What’s the first thing you do when you see a flaw in the mirror? You look for a way to conceal it. Hide it. Cover it up. Either with cosmetics or wardrobe tricks, the idea is to mask the imperfection. What if the same principle applies to our minds? On this episode, renowned psychiatrist and author of The Soul of Shame Dr. Curt Thompson explains what’s happening in our brains when we spend our entire lives concealing who we really are, and how we can unroot the shame that’s holding us back from leading healthy lives. Eric and Julie also reveal their own battles with shame, past and present.
"The whole notion of naked in the Genesis context isn't even primarily referring just to their physicality, it's referring to their vulnerability, to the fact that in order for them to flourish, they need the other. And it is into this vulnerability that we were intended to live and breathe and make things that shame does its work."
- Dr. Curt Thompson
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Eric Huffman:Oh, hey, Julie.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Hey, Eric.
Eric Huffman:Ever since we dropped our last episode about LGBT people and the Methodist Church, I felt a little bit like I've had his proverbial target on my back, you know?
Julie Mirlicourtois:I do.
Eric Huffman:I've been stopped in hallways by random people who were viscerally angry about it. I've gotten some weird and threatening phone calls and Facebook messages about it. Some people were just really triggered by it, people on both sides of the aisle, by the way.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Yeah, it's been an interesting few weeks around here, for sure.
Eric Huffman:Yes. What's been most interesting to me is just how the people who seem to be the most upset about the episode also were some of the ones who clearly had not really listened to it. There was one woman who approached me and she was trembling with anger and she was in tears. She said, "I just can't believe you, Eric Huffman."
Eric Huffman:I tried to just diffuse the situation and I said, "Okay. Just tell me what you heard that upset you so much." She responded, "You want to kick the gay people out of the church." Obviously, we never said that and I don't believe that at all. On the contrary, actually. But whenever I asked more questions, she admitted that she hadn't really listened to the episode herself. She just heard other people talking about it.
Eric Huffman:There was another guy who said something that indicated he didn't really understand the episode either. He said, "You featured a gay celibate man in David Bennett, but you didn't feature a married gay person." I was like, "Well, Bishop Oliveto talked about her wife, and so she was clearly on the spotlight."
Eric Huffman:But all this to say we've come to this conclusion over the last couple of weeks that whenever people, ourselves included, whenever we have our mind already made up about something, and our heels are dug in about it, we're going to interpret whatever we experience and whatever we hear through that filter of our preconceived notions.
Eric Huffman:Whenever we take that interpretation of what we experienced or heard to our echo chambers, whether they're a liberal echo chamber or a conservative echo chamber, that narrative will then take on a life all its own. If somebody says something that doesn't fit into our preconceived ideology, that person is going to be bad and entirely wrong.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Yeah. I think what's happening is it's easier to label someone a bigot or a heretic than it is to really listen. When we really listen to other people to their stories, we're challenged to revisit our own assumptions and agendas. When I listened to David Bennett's story for the first time, my story began to change. It's uncomfortable, but it can also be so powerful.
Eric Huffman:Totally. Absolutely.
Julie Mirlicourtois:The coolest thing for me has been hearing from listeners who go to more conservative churches, and even a few pastors, saying that the episode changed everything for them. They're changing the way they welcome gay people in their churches. They felt compelled to be more loving and open. One pastor of a really large church told us that after he listened to that episode, he immediately reached out to a gay member of his church to invite him to coffee just to hear his story.
Eric Huffman:That's awesome.
Julie Mirlicourtois:But, Eric, I know those negative reviews must speak way louder on your mind than the positive ones. I want to tell you, before you give those voices too much power, that I'm proud of you. Even though you didn't make the popular choice, you made a brave one. Even if I don't agree with everything you said, I respect you more than ever because of how you said it.
Eric Huffman:Well, thank you, Julie, Julie Miraculous. Thank you for that. I'm proud of you, too. I think it's true for all of us that any time we step out and take a risk, the negative feedback is always going to be easier to internalize than positive feedback is.
