Americans seem perpetually interested in the topic of shame—even if they don’t know how to reduce it. As Curt Thompson notes, “25 years ago, John Bradshaw writes Healing the Shame That Binds You. He sells billions of copies. Twenty-five years go by, Brené Brown comes out with Daring Greatly, and you’d think that we’ve never heard of this topic before.” Thompson, the author of The Soul of Shame (InterVarsity Press), predicts that in 25 years, “somebody’s going to rediscover it again for the first time.”
A psychiatrist interested in the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation, Thompson has studied how the brain reacts to shame—and why we struggle to move on from it. Thompson spoke with CT editor at large Rob Moll about the unexpected lessons of the Garden of Eden, how shame compares with guilt, and how it directly inhibits our creativity.
What is shame, exactly?
Most people say it’s when we feel embarrassed, humiliated, or uncomfortable. While we may think of large, monolithic, humiliating public events, the reality is that most shame takes place inside your head dozens of times every day. It’s silent, subtle, and characterized by the quiet self-condemning conversation that we’ve learned since we were kids.
Neuropsychologist Allan Schore describes shame in terms of a car. Imagine an automobile with a standard transmission. We have the accelerator, the brake, and the clutch. Any time we move forward in life, our parasympathetic drive—our relaxed state—is literally in sympathy with us, acting like the accelerator as we learn and engage in the world, whether we are two-year-olds looking at begonias or professionals ...1