Shame has fallen on hard times. Much of this is due to increasing concerns about the public shaming of people on social media. See the recently published book by Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
I share these worries about the public shaming of strangers on social media, how our outraged Tweets can do serious harm to people — relationally, psychologically and economically. But I’d like to say a few things in praise of shame. Not public shaming, but how shame, as an emotion, is a vital component of what it means to give and experience love.
What I’d like to do is bring into conversation the ideas of Brene Brown (Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection) and Virginia Burrus (Saving Shame).
To start, if you are familiar with Brown’s work you know she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad.” Thus, in Brown’s scheme, guilt is good — it encourages you to take responsibility — and shame is bad.
And that’s how a lot of us now think about shame. Shame is bad.
And yet, if you ponder it, shame is actually a pretty important and vital human emotion. To be sure, shame can be toxic. Shame can be weaponized. But shame isn’t all bad. We’d worry about living in a world where shame didn’t exist.
So let’s push back on Brown a bit. “I am bad,” isn’t shame. It’s self-contempt. To be sure, shame can prompt self-contempt and self-contempt can be a toxic or pathological outcome of shame, but shame shouldn’t be reduced to self-contempt.
So what is shame? According to Burrus, shame is the confrontation of human limitation, the exposure of our weakness, failure, brokenness and vulnerability. Shame is this experience of exposure.
And Brown gets this. The hot burn of shame we feel in this exposure is what Brown calls the “excruciating vulnerability” we experience when we allow ourselves to be imperfect in front of each other. Shame, at least partly, is what makes vulnerability emotionally excruciating. Shame is the emotional threshold that must be crossed to get us to connection and intimacy.
In short, Brown really isn’t against shame. She actually preaches shame when she talks about “excruciating vulnerability.” We must risk the exposure — the shame — of being imperfect in front of each other. Connection requires vulnerability, excruciating vulnerability. Shame is at the heart of connection.
As Burrus suggests, shame is the advent of love. Shame creates the opportunity of love. When I expose myself to you — showing you my sin, failure, imperfection, brokenness and weakness — I feel the flush of shame. I stand naked before you.
And as I stand there — scared and exposed — what I’m seeking is empathy and acceptance. In the words of Brene Brown, I’m looking for “Me too.”
In short, what I’m looking for is the bearing of my shame.
When you love you carry the failure, weakness and brokenness of the Beloved. The Beloved hands you their shame and you bear it, you carry it, you share in it. And the Beloved, in turn, carries your shame.
Love is the bearing of shame.
Love is sharing the burden of our common humanity, sharing the burden of our failures, imperfections and weaknesses.
Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. Richard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared.
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