Eric Huffman:I've always felt like that's true. But it was really confirmed for me last week whenever we sat down with today's guest. He told us that the human brain is actually designed to process and store negative experiences more efficiently than positive ones. Whenever that happens, shame can take over, and shame is this dark and sinister force in the universe that really has the power to impact all of us.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Yeah, Dr. Curt Thompson began studying shame before Brene Brown took the conversation mainstream a few years ago. He's about to tell us what shame is, what exactly is happening in our brain chemistry when shame takes hold, and how we can all reprogram our brains to unroot that shame.
Eric Huffman:Yeah. My favorite part about Dr. Thompson's research and his approach is how everything he's learned about shame in the human brain leads back to my two most favorite concepts: God and stories.
Radio:(Maybe God Intro)
Eric Huffman:You're listening to Maybe God. I'm Eric Huffman. A few weeks ago, a friend was telling me a story about how God has been changing his life in some really, really powerful ways. He kept bringing up this book he's reading called The Soul of Shame by Dr. Curt Thompson. Then he told me that Dr. Thompson was going to be in Houston to speak at Rice University's Veritas Forum.
Eric Huffman:I started looking into this guy, and he's really impressive. He's a psychiatrist and an expert in the field of interpersonal neurobiology. His books are highly regarded. He's leading this successful private practice outside of Washington, D.C. he's doing some phenomenal work.
Eric Huffman:But in all honesty, despite his impressive credentials, I still wasn't convinced that I should be excited to speak with him. Why? Because, over the past decade, Dr. Thompson has focused his work almost entirely on shame. I have been so arrogant when it comes to shame, I'm ashamed to admit it. But I've always equated shame with weakness. I've always felt like the anti-shame movement that's going on in culture was some kind of new-agey, self-helpy product of our snowflake culture. Everyone in my world would send me that-
Brene Brown:[crosstalk 00:06:17]. That's what this conference is all about. That's what life is about.
Eric Huffman:... same Brene Brown TED Talk over the last five years, and they all told me, "You've got to watch this, Eric. You've got to watch this."
Brene Brown:[crosstalk 00:06:24]. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door and you think, "I'm going in and I'm going to try this," shame is the gremlin who says, "Uh-uh. You're not good enough. You never finished that MBA." "Your wife left you." "I know your dad really wasn't really Luxembourg. He was in Sing Sing." "I know those things that happened to you growing up." "I know you don't think that you're pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough." "I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO." Shame is that thing.
Eric Huffman:I never watched it. But, luckily, the Maybe God team talked me into doing this interview with Dr. Thompson. It didn't take long for him to have me convinced that this is a real thing happening in our brains. In a matter of minutes, he had me digging into my own deeply lodged shame that I was hoping to spend the rest of my life avoiding. Here we go. Curt Thompson, Dr. Curt Thompson. Thank you again for your time. It's valuable, I know, and-
Dr. Thompson:No, it's great to be here.
Eric Huffman:Why don't we just start with a word of prayer to start? God, thank you for this beautiful, beautiful day. Thank you for Curt and his ... Dr. Thompson started by sharing part of his own story, and how he ended up in medical school decades ago almost by accident.
Dr. Thompson:Well, I think that psychiatry found me. I don't think I found it.
Eric Huffman:Now his Christian family worried about his decision to pursue mental health.
Dr. Thompson:They were worried that I was going to enter into some field that was going to swallow me whole, and I think for no small reason. For the same reason that many Christians, over a long period of time, have been wary of the mental health profession. I'm not sure that you can both be in that field and maintain your faith at the same time.
Eric Huffman:But ultimately he found his life's purpose.
Dr. Thompson:My work is to walk with people and invite them to tell their stories more truly. That involves telling lots of things about our stories that the neuroscience can help educate us about.
Eric Huffman:After about 15 years in private practice, he discovered a common thread in all the stories he was hearing from his patients.
Dr. Thompson:We talk in the field of interpersonal neurobiology about what we call states of integration. We might say that when human beings or when systems, when communities are flourishing, they've reached states of integration. There are different components of that that are necessary to make that happen.
