It was not long ago I found myself emotionally reeling. I was watching one of my children cut herself off from her family who loves her. I felt like such a failure. The weight of shame was crippling. I couldn’t keep living like that. I figured I had to learn how shame works and what to do about it just to keep moving forward every day.
It was during this dark night of the soul when I found The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Intervarsity Press, 2015). It was hugely helpful to me. This book is not an easy read, but I was in survival mode. It requires digestion, but the depth required to take it in was like nourishment to parts of me that were dying inside.
Dr. Thompson’s1 perspective is scientific and rigorous. He synthesizes practical clinical experiences, a deep understanding of and respect for the scientific method, and his rich faith perspective. Given the long held (but recently thawing) animosity by the psychiatric profession towards all things “spiritual”, Thompson’s work represents a breath of fresh air. The Soul of Shame is born of a recent proliferation of healthy marriages between good science and sincere faith, particularly in the field of psychology.
This is a book for those who long to go beneath the superficial, for those who ask “What is the Bible really trying to tell us? Can it really help me? Is it possible for this pain to go away?”
Thompson first introduces the reader to current scientific understanding of fluid, dynamic, and mysterious workings of the human mind. His is an emerging field of science called “interpersonal neurobiology.” Don’t let this clinical, inaccessible sounding name fool you. The emerging science it represents is truly astounding.
Interpersonal neurobiology is premised on scientists’ study of the brain and how we connect, or don’t connect with each other. Recent neurological observations in this field have begun to drive the scientific community towards a stunning realization: Our individual emotional systems are in fact not entirely individual. What does this mean?
It means we are meant to be “attached” to each other. It means we are all “born looking for someone looking for us.” We must find someone doing so if we are to be fully alive. We are meant not only to know but to feel ourselves being known.
It is the “not connecting” part of the science that Thompson is concerned with. We all know our world inside and out is broken. It is undeniable. It takes ten minutes of scanning social media to find that the connection between human beings, indeed human dignity itself, is disintegrating by the minute. What is going on?
Thompson, a psychiatrist, posits what is for a scientist a scandalous hypothesis. He suggests that evil spiritual forces might actually exist and be working on purpose to bring about our dissolution.
In this way, Thompson is like another psychiatrist before him, Dr. M. Scott Peck, who wrote The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. The psychiatric intellectual establishment of a day absolutely excluded intellectual respect for any idea labeled “religious.” Peck, however, was groundbreaking in proposing that science ought to take seriously the constantly repeating patterns of darkness in human nature, a phenomena he insisted on calling “evil.” Peck’s professional experience with the legion of manifestations of darkness in the human mind suggested to him the existence of an agenda of destruction with an intelligent persona behind it. Peck seriously sought to resuscitate the concept of “evil” as a topic of scholarly inquiry.
Thompson picks up exactly where Peck left off at the possibility of the existence of an intelligent evil working behind the scenes. But he goes deeper. He examines in lucid detail the modus operandi of evil: Namely, the global human infection of shame. Thompson writes:
“[Shame] is the primary tool that evil leverages, out of which emerges everything that we would call sin. As such, it is actively, intentionally, at work both within and between individuals. Its goal is to disintegrate any and every system it targets, be that one’s personal story, a family, marriage, friendship, church, school, community, business or political system. Its power lies in its subtlety and its silence, and it will not be satisfied until all hell breaks loose.”
Shame always makes the subtle but powerful suggestion that connection is dangerous, because we are likely to be abandoned. Abandoned because we are not “enough.” Not smart enough, hard-working enough, pretty enough, strong enough, on and on and on. Abandonment will be painful. Shame insists that isolation is the only safe place to hide from the pain of rejection. Shame is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is the ultimate form of auto-destruct sequence.
Shame, or more accurately, the personality wielding it, is a liar with a dark motive. It wants to destroy attachment. It ruthlessly and relentlessly seeks to disintegrate our human connections and thereby dissolve us from inside. It wants to leave us isolated in a kind of permanent internal solitary confinement.
Inside the human brain and nervous system, shame is a predator possessed of finely tuned stealth skills. Shame, it seems, is the ultimate chameleon whose “elusiveness is a key element of its power.” Thompson’s observations about shame remind me of the HIV virus and what makes it so lethal: It hides within the immune system of the person it intends to kill. Shame, or perhaps more accurately the hidden force wielding it, is an intelligent and lethal shapeshifter.
Thompson goes after shame by teaching the reader to dust for shame’s fingerprints in our own individual life stories. Thompson shows the reader exactly where shame hides: in the physical sensations of our bodies we call “feelings.” In symbols. In our memories. In the stories we continually narrate to ourselves. Our job is to identify and thereby neutralize shame.
Thompson tips us off to the game of “doubling back” that shame likes to play: Shame self-reinforces. We can feel ashamed of feeling ashamed. It is insidious in this way, looking for every opportunity to create subtle and powerful downward spirals. By learning shame’s tactics we can force it out in the open. Then we can finally bring it to heel: ”The key to healing shame is to find where it is hiding in our own stories, the stories of those around us.”
To read this book is to lift the veil on two fascinating topics:
- The emerging science of interpersonal neurobiology
- And evil as an intelligent supernatural phenomena
The Soul of Shame is, thankfully, not an attempt to co-opt and dilute the Biblical narrative for the purpose of marketing the latest pop psychology offering. Nor is it a shallow pseudo-scientific framework spread thin over the latest contemporary Christian self-help fad. Rather, it is the work of a serious psychiatric practitioner who makes a series of fascinating observations of a natural harmony between modern research and ancient understanding of the broken human condition.
Thompson’s treatment of the ancient Genesis 3 narrative of the fall of mankind from graceful relationship with their Creator is intelligent and thought provoking. Yet his book is on the whole written for people on both sides of science and faith. Thompson says,
“…you may be either unfamiliar with or do not believe the story the Bible tells. Well, you’re in good company. There are many days that I have a hard time believing it myself. The very nature of the world is such that at times it takes near Herculean effort to maintain the conviction that Jesus is real, that God is truly loving, and that we are at war with evil. This book, therefore, is no proof text about anything. It is, rather, an invitation to be known, to be loved (whether you believe in God or not), but also to join me and others to risk all you have on a God who would rather die than let anything come between us all.”
I keep coming back to The Soul of Shame, re-reading it. I have to be reminded again and again to be on the look out for this enemy. Like carbon monoxide, odorless, colorless, and deadly, shame always seems to be lurking, looking for a way to reinsert itself. This book like no other helps me realize how much I need other people to remind me shame has no part in my story.
I am so thankful Thompson’s book did not turn out to be another empty panacea like so much else in pop-psychology. It rather is a source of wisdom about and resolve against the evil intentions of shame. Shame wants nothing more than to spin me and all of us down an emotional whirlpool to into isolation and despair. The Soul of Shame is nothing less than a survival guide against being sucked in—one I highly encourage you to read.
1 The author, Dr. Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. He is also an avid student of the Bible and follower of Jesus. Thompson’s first book, Anatomy of the Soul (Tyndale, 2010), took readers on a semi-technical dive into new scientific understanding of what is popularly called the “human soul”. The Soul of Shame comes with the same neurological authority but is far more compelling because it is more focused.