Trauma-informed Engagement with Scripture, Part 4

embodiedreading shame trauma-informed Sep 27, 2022

“Look around you. Everyone you see shares a deep and terrible secret that no one ever talks about.”[1] This is how Gerald Loren Fishkin begins his book The Science of Shame. If trauma is essentially a loss of connection, perhaps shame is a force that not only causes but also maintains broken connections—with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us. This work is going on behind the scenes everywhere…as we whoosh past flashy billboards, as we linger over options in the supermarket, and as we flip absentmindedly through our social media feeds. Shame is an undeniable backdrop for much of our lives, but it can be particularly difficult to identify and counteract in the context of spirituality or in our religious communities.

It seems to me that one of the reasons for this is the tangling of shame and authority. When my face burns with shame at the suggestion on an Instagram ad that good moms “should” like to cook, I can notice it, talk back to the suggestion, and find grounding again relatively easily. When my face burns with shame at the suggestion of a family member or religious leader that I “should” believe ___________ “because the Bible says,” or that faithful people don’t ________ “because it’s against the will of God,” it can be more difficult to sort out fact from fiction, drive for control from drive for connection.

We all have a need to belong and also a need to have a sense of self and agency. Gabor Maté uses the terms attachment and authenticity to describe these essential needs. In childhood, when these two basic, non-negotiable needs are pitted against each other by circumstance, attachment takes priority.[2] Because a child’s basic survival needs are dependent on connection to their primary caregiver(s), this prioritizing happens instinctually. Ideally, as we mature, navigating the inevitable tensions between our need for attachment and our need for authenticity would become a more conscious process. But there are a multitude of reasons why one’s need for belonging, and specifically a sense of connection to the family faith or to one’s religious community, could almost automatically eclipse one’s need for authenticity.

Brené Brown describes shame as “the fear of disconnection.”[3] Such fear can lead to defensiveness that can manifest as reactivity (fight), withdrawal (flight), smiling deference (fawn), or back pedaling and trying to become invisible (freeze). Each of these defense mechanisms is a knee-jerk response intended to protect our sense of connection and belonging. Ironically, though, they often have the opposite effect, raising the walls between us even higher or convincing us that when people do accept us it’s only because they don’t really know us. 

Peter Levine, who talks about trauma as a loss of connection, also argues that healing is all about rebuilding connection.[4] And Brené Brown explains the importance of empathic presence with ourselves and others by pointing out the social nature of shame. “Shame is a social emotion,” she writes. “Shame happens between people and it heals between people.”[5]

Gabor Maté, in his aptly titled recent book The Myth of Normal, cites psychologist Gershen Kaufman who argues that the experience of shame contains “a piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being.” This “piercing awareness” is certainly not something reserved for religious contexts. It is a universal experience. But I believe the authority given to texts and/or leaders in certain religious contexts heightens the level and frequency of shame and intensifies the fear associated with disapproval or possible disconnection.

The sense that “I am not enough” or “I don’t belong here” can roll over us at many times and in many ways. Here are a few examples that come to mind: When someone uses the proverbial “we” and then proceeds to articulate a belief or position that I don’t agree or identify with; when someone raises an eyebrow as I’m expressing my thoughts about a text; when a group discussion leader offers only leading questions; when someone says "that couldn't happen here" in response to an experience shared, when a person in a position of authority implies that uniformity of thought is equivalent to assurance of God’s guiding presence.

It's interesting that as I sat reflecting on examples, a feeling of alienation started rising in my middle and a voice in my head started saying, “You better not put that…it probably only happens to you…or maybe it happens to other people, but doesn’t bring up any sense of shame or inadequacy in them.” This “piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient” is universal, simply a part of being human. Because of this, and because of how closely tied sacred texts and religious community can be to identity, I think consideration of the intersections between shame and authority and trauma are particularly relevant in spaces where people gather around scripture. 

Quoting again from Jennifer Baldwin’s book Trauma-Sensitive Theology: “Simply naming the reality of traumatic wounding in our culture and lives with compassion and tenderness begins to establish safety that can counter shame and grow into resiliency.”


[1] Gerald Fishkin, The Science of Shame, page 19.

[2] Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, & Healing in a Toxic Culture, pages 107-108.

[3] Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart, page 137.

[4] Peter Levine, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. In his explanation of some of the exercises provided in the book, Levine suggests that many of them are most effective when done in the presence of a safe other.

[5] Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart, page 138.

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