Dr. Thompson:But what I was really curious about and wanting to explore was just the growing reality that became aware of intaking your patients over 15 or 20 years, the role that shame plays in disintegrating systems. There was very little that patients would talk with me about that at some level didn't involve this phenomenon. There's a gentleman, Allan Schore ...
Allan Schore:In an optimal situation with a good enough mother. This was a term [crosstalk 00:09:30].
Dr. Thompson:He's one of the first folks that identified that shame shows up early and often in our lives, as early as 15 to 18 months of age. Kids don't even have to be linguistically aware at all in order to sense it, experience it, feel it, and then translate that neurobiologically.
Allan Schore:When she skips and when she misses, she's there to repair. The key to this is she's there to repair. In this situation, you're looking at, in an optimal situation, what's called the secure attachment. A secure attachment is an indicator of later resilience while an insecure attachment ...
Eric Huffman:What is the working definition of shame?
Dr. Thompson:Shame is not an abstraction. It's not this thing that happens often to ether. It happens physically, it happens in our brain, and it happens physically and in our brain long before we're in brain time, long before we're ever aware that we're actually even having this experience.
Dr. Thompson:Allan Schore talks about shame being akin to driving a standard transmission automobile. If you have your accelerator and you have your brake and you have your clutch, what it is is just like newborns do and toddlers do; they're in what we would call go mode all the time. I'm just doing things. Just going, going, going. That's my accelerator that's moving in our brain. That's my sympathetic drive system that's acting. It's in sympathy with what I want.
Dr. Thompson:But at some point somebody has to say slow down or stop or no. For most kids, we, the parents, are the aversive stimulus. We say no and when we say no, when we redirect them, when we interrupt their accelerator, when we decelerate the engine, we do so by turning on what we call their parasympathetic drive system, and this is happening all day every day. It's happening for all of us all the time.
Dr. Thompson:The real question is what happens in a child, what happens when they are in go mode and the engine has suddenly decelerated? Is there a clutch? Because we know what happens to standard transmission automobile when the car slows, comes to a stop but there's no clutch. The engine doesn't just stop, it stops violently.
Dr. Thompson:Shame is what happens when we are in go mode and suddenly we decelerate and there's no clutch involved, and we ask, "Well, what is the clutch?" The clutch is an attuned interpersonal relationship. If I'm the parent and I have to get somebody to decelerate, the real question is to what degree can I be deeply connected to you while I'm having you slow down?
Dr. Thompson:Shame is what happens when there's nobody to be connected to me while you're having me decelerate. These things can happen in all kinds of ways. We talk all kinds of shaming experiences that people think about, when there's been sexual abuse or there's been some kind of physical trauma. But they can be minor things, like you're at a party and you're part of two or three people who are having a conversation, and you offer something into the conversation and the conversation just keeps going with no acknowledgement.
Eric Huffman:That happens to me all the time.
Dr. Thompson:Yeah, I understand why. These things happen. Of course, we're not going to stop and say, "Excuse me. Why did you people just ignore what I said?" No, because they might say, "Well, because you're stupid." Then we don't want to be even more ashamed. But that's not going to create a horrible thing in my life.
Dr. Thompson:But we have these kinds of moments all the time. The fact that they start so young, the fact that I don't need words, the fact that all I need is the glance, the tone of voice, the body language, the turning away.
Dr. Thompson:Here's the thing. The vast majority of how we experience shame doesn't usually come to us from the outside. It usually comes to us from within the privacy of our own heads. "I should have done this. I should have done that. I wasn't good enough for this. I wasn't good enough." I do this just dozens of times every day. Of course, there is, in that context, no interpersonal relationship slowing that down, connecting with me, because I'm all by myself while I am condemning myself.
Dr. Thompson:One of the things that we notice about neural networks is that those things that tend to be afflicting, affective states that are afflicting, things that I don't like, negative emotions, I can take those in and encode those very, very quickly. For shame, I can encode it in less than three seconds, and it will stay with me. For me to encode the felt sense of a compliment that you pay me will take somewhere between 30 and 90 seconds.
