The Psychology of Shame (or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Freud”)

9 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

You’re not good enough.

And that’s ok.

I am indebted to a friend of mine who taught at the University of Virgina for pointing me towards Freud (the data below comes from pages130-131 in Critical Issues in Modern Religion).

My handful of psychology classes didn’t exactly endear me to Freud, so I was actually pleased to find something useful in his theories (with apologies to any of you psych majors. I’m sure Freud comes in very handy at the unemployment office).

Freud identified anxiety as one of man’s chief problems. He classified anxiety into three broad categories:

Realistic: This is fear of real dangers. I’m talking honest-to-goodness sharks here, people. This is the fear of something that you believe can actually physically harm you, like the fear of heights, zombies or bears wielding chainsaws.

Neurotic: This is fear of our own impulses. This is the person who’s determined to protect their own self-image – if others would see their behavior, they’d see who they really are. The results of such exposure are humiliation and shame.

This is where we turn from fear-of-heights-and-sharks to fear-of-public-speaking. And, I would add, that it is neurotic, not moral anxiety, that seems to have the more powerful effect on us. “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking.” says comedian Jerry Seinfeld. “This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Indeed; we’d rather be made a corpse than made a fool.

Moral: This is the fear of guilt or condemnation – whether for our behavior or our thoughts. This is much more subtle, and generally much more hidden. For obvious reasons, right? There’s a reason we keep locks on our diaries – we like keeping secrets to ourselves.

In addition to these categories, Freud highlighted three main defense mechanisms for dealing with anxiety.

Repression: Removing fear and shame from our conscious mind. This is a form of protective forgetfulness. If I can remove the memory, then I don’t have to worry about it.

Regression: Reverting to earlier stages of development. It’s classic, Holden Caufield, I-want-to-escape kinds of stuff. This is why so many 20-somethings remain in a state of permanent adolescence; video games, beer pong and shoe-shopping hold way more appeal than growing up and facing who you really are.

Projection: Attributing moral guilt/shame to others. No one wants to be the worst-dressed person at the party. It’s easier if we can find some ugliness in others. Freud saw a variety of ways in which we project. I’ll [over]simplify by saying that we simply feel better knowing that at the very worst, at least we’re not that bad (right?).

Shame on us

In the movie The Manchurian Candidate (the good one…not the Denzel remake), one of the scientists says, “If you can eliminate shame you can make a man do whatever you ask.”

And that’s true.

Moral anxiety or shame is a difficult subject to broach for any number of reasons. But what’s particularly bizarre is the way technology has minimized privacy and maximized connectivity. Facebook? Have you ever had a day when you didn’t have a “TMI” reaction (that’s “Too Much Information” to all of my older, less savvy readers) to someone’s status updates?

But shame still lingers, in the crevices and corners of our world. It’s like the movie The Village: for all our community’s ideals and good intentions, there will always be a box of secrets sitting in the corner, reminders of something unspeakable.

Yeah; shame is still real. That’s why Frank Warren’s PostSecret project enjoyed as much success as it did. If you’re unfamiliar, the project is an assembly of postcards, on which is written the secret confession of anonymous authors from across the country. Some are humorous, some are unsettling. All are very, very sad.

Disappointments often fuel this whole type of shame-avoidance thing. When things don’t go our way, we get cynical and bitter. It’s the person who after one too many rejections, gives up on love. To continue on, to use Freud’s terms, would demand a confrontation with neurotic anxiety. It’s safer to simply regress, turn to life’s various forms of emotional anesthesia (sheesh…take your pick…drinking, shopping, sports, career…shall I go on?), rather than deal with who we really are.

Shame and religion

Shame, of course, is different from guilt. Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”

The problem with religious fundamentalism is simple: it does not properly address the subject of shame. The message of fundamentalist pulpits is salvation not by Who loves you, but salvation by becoming lovable.

Reverend Lovejoy (from the show The Simpsons) is way too great for his own good. He tells Marge, “Thanks to you, I’ve rediscovered a form of shame that’s gone unused for seven hundred years!” Religion, all too often, manufactures shame rather than meet it head on.

Rather than preach a gospel that emphasizes the removal of the stain, they preach a gospel the teaches us to cover it up by being a “nice” person, by laboring in a never-ending sea of religious activities, never looking to some of the most significant words spoken in human history: “It is finished.”

Shame and the gospel

So there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is you suck. It’s true. We all do. The good news is that Jesus took the shame upon Himself so that we don’t have to live in shame. That’s the whole point of the gospel.

That’s why we celebrate Easter, folks. The Church (the true church and not its well-spoken but often hurtful representatives) preaches the message of the cross. It is a message that speaks of redemption not only from sin, but the shame that goes with it.

So we’re not good enough. But Jesus is. So let’s forget about our bad reputations. His carries a lot more street cred.

9 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

pastor | writer | speaker

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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