What’s All This Talk About Shame?

Jill Anschutz

When I first heard that we were bringing psychiatrist Curt Thompson to Denver for an event about shame, I’ll admit I struggled to understand the relevance to our work at Denver Institute. But the more I’ve read on the topic in the last few weeks, the more I’m convinced of the importance of understanding what the gospel says about overcoming shame.

Here are three key ideas from three major cultural voices on the significance of shame – and its invisibility.

(1) Andy Crouch on shame in the Internet era:

“… Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, recalls a moment of shame from her adolescence. ‘There were maybe five kids sitting in a car across the street,’ she says, recounting how she tripped and fell. ‘I remember them laughing at me as I picked myself up. But that was in front of five kids, and it was over in five minutes. Today, if someone caught a moment like that on a smartphone and shared it on social media, that shame could live with the kid for the rest of high school.

“‘On Facebook, others’ perceptions of us are both public and relatively permanent,’ Powell says. ‘You post something and everybody comments on it. People tag you, people talk about you. And if no one comments, that can be just as much a source of shame.’

From Christianity Today’s March 2015 cover story, “The Return of Shame

(2) Brene Brown on recognizing the voice of shame:

"There's a great quote that saved me this past year by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the 'Man in the Arena' quote. And it goes like this: "It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he's in the arena, at best, he wins, and at worst, he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.

"And that's what this conference, to me, is about. Life is about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, 'I'm going in and I'm going to try this,' shame is the gremlin who says, 'Uh, uh. You're not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn't in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don't think that you're pretty, smart, talented or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.' Shame is that thing.

"And if we can quiet it down and walk in and say, 'I'm going to do this,' we look up and the critic that we see pointing and laughing, 99 percent of the time is who? Us. Shame drives two big tapes – 'never good enough' –  and, if you can talk it out of that one, 'who do you think you are?' The thing to understand about shame is, it's not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is 'I am bad.' Guilt is 'I did something bad.' How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, 'I'm sorry. I made a mistake?' How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I'm sorry. I am a mistake.

"There's a huge difference between shame and guilt. And here's what you need to know. Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here's what you even need to know more. Guilt, inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive."

From the TED Talk “Listening to shame

(3) David Brooks on the complexities of living in America’s shame culture:

“If we’re going to avoid a constant state of anxiety, people’s identities have to be based on standards of justice and virtue that are deeper and more permanent than the shifting fancy of the crowd. In an era of omnipresent social media, it’s probably doubly important to discover and name your own personal True North, vision of an ultimate good, which is worth defending even at the cost of unpopularity and exclusion.

“The guilt culture could be harsh, but at least you could hate the sin and still love the sinner. The modern shame culture allegedly values inclusion and tolerance, but it can be strangely unmerciful to those who disagree and to those who don’t fit in.”

From The New York Times column, “The Shame Culture


Jill Anschutz

Convinced that “those who tell stories rule society” (Socrates), Jill logged 10 years of experience in influencing public opinion and perception through strategic communications. While serving as a principal at SE2, a Denver-based communications agency, Jill discovered the joy of integrating the Christian faith with her day-to-day work in the marketplace. In her current work as a freelance consultant, she now tells stories about Denverites bringing the gospel to bear in diverse industries.

Jill is a graduate of Taylor University, an alumna of the Impact Denver leadership program, a deacon at Fellowship Denver Church, and a Kentucky Colonel — an honorary commission given by the state of Kentucky to “individuals noted for their public service and their work for the advancement of Kentucky.”