Dr. Thompson:The sheer volume and the work involved for someone to countermand the amount of shame that I'm collecting in my head requires a platoon of people. It's not just a single person's voice that I need to have in my head to counteract what is going on. I need the voices of many people. I need to hear them a lot.
Eric Huffman:Wow! You know what I find interesting about that is I think the assumption for many people who deal with shame in a cyclical, ongoing pattern is that there are people in the world who don't have to deal with shame. There are people who are just well-adjusted enough and put together enough and had just the right parents and all of this, and they just don't seem to struggle in the same ways. But what your research is suggesting is that it's not an internal solution that liberates people from shame, it's actually the interpersonal connections that we forge.
Eric Huffman:What happens, I think, is healthier people tend to cultivate healthier relationships. But we're all free to cultivate relationships that are transparent and, regardless of how broken any of us are, we can pursue that. One of the lies the enemy tells us is that when you're broken, you don't reach out because you'll be judged.
Dr. Thompson:Right. It's often asked of me, "Well, does it make a difference that we have some sense of understanding the difference between shame and guilt?" There actually is, I think, some helpful ... There are differences that you just hinted at.
Dr. Thompson:One is that the research on guilt suggests, first of all, that where shame shows up 15 to 18 months of age, the thing that we call guilt doesn't really begin to emerge in the mind of a child until they're somewhere between the ages of about three to five years of age. Whereas with shame, the shorthand is I am bad. With guilt, I've done something bad. I feel guilty because there's this thing that I've done that has now breached a relationship with somebody else.
Dr. Thompson:What's even more fascinating is that the research shows this with little kids, this is with college students. If you have an event in which you do something for which you feel guilty, you've hurt somebody's feelings, you've mistreated them, or whatever, and it's with a relationship with somebody that you love and care for, the vast majority of responses of people when they feel guilt is to turn toward the person that they've hurt or wounded and seek some kind of repair. With shame, we don't do that.
Dr. Thompson:The very neurophysiological phenomenon that we experience is such that when I anticipate turning toward anybody, it ramps up my sense of what it is that I will feel that feels so bad. Naturally, with shame, I turn away from anyone, but the very thing that I need is the other in order to help my neural networks be reconnected. But the very thing that I need is the very thing that I will not do on my own.
Dr. Thompson:From the anthropology of the biblical narrative, when we look at this whole notion that here we sit as human beings who, if we were just stuck in our neurobiology of shame, which we all are, we're not going to turn to other people for help on our own, which is why we've got to have somebody come find us.
Dr. Thompson:There is not another narrative on the planet in which a God who made us comes to find us. It's like, I don't know, any of our listeners, myself included, like who doesn't want to have somebody come find them?
Dr. Thompson:Now it's tricky because, of course, I want you to find me, but the minute that you do, I'm worried that you're going to see the stuff that I've been hiding from myself. Of course, this is what we would say evil tends to do. I'm going to be found and then you're going to see me, and then you're going to go. It's really tricky. It takes risk to allow ourselves to be loved.
Eric Huffman:To be loved is to really be known ...
Eric Huffman:... and in all of our shame. That's too heavy a thing to think about for many of us.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Okay, pause for a second, Eric. This is where things might get confusing for our non-religious listeners. When he says there's not another narrative on the planet in which a God who made us comes to find us, what is he talking about here?
Eric Huffman:Well, he's talking about world religions and mythologies. Every religion has throughout human history had a defining narrative.
Eric Huffman:It's that story that summarizes the most important ideas to that worldview or to that religion. For example, for Jewish people, it's probably the Exodus from Egypt.
Eric Huffman:Yahweh rescues the down and out and he breaks the chains of slavery.
Eric Huffman:For Muslim people, it's probably the message God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in a cave. Allah is great, and he demands obedience, he deserves obedience, and holiness from his people. The defining narrative in Christianity is a strange one.
Eric Huffman:It is that God isn't just almighty and distant, but that he actually became a human being. He didn't just break the chains of our slavery, he wore them himself. He didn't reveal some secret knowledge from Heaven. He became one of us. He came to find us. It's a really staggering idea to think about.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Yeah. This is also where Dr. Thompson starts talking about in our interview about evil's use of shame. Is he talking about the devil here?
