How Neuroscience—and the Bible—Explain Shame

Psychiatrist Curt Thompson examines the complicated emotion.
How Neuroscience—and the Bible—Explain Shame
Image: panic_attack / iStock

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 in front of a board room trying to advance an idea. When we are moving forward, our parasympathetic drive system is up and running.

When we experience shame, it interrupts the parasympathetic drive system, which runs our rational thinking, empathy, and positive social engagement. Instead, shame says “no” in a way that activates the sympathetic drive—the flight or fight system—of a person’s brain. In this example, the sympathetic system acts like the brake—but without the clutch. Because the sympathetic system’s job is to shut things down, typically that “no” means not only do we slow down, but the engine may fail, impairing our ability to deal with other aspects of life in a healthy way.

Stress also engages our sympathetic system. So what’s unique about shame?

Shame also activates circuits in the right hemisphere and temporal lobes, which are the parts of the brain that help us perceive emotion. We experience shame most powerfully in glances, tones, and body language rather than through literal words.

Conversely, shame can make it difficult for me to move. I turn inward and away from other people, disintegrating myself from them. Our brains help us sense, feel, and interact with other people. When shame strikes, these systems literally go offline, and they are quite difficult to get back online.

How else does shame inhibit us?

Evil’s intention is not just to make us feel worse than we should—it’s to devour the universe. It wants everything. And if that’s the case, and if we were created to create (as imitators of God), the single most powerful thing that shame does is truncate our capacity to create.

How does God deal with shame in the Bible?

In the big picture of the Bible, God coming to find Adam and Eve in the Garden, and God coming to earth incarnate in Jesus (Immanuel, God with us) are significant because these suggest his desire is to be with us, even in our sin. Shame turns us away from others, rather than moving us toward each other. But we see God responding to our shame by drawing us out of it and into community with him first and then others.

What can we do to allow God to heal our shame?

By telling our stories, including our shameful ones, in community. The first verse of Hebrews 12 alludes to a “great cloud of witnesses” that allows us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Who is this “great cloud”? It is the great examples of faith—Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and others—noted in chapter 11. But it also includes Christians today who know me deeply and whom I confide in personally. These are individuals whom I allow to see everything there is to see.

Often we name things to tame things. Shame makes us feel an array of emotions we don’t like to acknowledge, let alone put words to in others’ presence. But when we do, we reduce our anxiety.

Real community helps me do this. I allow others to say, “Here, Curt. Pay attention to this. You are God’s son whom he loves and in whom he is well pleased.” This takes a great deal of effort. But I am more effectively convinced that God does indeed love me when I hear love in the voice of someone with real bones and blood who has just heard my worst shame.

You say that we should say “no” to things that shame us. What does that look like?

I was sitting at dinner recently with a group and watched as one of the men deflected a compliment that was paid to him. I had been invited to attend this dinner as a participant but also as an observer. I stopped the conversation and said, “What was that?” I asked him to explain the deflected compliment. This led us to talk about embarrassment and how he really didn’t believe this compliment was true about himself—when in fact everyone agreed it was true about him. Here, saying “no” meant identifying the reason this person deflected the compliment, which, in this case, was due to his own sense of shame. Once we identify the cause, he can respond differently—rather than deflect, he can respond by accepting it and learning to believe that it is truthful.

There’s a difference between people who come to a psychiatrist and want to be well and people who don’t want to be sick. A lot of people come and just say they don’t want to be sick, but they don’t want to change their lives or learn how to say “no,” because these are incredibly difficult and deeply rooted practices to overcome. The patient just doesn’t want to be ashamed. You can’t have your cake and eat it too; this is the work of a lifetime.

Shame can’t tolerate transparency. When I talk about building confessional communities, outposts of goodness and beauty in the church, it means we are there to talk about anything and everything that we share in common where shame will want a foothold. It doesn’t mean we have group therapy in the pastor’s office. But to the degree that we are willing to tell the real story about everything that’s actually in the room, we create all kinds of opportunity for other people’s shame to be healed.

