Wounded from within: How shame can make us ill


The relationship between mental health and the Church is made infinitely more complex by the tendrils of shame that so easily grip different aspects of our communities. Left unarticulated, shame is fertile ground for all of the major neurotic mental health issues.

Do you remember lining up along the poolside with your school class, arms crossed over your middle, desperate to get into the water and disappear from sight? That was shame. While guilt is negative feelings about our actions, shame is negative feelings about ourselves. Gershan Kaufman writes: "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."

The psychological world universally places the origins of shame in childhood, with babies demonstrating early shame as shyness. Interestingly Darwin distinguished humanity from animals through the manifestation of the blushing shame response. For those who have suffered poor childhood attachment, shame can become an unbearable burden, something that can become a shame-bound identity.

As a social emotion, shame's purpose is to enable belonging by provoking our social consciousness. Healthy shame is the essential foundation stone of humility, provoking awareness of our vulnerability and neediness. If we had no shame we would have no awareness of our need for God or the community of the Church. Sadly the sort of shame that is so often manifest in the community is not of a healthy and boundaried type but something that is all together more toxic.

Church generates a strong desire in people for involvement, something we call 'belongingness'. Enmeshed in this desire is the sense of acceptance and love that the community offers. For the shame-conscious, the desire to belong is directly conflicted by their sense of 'un-belonging'. It is the feeling of wearing the opposing team's shirt in the home fans' stand. You are in the community and yet you feel fundamentally unacceptable to that community.

At a retreat for pastors that I attended, the leader began by saying, "Let's all just get over the fact that we feel frauds and that none of us feel good enough to be here." In that one moment the leader had expertly articulated the shame of the entire group. Karyn Hall writes: "Shame can be a constant nagging sense of unworthiness, or being flawed. The constant fear of being 'found out' is exhausting." The obvious paradox we face is that while knowing that God knows us entirely and loves us completely, we are not sure the church will feel the same.

Left unaddressed, our collective shame informs the culture of church. In this way the culture can move from grace-filled and accepting to rigid, proposing the threat of expulsion to all who fail to meet the standard. But what is the standard of belonging? We may know the biblical answer to this question but our minds often betray us, suggesting that only better, holier or more dedicated people belong. Polk Culpepper argues that this is supercharged by teaching "the doctrine of shame" which says: "You don't measure up. You will never be good enough. God will be perpetually disappointed with you."

Unfortunately the more our communities appear to be uniform, the more powerful the shame narrative. Belonging becomes dependent upon looking like a 'good Christian' as opposed to being authentically accepted by Jesus. As Maggie Dows suggests: "(Toxic) Shame is not our true identity - it is a learned belief about self. This faulty belief underpins the development of a false or adapted self." This is why we must do more to celebrate the diversity of our communities and share the rich tapestry of human story in the church.

Mental health issues affect us all, either personally or through a member of our immediate family or community. Many of them develop out of shame and nearly all mental health problems carry symptomatic shame: a manifestation of the illness is, in part, high levels of shame.

A church can feel entirely hostile to the person with mental health struggles since they already feel flawed and unworthy to participate. Failure to make our welcome explicitly clear to those who are suffering is automatically assumed to be a rejection. On an active level, the shame-bound are actively scanning for confirmation of their worst fears about themselves. It is easy to inadvertently shame the mentally ill by placing the responsibility for their illness on their own faith or lack thereof.

Our church communities carry unique potential for healing among those with mental health issues, filled with the presence of a God who knows us and loves us. Experiencing his love more fully in community must involve us being more 'fully known'; expressing ourselves and sharing our vulnerabilities despite the fear of being shamed. If we want to see a living and diverse church we must give language to shame and liberate the shame-bound to truly belong with us. We are not ashamed, we are loved and known and welcomed.

Rev Will van der Hart is pastoral chaplain of Holy Trinity Brompton in London. He is a director of The Mind and Soul Foundation and has been working to support people with emotional and mental health issues within the church for the last 10 years. His new book The Perfectionism Book is available now.

For a free resource which helps churches support those with mental illness, visit www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org