Eric Huffman:I mean, yeah, he is. I know it's confusing for people and it seems a little bit beyond the pale if you're a skeptic. But the devil, the enemy, Satan, whatever you want to call it, it's this idea that evil is real and that it's rooted in the spiritual realm. Just like there are spiritual forces of light and good that inspire love and freedom and joy, there are forces of darkness that induce fear and shame and isolation.
Julie Mirlicourtois:You've actually been teaching about those dark forces lately at The Story. This is a clip from a recent message, and it's worth pointing out that this is just three days after you sat down with Dr. Thompson. Clearly, that conversation had an impact on you.
Eric Huffman:It didn't very long for shame to become a part of the human story in the Bible. It's like two chapters in in Genesis. At the end of chapter two, everything is great and they're in the Garden of Eden, and they're just like delightful and everything's perfect. It says that they were naked and what? Unashamed.
Eric Huffman:That's a very weird use and placement of that word. Why that word and not some other word? Why unashamed? It was because shame was about to enter the picture in a very real way.
Eric Huffman:The moment they took of that fruit and ate it, they began hiding from God. They covered themselves up, they covered their nakedness, and they blamed each other. They turned away from each other. Listen, that is the key difference between something like guilt and something like shame. Guilt will lead you usually to turn toward the person you've wronged. Shame will always seek to turn you away from everyone who cares about you.
Eric Huffman:That's what it does. Emotionally, spiritually, it turns you away from each other. Since Adam and Eve, that's all we've been doing. Racked by our shame, we turn away from God and hide from each other and go deeper into our dark isolation, and that's where the enemy's got us.
Eric Huffman:Jesus came to deal with that. Jesus came to deal with shame. That's why he chose to be born naked like the rest of us. That's why he chose to die naked on the quintessential symbol of human shame: the cross. He died taking on the shame of the world to tell us there's a new way to deal with his insidious thing called shame and to send our enemy a message. You refer back a lot to Genesis 1 and 3. Do you see the Adam and Eve story as a prototype of the effects of shame on humanity?
Dr. Thompson:Well, I find it's really curious the notion that we were, even in Genesis 1, this sense of, "Let us make mankind in our image," this notion that we're made for community, we're made to live and make things together. You just get this sense that the most beautiful, durable things that we make in the world, we do so with others in the space of great vulnerability where shame is disallowed from being part of the conversation.
Dr. Thompson:The whole notion of naked in the Genesis context isn't even primarily referring just to their physicality. It's referring to their vulnerability, to the fact that in order for them to flourish, they need the other. It is into this vulnerability that we were intended to live and breathe and make things that shame does its work, where it twists just enough.
Dr. Thompson:Where vulnerability is originally designed and intended to create the opportunity for beautiful things to be made, it twists it just so that now not only are we not making things together, I'm doing things in isolation, like if I'm leaves over my private parts. We're not doing that together. I'm doing that. We very quickly see that isolation, one of shame's most visible elements, really starts to play a role that becomes self-perpetuating and snowballs.
Dr. Thompson:I tell people I really do believe that evil is the second smartest force in the planet. When it moves to manipulate shame, shame will do, I think, what we read in the third chapter of Genesis that evil does. Evil just shrinks into the background. It doesn't need notoriety. It just wants to devour us.
Dr. Thompson:I pay a lot of attention to Genesis' account, I think largely because we get very viscerally powerful pictures of what it is that we do all day long to ourselves and to each other. It's not easy for me to want to be naked with others, to want to be vulnerable with others.
Eric Huffman:Right. In your work, what specifically do you see shame doing to the human brain? What behaviors or habits or tendencies come out of that, practically speaking?
Dr. Thompson:Neurophysiologically, one of the first things that happens in this disintegrating state is that there are all kinds of things that quite literally begin to be disconnected. My thinking brain and my feeling brain and my sensing brain, these different neural networks that represent the different things that my mind does all tend to suddenly be unable to work in concert together. They're being separated, isolated from each other in terms of their function.
