivated by men’s fear and hatred of women. Scapegoating women is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Alexis Carrel blamed the shambles and ageing of a post World War I France on women, for they had “ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race.” The Spanish Civil war was blamed on women whose “vaginas had given birth to republican filth.” From the Laws of Manu to early Christian apologists like Tertullian to the Buddhist thinker Santideva, men found solace in blaming women for their desires. Women were called evil and confined to the home, as
society needed to be protected. Jack Holland in his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice argues that women are the universal scapegoat of history.

History is littered with notorious individual scapegoats like the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, or the Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, or Hitler’s Party Leader, Rudolf Hess, or the tragic figure of Gaëtan Dugas (Patient Zero). Then there are the minority groups that become the scapegoats for community ignorance, religious beliefs, or fear: the Albino children in Africa, the LGBTIQ community, Jews, Palestinians, and perhaps in modern Australian history nothing exemplifies the scapegoating of minority groups more perfectly than the consistent
slandering of refugees by political power puppets. All of this to say that us humans have never had a problem of finding someone to blame!

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We often tend to think of scapegoating as something that happens outside our family of origin. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many  people who will tell their stories of being picked on and
excluded from the people who were meant to love and care for them. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems they cannot face. Blaming a vulnerable family member can be the practice, for
example, of a parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The child, or scapegoat, is the one who wears their
frustrations, aggression and hatred, as they unite the rest of the family against the one being attacked. If you have been a family scapegoat there is no sugar-coating it: you have been abused. This is not ok! Please consider the effect it has had on your life. Perhaps it is time to say “No More” to the bullies?

Sadly, religious institutions are not immune from scapegoating. The ‘God of Wrath and Judgement’ is keenly at work in the minds of some
religious leaders, zapping anyone who does not agree with that leader’s
interpretation of the Sacred Text. I think the fairly modern flavours of Christian Fundamentalism and biblicism, that have permeated some faith communities, have contributed to the fervency devoted to scapegoat hunting. When adherence to a certain code of beliefs and behaviour is the litmus test to achieve belonging and affirmation, then it is fairly easy to find a scapegoat that is not living up to the ’standards of holiness’. Blaming another for our own existential angst and catastrophes is nothing new. Hear the echoes of the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, if we can convince the rest of our social tribe that God also blames them, then the dehumanising has even greater repercussions for the damned scapegoats.

A month ago, many people around the world celebrated one of the most significant events of the Christian Liturgical Year: Easter. We reflected on the Passion of the Christ: The Innocent One, without any guilt, who breaks the mythical cycle of human superstitious violence. The scapegoat becomes the Lamb of God. With his brutal death, “the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of superstition, politics, and ideologies” are exposed. “It is finished,” is the Gospel declaration of a Kingdom that is not of this world and has put an end to scapegoating. The unjust slaying of Christ reveals the foundation of a culture built on murder and a lie. Jesus, knowing we are mimetic creatures, calls us to follow his footsteps on the path of peace. It is time to lay aside the scapegoat. It is time to face our own souls.

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