Like many people today, I have been deeply impacted by the work and writings of Dr. Brené Brown on the issues of shame and vulnerability. Brené (due to her personal writing style I’d like to think we’re on a first name basis) has really been helpful for me in discovering my own shame and the ways I try to protect myself from having to deal with it.
In her newest book Dare to Lead, Brené applies her research to matters of leadership in an organization. Because of my roles as a pastor, husband and father this book has really been helping me see the stories my shame has been feeding me for decades.
In one of the most helpful personal stories of the book, Brené tells of a time when her team confronted her to let her know that she’s not very good with planning and managing time. Her initial response was simply to “armor up” and tell her team she would try harder. But her level of effort to be better was beside the point; what her team really wanted was for her to listen and address the underlying forces that were driving her to be so unrealistic in her expectations for the team.
I began to find myself in Brené’s shoes just a few pages later when she addresses perfectionism. While I’ve always known that my own perfectionism and high standards can border on unhealthy obsession, I’ve never really understood how toxic it is or where it comes from. But as she points out, “Wherever perfectionism is driving us, shame is driving shotgun.”
Perfectionism is a defensive response to shame. It is a belief system which feeds us the lie that our value and identity come from what we accomplish and how well we accomplish it. It is self-destructive and addictive: so long as I look and act perfectly, I can avoid any feelings of blame, judgement or shame.
Wherever perfectionism is driving us, shame is driving shotgun. – Dr. Brené Brown
As I continued to read through her book, I followed her counsel to look at my own life and the way that I try to avoid or manage my shame. As I’ve thought about it more, I’ve been able to identify some key moments in my life that have become a part of my shame story.
The addictive behavior of seeking to control what I can started soon after my parents were divorced. Rather than entering into some kind of long custody battle, they did what they could to make the best decision for me. The choice was made that I would switch between my mom’s house and my dad’s house every week. Each Sunday for six years I packed up my bags and left to live out of my suitcases for another week.
When I look back on these formative years I can see now how life never truly felt settled for me. By the time I got unpacked Sunday evening, the next Sunday was already looming on the horizon. My response to this vulnerable and uprooted lifestyle was to seek ways to control whatever I could. I did my best to structure my time exactly how I wanted it (especially on Sundays). My bags, clothes and other possessions needed to be organized in the most efficient way possible. Protecting a sense of being settled and planted was my highest priority.
Many of my unhealthy behaviors today are driven by a need to be in control. I don’t like the unknown nor the feeling of being unsettled. Trusting others to get things done makes me feel vulnerable. Control is a kind of identity for me; when I’m not in control, something must be wrong.
More recently, a few particular conversations stand out to me as having really driven my perfectionism. Pursuing excellence is often a defensive way I try to find meaning and value in what I accomplish. If I feel that my ability to control my accomplishments is threatened, it sends me into a shame spiral of defensiveness, blame and self-condemnation.
Control is a kind of identity for me; when I’m not in control, something must be wrong.
When I was first entering seminary to pursue pastoral ministry, I had a vibrant and passionate love for the Bible and studying theology (keep in mind this too was driven by some perfectionism). Like many people who are knee-deep in graduate studies, my social skills were not what they should’ve been. On more than one occasion, other men – who I see in retrospect were not speaking to me out of love – told me I’m “too theological,” that I would never make a good pastor, and that I should just pursue getting a PhD and teach instead.
I can see now how these past conversations still haunt me in the present, driving a need to feel accomplished in my present role as a pastor. My initial defensive reaction was to say, What do they know? I’ll show them. When I moved into blame my response became, They’re just jealous!
Today I carry constant responses of self-condemnation. After counseling conversations, I feel paranoid for days that I was being “too theological” with the counselee. My sermons or teaching are never good enough, and I obsess for days over small blunders in my presentation. I grow incredibly irritable and frustrated when things don’t meet my expectations.
Rather than providing a true escape and way to heal from my shame, my perfectionism and lust for control only feed the shame monster. I don’t feel adequate, so I seek perfection to feel adequate. When I realized I wasn’t perfect, I feel ashamed. My shame story continues and writes itself on every page as days go by.
In Dr. Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame, he describes how powerful shame is precisely because of how it works itself into the stories we believe about ourselves. The fact that we tell stories of meaning and purpose is what sets us apart from every other animal. From the moment we are born we develop ways of sensing, perceiving, imaging, purposing, and finding value. Shame is destructive because of how it alters our stories, telling its own story of how worthless we are wherever we go.
Shame tells us that we should feel worthless because we are worthless. When we begin to believe these stories we tell ourselves, we don’t even think to consider that we might feel shame because of something that has happened to us, because of responses we’ve been conditioned into, or as a function of a relationship we have with someone else.
Shame is destructive because of how it alters our stories, telling its own story of how worthless we are wherever we go.
The love of God in Christ Jesus is an invitation into a new story we can tell ourselves: one of grace, belonging, value and worth. This comes through the work of God’s Spirit in our hearts, who leads us out of slavery and fear and into a deeper understanding of what it means to be a loved and valued child of God (Romans 8:14-23). But until we are willing to face our shame, we will continue to believe and tell lies about ourselves.
I’ve shared pieces of my shame story with you because it has been very helpful for me to speak and identify my story in order to grow in my understanding of grace and godliness. What shame stories are you believing about yourself? What might it look like for you to spend some time wrestling with shame and its destructive consequences in your life?