Dr. Thompson:In addition, as that is happening, literally in my own state as a person, I'm going to do the same thing with you. I'm going to turn away from you, I'm going to disconnect from you. I'm going to do all kinds of things that literally is changing the dynamic between the two of us, myself and my wife, myself and my kids, so forth and so on.
Dr. Thompson:I talk in The Soul of Shame about the fact that we're storytellers and this is an important element of this. It's not just that I experience shame, but as a storyteller, I am constantly in the business of making sense of what I sense.
Dr. Thompson:We like to say in our work that the central nervous system operates bottom to top and right to left, my spinal cord coming to my brain stem to my limbic circuitry to my right hemisphere, and it sends everything to the left hemisphere, where my left hemisphere's logical, linear processing is now making sense of, it's telling the story, making sense of what everything else that's coming up from the bottom and from the right it is sensing. This is happening at light speed. When I find some element of shame that starts to enter this picture, I then start to tell stories accordingly.
Dr. Thompson:Now if I grew up in a house where my dad and I had experiences in which I felt shame, but there was no repair work done, I'm going to tell a story about that. By the time I'm 18, the story might be something like I feel bad because I haven't worked hard enough to be a good enough son, and that's the truth. That's what my neuroplastic reality has become, when the reality is I feel bad because my father has behaved badly over many, many, many years, but now I have just continued to agree with that narrative and I've piled on to that.
Dr. Thompson:What I then do is I will work harder to be a better son, or I do all kinds of other things, you know, I'm smoking weed or I'm drinking too much. I have an array of coping strategies that I will use to help me reduce the distress, the shame that I feel. Unfortunately, those kinds of short-term coping strategies don't really do much, once they've worn off, to keep me from going right back to the same narrative. This just continues to add into [crosstalk 00:29:16].
Eric Huffman:Oh, it just plays into narrative.
Dr. Thompson:Exactly, until you end up in my office, because your brain has literally ran out of track. It doesn't have any more options with which to deal with this disintegrating state of shame.
Eric Huffman:You go back to the beginning of the story and you edit in real time to tell a new story.
Dr. Thompson:We do. I mean one of the examples ... This is a real story of one of my friends, one of my patients. The standard question we ask people, "Can you tell me about what life was like growing up in your house?" His answer was, "I grew up in a really loving Christian home," which is for some folks who don't know this, that's code for life really sucked. But I can't really say that.
Eric Huffman:You just did.
Dr. Thompson:Right, yeah. We keep asking questions. The next question would be: "Oh, well, can you tell us a little bit about who is in charge of discipline in your house?" He thought and he eventually got around to saying, "Well, my mom was really in charge of discipline. The reason for that was because my father had a pretty bad temper. As it turned out, I guess he was pretty brutal when it came to responding to one of my siblings who didn't get along with my dad nearly as easily."
Dr. Thompson:We paused and I asked, "How is it that the answer to the question, 'What was it like growing up in your house?', is, 'I grew up in a really loving Christian home'? That's just flat out not true."
Dr. Thompson:But this is the kind of thing that we do. We tell stories as a way to help us cope with these things until someone comes looking for us, until someone comes looking and asking a certain set of questions that really invite us to tell our story more truly.
Dr. Thompson:Now I don't want to suggest that ... My patient, he's not lying. This is the story that he has told, that he has had to tell because he's had nobody else to tell his story with him in a way that is true to what it is.
Dr. Thompson:But that means that for 40 years, he has been walking around having to somehow find a way to manage the afflicting affective state of all that brutality in his house, and the distress that it causes that's locked up in neural networks of memory while he's telling a different story in order to help him keep all that on lockdown. But the reason that he's in my office telling me that story in the first place is because he was now at a point where his anxiety was so bad that he couldn't function getting to work.
Dr. Thompson:We come to find out that telling the story more truly at first glance, I might like the idea in theory, but to tell it more truly means I am going to have to go back and wander into some of those hallways where I do remember feeling my father's brutality. But the difference is this time I'm not going to let you do that by yourself.