One of the common questions I ask groups is: If it were not possible for you to be ashamed, what risks would you take? What creative endeavors would you initiate right now? You don’t even know what you would do, because you’ve been practicing just managing shame like you’ve always done.

Brené Brown distinguishes between guilt and shame: Guilt is “I screwed up”; shame is “I’m a terrible person.” Does that distinction ring true to you?

Shame starts as early as 15 to 18 months of age. However, children’s brains have not developed enough for them to perceive what we call “guilt” until three to five years of age. At age four, I have a sense of myself apart from the thing I did. My brain is now sophisticated enough for me to have an awareness of somebody else and my own capacity to wound them.

One of the interesting things about guilt is that it moves people toward other people to say, “I’m sorry,” because they long for reconnection. Shame does the very opposite. Shame turns us away and functionally, therefore, plays a much more devastating role.

If I hurt you, you can absolve me of guilt. You can say, “I forgive you,” and I can remember that and be connected to you. The problem is when I find myself alone with the thoughts in my head. I may know intellectually that you forgive me, but I can still feel deep shame that goes beyond healthy remorse.

This is why the Crucifixion and Jesus’ naked body is such a big deal. Even in our artwork depicting the event, we don’t strip him naked. We have a loincloth around him, and that’s all well and good, but it suggests that we don’t want God going that far. But he does. God himself submitted to the shame of the Cross. He has been there. And he says, “I’m willing to go with you where you’re not even willing to go.”

When our shame is caused by wronging another, you say restitution is a part of the healing process. Why?

When we have done something to hurt someone and shame—rather than guilt—sets in, that’s when evil exploits the situation. We begin to obsess about how badly we feel and we imagine the person we’ve offended wants us to feel badly. But often the offended party, especially one who loves us, does not actually want me to feel bad forever. They want me to fix the problem and make it right. Restitution, then, takes my attention away from what I imagine they feel about me to doing something to make things right.

But the very act of doing that requires me trusting in a future that I can’t control. It brings up thoughts of how things can go wrong. It takes practice to overcome this pattern.

Is shame ever good?

Shame is useful in the same way that pain is useful neurologically. Would we say that pain is good?

Even if shame was evoked in the conversation between the woman and the snake, as it seems to me, it assumes that God has built it into the creation to serve as a signal, a warning sign. I think it is a harbinger of abandonment. As such, it serves to warn us, to be sure. Neurodevelopmentally, it helps teach us self-restraint.

But ultimately the question I have for anyone who experiences it is: What do you do in response to shame? As such, the real issue is not that we experience shame, but rather what we do in response. The problem is, in my view, that we have been at this so long that it rarely serves a good role. We tend to follow its lead down the proverbial rabbit hole.

When this question is asked, this is assumed: “If we were to be rid of shame altogether, wouldn’t we end up doing all sorts of horrible things for which we should be ashamed, things that we are only prevented from doing because shame restrains us?” The interesting thing about this assumption is that if we’re really serious about ridding ourselves in every way of shame, just about everything that we would be afraid of doing we would not do—because so much of those behaviors emerge from shame in the first place.

Given our understanding of the neuroscience of shame, can we prevent ourselves from feeling shame?

My experience with patients and in my own life is, yes, we can change the nature of how we respond to stimuli that comes to us from inside or outside our skin. I don’t believe we ever come to a place where we are absolutely impervious to shame, but that is not the point. The point is what do when we experience it.

This is exactly where vulnerability plays its vital role. Evil is given no oxygen to breathe where vulnerability is given the opportunity to abide in a safe, predictable space. This is the whole idea behind the description of Adam and Eve as “naked and unashamed.” The Trinity performs the ultimate remix of this in Good Friday/Easter/Ascension, as Hebrews 12:2 notes that Jesus “scorned” the shame of the Cross.

Shame’s nature is to divide, separate, isolate, just as evil intends. The healing of shame is not first about healing shame, but about becoming more integrated, more connected, move loving of one another; shame’s healing is the byproduct. In this healing and increased connection, we allow for greater, even more powerful creativity via connecting in community. We need others in order for our shame to be healed and for us to have the chance to move past it—which I believe we can.

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