Accountability and Shame
“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” David Foster Wallace
“Hey, I need you to hold me accountable…”
Every week in high school, a small group of guys from my church would meet in the basement of our friend’s house with our youth leader. It was a chance to study the Bible, but what we really focused on was how to live out our faith. How do we put this stuff into practice and encourage each other to do so? This quickly turned into a pursuit of how to stop sinning...which meant we were asking every week for our friends to “hold us accountable” for the things we wanted to stop doing.
What this typically meant was at any given moment in the hallway at school you could have a friend come up to you and make a joke about something very serious you shared the week before and ask you, “How’s that going this week?” The fear of this conversation being overheard was almost enough to send you to a monastery never to sin again. We took pride in our accountability.
In retrospect, what this practice really did was teach us all how to hide our sin better. We learned how to share almost all of the details of our week, leaving out that one moment of struggle because...you know...it wasn’t that big of a deal. We learned how to deflect attention to something else that seemed bigger (but more under control) almost as if to say, “Yeah but look how well I’m doing over here!”
Our interactions with each other were an honest attempt to move beyond the shame we felt about our sin...but they only further entrenched the feeling that eight different people were looking over our shoulder, waiting to point out that we were doing the very thing we said we didn’t want to do. It sharpened our shame, developing it into a smart, efficient boundary that could not be crossed.
Shame exists for different reasons in each person. For many, it develops because of insecure attachments to caregivers growing up. This can be as subtle as having mixed messages from parents due to their own marital dysfunction, or as deep as neglect and abuse. Either way, we cannot make sense of the complexities in the world before us - so we start to wonder if we are the ones who are wrong/bad/broken. It’s hard to put yourself back into your 10-year-old mind. As you read this now, you are able to fill in the missing gaps of understanding - “it’s the best my parents could do both working full-time, trying to raise us...my dad only treated me that way because he never had a dad to show him love…”
While these things might help make sense of why the attachment was confusing now, it did not help you as you grew up within the context of that confusion. Shame develops as a way to make sense of what's happening around you and in you. It’s a way to deal internally with the conflict happening externally that isn’t being resolved. Shame pushes you inward in an attempt to figure out what is happening around you. It tells you it is easier if you take the blame. It tells you nobody will understand your confusion or hurt. It tells you to hide.
As mentioned, shame shows up for a lot of different reasons and in a lot of different ways. There are some commonalities in how it shows up in different life experiences and struggles:
1. In abuse:
Often people who have experienced a form of abuse (emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual) have internalized messages of shame that influence everything they see. One common response is to make sense of the abuse by putting yourself in the place of deserving it. “I would not have been treated this way unless I gave them a reason to treat me this way.” This internalized message can be subtle - never overtly expressed - and paralyzing to every aspect in the life of those abused.
2. In addiction:
Shame keeps us from releasing our hold on the addictive habit. There are biological/neurological factors that play into addiction. There is evidence to show that those struggling with addiction over time actually lose the ability to make choices due to what substances do to the wiring in the brain (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Dr. Gabor Maté, MD). However, there are also social and psychological aspects at play in addiction that are manifested in shame. Shame tells the story that addiction is a) not that big of a deal b) under control and c) purely a matter of willpower.
3. In depression/anxiety:
Shame pushes those who struggle with depression to stay in their depression. Shame tells you in your depression, “You shouldn’t be depressed - look at how happy everyone else is around you!” It’s isolating. It’s demoralizing. Depression has physiological ramifications - people who are chronically depressed feel it in their bones. How do you talk about something that at its roots is psychological but is causing you physical problems? Shame tells you nobody will understand this (and shame says this from some experience in which people were slow to understand).
In anxiety, shame can actually seem to help, initially. It has a way of keeping the anxiety at bay, under wraps. If you struggle with anxiety you know the hurricane of fear that churns inside of you while you smile and act like nothing is wrong. Shame tells you that if you let this out, everyone will think you’re crazy. But this anxiety has to be released somehow, and typically it comes in waves (panic attacks), flooding the system all at once.
This is not to say that in all of these situations shame is the only factor driving our inability to get better. But it is certainly a primary factor. Shame wants you to stay alone, silent, “put together.” Shame does not want you to admit that you have an addiction. Or that you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Or that you were sexually abused your entire childhood. Because then you would have to rely on other people. You would have to face the possibility that you don’t have answers. You would have to stare down the dark corridor of your heart and feel things you have fought hard to never feel.
And who wants to do that?
It’s very easy in the counseling profession to get jaded and cynical. Sometimes stories hurt to hear in a way that stay with you, but more often for me, I struggle with not reducing people to a sum of their decisions. When this is put in check, I often experience a compassion that can make even the most daunting moment crystal clear.
The Power of Being Seen
When I worked at a hospital, I heard story after story that would make your head spin. After a while, a decision had to be made: Am I going to turn off my heart so that these don’t affect me and thereby internally roll my eyes when I hear the next story? Or am I going to realize that brokenness is everywhere, affecting all of us, and some people were given more than they knew what to do with? The risk in the second one is that I have to feel some of that pain in the story. You also begin to approach each story (person) knowing that there is a hidden darkness. There are the things they have never told another soul. There are things they have worked their entire lives to keep under wraps.
When met with compassion, the wall of shame that has kept the pain and struggle inside suddenly cracks ever so slightly. A small amount of light pokes through and the individual feels fresh air for perhaps the first time. You can see it happen too. Sometimes through tears, often in a blank expression that almost seems to communicate, “You see me. Nobody else sees me.”
The problem with shame is that it keeps us from being seen in the way we were made to be seen. We will explore this more over the next two months, but I want to make a case that the ways we have structured accountability in our communities has largely missed the mark for battling shame. We have turned accountability more into a process of checks and balances rather than a compassionate way to see someone in the midst of their darkness.
To be clear - shame is not something we always willingly hold on to. For most of us, it lurks in the background of every interaction, every conversation, every thought, every memory. It is more like a structure (or grid) that influences everything, rather than a decision that is made in the moment.
We need a new way of connecting with each other to break through our shame. We need to feel the presence and compassion of people loving us, rather than waiting for us to make a wrong step and fail. In order to engage and combat our shame, we have to learn to talk about it.