Dr. Thompson:As you remember those stories, those will not be stories that you're telling by yourself. You're going to be telling those stories with me and, eventually, in a group of people who are not going to leave you alone with what you feel. It is in the revealing of this shame and this sadness and this felt sense of disintegration that literally, as he bears witness to others receiving his story with compassion and mercy and acknowledging that his father was not okay, it literally transforms his memory of what it's like for him to be alone with his story, because now he is no longer alone with that story.
Dr. Thompson:In this way, those voices now help him co-narrate the story more truly as a story of grace, as a story of someone coming to find him, saying, "We will not leave you alone in the middle of this."
Eric Huffman:Right. I think most people see you here at The Story, Julie, and probably assume that you've got it all together and you're some kind of super Christian because you work for a church, and you've got it all figured out. But I know you well enough by now to know that a big part of the reason you've been successful in your career sharing other people's stories is because you've also struggled a lot in your own story. Was shame a part of that equation for you?
Julie Mirlicourtois:Without a doubt. Without a doubt. Eric, you know how much I hate talking about myself publicly. It's not because I have anything to hide. I think my work, sharing other people's stories, has been my best coping strategy for dealing with the shame that I've felt most of my life. Until a few years ago, I'll be honest, there wasn't a day that went by that I didn't tell myself how I'd failed that day again. I failed to be perfect, how there's no way anyone could like me because there is nothing to like about me, and how surely I had said something that day that would prove to whoever it was I was talking to that I was less than perfect.
Eric Huffman:Help me understand. Where do you think that came from?
Julie Mirlicourtois:Well, I'm no Dr. Thompson, so I can't say for sure. But starting with my earliest childhood memories, I remember just feeling like a total outsider. My dad was French, as French as they come, with a thick, thick accent and lots of mistresses. My mom's from New England, which is basically like the polar opposite of France. I mean the food's bad, at least it was when I lived there, and people don't talk about things like sex. In my mom's family, everyone prioritized acting like we had it all together.
Julie Mirlicourtois:My parents went through a pretty ugly divorce when I was eight. That's when I started traveling back and forth between these two countries, a few times a year. It caused me to grow up very fast. I'd seen a lot of things that most eight-year-olds had not seen. I'd experienced a lot of emotions I didn't know how to handle. Looking back, I think that's where the shame came from.
Julie Mirlicourtois:When I was with my mom and her family, I wasn't allowed to express my sadness and anger. I couldn't talk about and work through the things that I'd witnessed. It wasn't okay to be vulnerable.
Julie Mirlicourtois:I remember one day I found a book in my mom's closet, because I was snooping through her closet, called The Difficult Child. I think I was nine years old. Apparently, that was me because I had emotions that no one knew how to deal with, and that really stuck with me. I believed I was that difficult child.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Then there was my dad's family, the French, where oversharing is the name of the game and not caring what anyone thinks about you. I felt much more comfortable with that side of me and that side of my family. But that was just as unhealthy, I realized now, because no one knew how to regulate these intense emotions in a healthy way. Nobody goes to therapy in France to figure that out. Even though we'd all act like we just didn't care what other people thought, we really cared about what other people thought. We just had to hide that, too. Eric, you know this about me because even though you never met him, I talk about my dad all the time.
Eric Huffman:You do.
Julie Mirlicourtois:My father and I loved each other so much. He was the center of my universe. He's been gone for six years now, and I still want to cry thinking about it. But most of the time we communicated by shouting at each other. A good conversation between us often ended in tears. Somehow this all combined led to this very intense fear of abandonment in me.
Eric Huffman:Wow! Dr. Thompson talks a lot about how when we go through seasons like that, we tend to develop coping habits to get through it. Looking back, did you see yourself developing any of those coping habits?
Julie Mirlicourtois:Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It started in high school. I started hanging out mostly with guys who didn't expect any emotional intimacy from me the way women did in relationships. I started using drugs to cope with my anxiety. As early as 14 years old, I started burying myself in my work, first at my high school TV studio, later working for network news shows, because work very quickly became the only place I felt confident. I was really good at playing perfect in that environment.
