The Relational Nature of Shame: A Conversation on Shame Inspired by the Work of Patricia DeYoung and Curt Thompson

Two books that profoundly impacted my perspective on “shame” include Patricia DeYoung’s book Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach” and “The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves” by Curt Thompson.

Both DeYoung and Thompson underscored for me the profoundly relational nature of shame. Prior to reading these books, I imagined shame as confined to the recesses of an individual’s hidden heart, characterized as a lonely stream of negative self-talk. I have learned that shame is this and more.

Shame tells us that we are too much or not enough…with respect to another. As DeYoung describes: “Shame is the experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other” (p. 18).

Shame festers in an environment where connection and acceptance is lacking. Imbedded within shame is a fear of future lack of connection and acceptance. And shame causes separation, which prevents the kind of connection that has the capacity for experiencing acceptance.

Both DeYoung and Thompson suggest that the antidote for shame is vulnerability in empathic relationships. DeYoung provides insightful detail on treating shame in therapy relationally through tools based on neuroscience and attachment theory. Thompson’s work broadens the discussion to include our relationship with God, the theology of shame, God’s plan to restore us to joyful connection, and the role of community and embodied spiritual practices in combating shame (pp.17–18).

Shame separates us from others by disrupting connections within us as well: between our right brain and left brain, between our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, and between our brain stem, limbic system and neocortex (Thompson, p. 42–43). Shame precedes our ability to articulate, residing in our “bodily sensations and movements, perceptions and emotions” (Thompson, p. 24). This means that we feel shame before we know how to articulate or understand shame. Our minds attempt to make sense of our embodied experience, creating a shame narrative that frequently does not get tested by the light of day in community with others. Our ability to process internally is impeded by shame itself, as shame disintegrates our thought process and leads to rigid and chaotic states of mind (Thompson, p. 46). As our minds betray us in this process, our need for outside connection with God and others is great. Yet ironically, although shame rises from our fear of losing connection, shame is the biggest perpetuator of our lack of connectedness. As Thompson describe, shame disintegrates us to the point where “I am not able to think coherently, and my logical thought process, which usually help me make good choices, are unavailable to regulate my right brain, from which all the emotion is pouring” (Thompson, p. 67). I have felt this many times. In the distress of feeling out of place or overwhelmed or not good enough, I have found myself frustratingly unable to remember or articulate thoughts, only to regain access to this information when I felt safer and more regulated. In these moments, I don’t want exposure to others, I want to hide. And yet, my distress is about my loss or anticipated loss of connection with others.

Both Thompson and DeYoung taught me how much our past and present attachment relationships (the primary relationships where we seek to get emotional needs met), inform our internal dialog or shame narrative. Experiencing “calm, emotionally available” caregivers who can attune to us and repair misconnections with us, teaches us how to live in regulated ways (DeYoung, p. 48). The lack of these type of relationships results in dysregulation, where we have no place to metabolize our thoughts and feelings, often leading us to feel stuck.

In describing chronic shame, DeYoung says it “has roots in early, repeated, right-brain experiences of affective dysregulation” (DeYoung, p. xiv). Prior to reading her book, I never realized there was such a thing as chronic shame — an underlying, often unnoticed, drumbeat that drives the rhythm of our current day interactions that, on the surface, seem to be unrelated to our attachment relationships. While I understood that many of our interactions play off of insecurities from our past, I am struck by how hard wired our thought processes, emotional circuitry, and embodied experience become based on our past experience. In this sense, not only is shame triggered by relationships in our current “in the moment” missed connections, but the ghosts of our most important attachment relationships also haunt these interactions.

This dynamic can be especially subtle when our attachment relationships do not feel particularly harmful, and it can be hard to see the roots in attachment relationships. “There is no better place for shame to hide than in those stories in which it does not seem to be that prevalent” (Thompson, p. 72). DeYoung describes in detail the varying ways that more subtle experiences in our attachment relationships impact chronic shame. For example, this can include times where caregivers are “critical or absent” or overly invested in our talents and achievements (DeYoung, p. 44–45). This can include a parent not knowing how to help a child to feel accepted for his/her best and worst parts (DeYoung, p. 47). This can include a parent’s inability to be “present in a relaxed, good humored way” (DeYoung, p. 65). These may not seem like obvious traumas/potential roots of adult shame, but they are one of many types of “misses” in a child’s “need for attunement” which “is also her heartfelt longing to be seen, supported, known, and treasured” (DeYoung p. 56). Sustained over time without repair, these moments set the tone for how a person learns to interact with her internal and external world.

DeYoung’s book emphasized in a radical way that left brain work with a chronically shamed person does not work — due to the confusion caused by a disintegrated self, the person is unable to hear logical arguments against their experiences of shame. Rather, the key to treating shame is through re-establishing right brain connections and engaging clients with “PACE, an acronym that stands for “playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy” (DeYoung p. 83). This happens over time through right brain connections rather than left brain explanations for shame. This explains so many frustrating conversations where a loved one has tried to talk me out of my self-criticism and despair, only to experience me as impenetrable — I don’t know how to think differently. As I think about why God would leave Adam and Eve susceptible to temptation in a perfect garden, I wonder if we may only learn about goodness in a “deep in our bones” sense through longsuffering, sustained, right brain connection with God and others. God Himself engages with humanity through PACE.

Thompson so beautifully paints the origin of shame and the epic battle against fame within the framework of the gospel story: God’s desire to be in joyful relationship with us, the fall and emergence of shame, and God’s heart to redeem us from the way shame seeks to separate us from Him and others and as well as to stifle our creative flourishing. According to Thompson, shame is Evil’s plan to tell us a different story — one where we are alienated from God and others, and one where we are so paralyzed in our fears that we remain stagnant — isolated from others, distant from joy, and frozen in our ability to use the gifts and passions given to us by God. This framework highlighted for me the significant stakes involved in battling shame. Rather than being something that only implicates an individual in isolation, the battle against shame is an epic battle for the glory of God through joyful relationship with Him and with others. Conceding to shame is conspiring with evil. And yet, even in that statement, I want to be aware of my propensity to have shame for having shame. As Seattle School Professor Steve Call says, shame is sneaky. I want to be playful as he suggests, viewing this in a competitive way — we will not let shame win.

Thompson and DeYoung highlight the relational nature of shame. Thompson helped me to see shame as Evil’s tool to disrupt God’s plan for joyous connection with and between humanity. Thompson demonstrates how we fight this through empathic connections with our communities. Through DeYoung, I learned about chronic shame as maladaptive coping with fear of impending loss. DeYoung animated the many subtle ways that shame resides in our bodies and brain through “misses” in our attachment relationships. DeYoung helped me see that treating chronic shame must begin with reestablishing healthy right brain connections with clients rather than offering left brain “reasons” for shame. Both authors offered hope for combating shame through relationship and provided excellent tools for this battle.