Love Me in My Shame by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
Everyone in this space has probably heard of Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles, but have you ever heard of the Seven Anti-Principles?
(The answer is NO, because I cooked them up just yesterday.)
Anti-Principle Number 7: The only existence that matters is human existence. (This is the opposite of “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” See how the anti-principle logic goes?)
Anti-Principle Number 6: The goal of America first (vs. “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”)
Anti-Principle Number 5: Might makes right (vs. “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”)
Anti-Principle Number 4: The uncritical consumption of “alternative facts” (vs. “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)
Anti-Principle Number 3: Judgmentalism towards one other and spiritual apathy in our congregations (vs. “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”)
Anti-Principle Number 2: Bullying and humiliation in human relations (vs. “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.”)
Anti-Principle Number 1: The inherent shamefulness of every person (vs. “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”)
All of the Anti-Principles are at play in our world today, and as Unitarian Universalists we are called to resist. This is fundamentally not about politics but about faithfulness to our core values as a religion.
But today our focus shall be exclusively on shame. Unitarian Universalism’s First Principle says that people are fundamentally worthy and with dignity; shame says people are fundamentally worthless. The First Principle says that a person’s essential worth is unconditional; shame is the voice in your head saying “You are never good enough,” or “Who do you think you are?” The First Principle makes us feel calm and centered and whole; shame makes us feel like the life is being strangled out of us, we are being pulled down into an abyss of chaos, and the experience is so overwhelmingly traumatic that we instinctively defend against it, we do anything to make it go away, and shame researchers tell us that there are essentially three things people do: (1) we move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, or keeping secrets; (2) we move toward by seeking to appease and please; or (3) we move against by getting aggressive, getting violent, fighting shame with shame.
Shame is soul-killing.
Shame is getting laid off and having to tell your pregnant wife.
Shame is having someone ask you, “When are you due?” when you’re not pregnant.
Shame is hiding the fact that you’re in recovery.
Shame is raging at your kids.
Shame is bankruptcy.
Shame is your boss calling you an idiot in front of the client.
Shame is infertility.
Shame is hearing your parents fight through the walls and wondering if you’re the only one who feels this afraid.
Any and all of these moments are ones where we feel that no one wants us to survive, we are a part of no body, no one in their right mind will say, “You are important to me.”
Our First Principle is peace. It is like the poem from earlier that says
All people are children when they sleep.
They open their hands and breathe
in that quiet rhythm heaven has given them.
They pucker their lips like small children
and open their hands halfway,
soldiers and statesmen, servants and masters.
But shame—shame is the war in us. Shame is the sickness. Shame makes us vulnerable to aggression, depression, eating disorders, addictions, violence, suicide.
I would even go so far as to suggest that the seeds of Anti-Principles 2 through 7 are planted by Anti-Principle number 1.
So we need to talk about what researcher Brené Brown calls “shame resilience,” but what we Unitarian Universalists can also call, very simply, practicing our First Principle.
It starts by raising awareness, which is what we’re already busy doing. Shame is real, and it’s not just an internal state that stays inside; it infects the world. We need to know this, and we need to speak it. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, “derives its power from being unspeakable. […] Shame hates having words wrapped around it.” But we are wrapping words around it today. We are naming it today.
And then what we do is reality check it.
An important part of reality checking shame is knowing that gender messages and expectations are foundational shame triggers. This means that people who identify primarily as masculine and people who identify as primarily feminine are triggered by very different things.
Consider this gender expectation: “Be perfect, but don’t make a fuss about it and don’t take time away from anything, like your family or your partner or your work, to achieve your perfection. If you’re truly worthy, perfection should be easy.” (Is this a primarily masculine or feminine expectation—what do you think?)
Or what about this: “Never allow people to think you are weak.” (Primarily masculine or feminine?)
Or this: “Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but say what’s on your mind.” (Primarily masculine or feminine?)
Or this: “You need to be strong and capable for everyone you love. You need to be able to provide everything they need. You need to succeed at work, in your relationships, in bed, with money, with kids, with everything.” (Primarily masculine or feminine?)
The primarily feminine expectations are the first and third, and both are classic double-binds. There’s no way to win. Anything you do is going to disappoint. The tragic solution becomes just staying small, sweet, quiet, modest—but the inevitable repressed rage comes out as mean-spiritedness, very often towards other women who refuse to stay small. That’s what happens!
As for the primarily masculine expectations—the second and fourth—it’s all about not being a wimp. Don’t show fear. Don’t show inadequacy. And one of the many refreshing and surprising things that Brené Brown surfaces through her shame research is the finding that “In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most [women] recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.” She goes on to quote a friend who says, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”
It’s just hard for everyone, whatever your gender. But it gets more manageable when you are aware of the unrealistic standards that send you into your shame spiral and, on this basis, you can reality check it. As someone who identifies with the feminine, you can say NO to the double-bind. As someone who identifies with the masculine, you can say NO to the demand that you are always and in all ways strong.
We have to reality check the unrealistic expectations!
I wish someone had preached this sermon to me years ago. Years ago, male shame was a factor in ending my marriage and I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it until this week, actually. I’ve gone over the whole thing over and over again, as you can imagine, and I thought I had discovered everything there was to be discovered, but I hadn’t. Reflecting on shame this week led me to connecting some dots that hadn’t been connected before.
It’s actually rather simple. My wife back then was fully in her world of work. It was a world that I was not a part of, even as my work world was separate from her. And that fact—that she gained such satisfaction and grew so much from a world completely apart from me—triggered shame. It meant I could not provide all she needed, and to the male in me, there was only one conclusion: It meant I was weak. It meant I was unworthy. Years of feeling this unworthiness melted my insides. I did not know how to talk about it. I did not know what was happening. I could not reality check. I could not recover. What I did was withdraw into my work, into my skating. Hide. My wife would reach out, and I would step back. The result was mutual desperation.
I just didn’t have the awareness and the reality checking skills! I do now. I’ve earned them the hard way. And I am telling this story despite the fact that I might very well have committed the grave sin of pastoral oversharing—of pastoral TMI—but I risk this because I want to demonstrate in my own life yet another way to practice the First Principle: tell your shame stories to people who love you and you trust them. Tell your stories to people who will respond—not with criticism or condescension, not with armchair quarterbacking—but by telling their stories, by being human with you. What happens is the building of empathic connection. Shame can’t survive shared empathy. It just can’t.
I am asking you to love me in my shame and love each other in your shame. Love.
Do it because you are Unitarian Universalist.
“We cultivate love,” says Brené Brown, “when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
I really do need you to survive, and you need that from me.
We really can be a part of one body.
Practice the First Principle, and it really can be so.