Eric Huffman:Yeah. For how many years had that worked for you?
Julie Mirlicourtois:Well, it never really worked, honestly. The shame just started becoming more deeply rooted in my daily life. I was living in New York, working around the clock, producing new shows. When I wasn't working, I was partying really hard with my friends. We'd stay until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning every weekend. We'd drink a lot, smoke a lot, and I hooked up with a lot of men.
Julie Mirlicourtois:These were all coping strategies for dealing with the shame that I felt inside that was really just getting worse, because in the moments I wasn't working or partying, I was literally replaying every interaction I'd had that day in my head that I deemed important, and searching for proof that I was less than perfect, reasons to believe people must hate me, like not just not like to be around me but really hate me.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Looking back, I realized I was obsessively retelling stories with my own negative spin, just like Dr. Thompson talks about. I was isolating myself by trying to act like everything was okay on the outside when I was around people and really just letting the shame take over in my private moments.
Eric Huffman:Yeah. What happened next in your 20s?
Julie Mirlicourtois:When I was about 26, I was dating a guy for a few weeks. Nothing really serious. I wasn't falling in love with this guy or anything. But one night after work, we were on the phone catching up about really nothing in particular. I have no idea what we were talking about. Do people even still talk on the phone when they're dating? [crosstalk 00:40:05].
Eric Huffman:I'm not sure. I don't like to get phone calls anymore.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Anyway, in the middle of the conversation, we were disconnected, and I tried calling him back ... I remember I was standing in my tiny New York City kitchen ... and it went to voicemail and he never called back. This was pre-texting days.
Eric Huffman:You mean like never ever?
Julie Mirlicourtois:Never ever called back. I never talked to him again.
Eric Huffman:[crosstalk 00:40:26].
Julie Mirlicourtois:I think I was like mid-sentence. In my mind, that was the proof I'd been searching for, that I was an absolutely terrible person, completely unworthy of anyone's love, for someone to despise me so much that they wouldn't even call me back to finish the conversation. A few weeks later, I was in therapy for the first time in my life.
Julie Mirlicourtois:I didn't think about it back then, but what Keith, my therapist, did was to help me retell all the stories from my past that had caused me so much shame. It took another several years to recover from that shame. I realized how God pulled me out of it now by putting a man in my life who saw through the shame and is fiercely loyal, with kids who love me in a way that's unlike any love I'd felt before, and by bringing me to Houston and allowing me to know him, God, in a way that I never knew him before, and realizing that he was there all along, loving me through my shame when I thought I was completely alone and unworthy of love.
Eric Huffman:As you were coming to these realizations, how exactly did you go from being so wrapped up in shame and self-loathing that you would self-isolate to being someone who's so willing to be vulnerable, even with thousands of podcast listeners?
Julie Mirlicourtois:I remember you saying once, when I first started coming to The Story and I was still really deeply skeptical, that we need Christian community. That really rubbed me the wrong way, Eric, because I love my non-Christian friends, and I just didn't get it. But I think I get it now, I know I get it, because true Christian friends like the ones I have now can love you in a way that allows you to be totally vulnerable.
Julie Mirlicourtois:On my worst days, I know that I can tell you and [Gio 00:42:27] and my other Christian inner circle here at The Story that I'm struggling, and you're all going to love me no less for it at the end of the day.
Eric Huffman:Wow! That is a beautiful thing-
Julie Mirlicourtois:Test, test. Okay, here we go.
Eric Huffman:... when Christians get it [crosstalk 00:42:43], what the single most important idea in the gospel is, and that's great.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Well, in high school, I started hanging out mostly with guys who didn't expect emotional intimacy from me the way women did.
Eric Huffman:If one word could define the whole Christian narrative, it's grace. Grace is not like the little prayer you say before dinner.
Julie Mirlicourtois:Well, in high school, I started hanging out mostly with guys who didn't expect emotional intimacy from me the way women did. I started ...
Eric Huffman:Grace is not weakness. Grace is unmerited, undeserved-
Julie Mirlicourtois:Well, in high school, I started hanging out mostly with guys who didn't expect emotional intimacy from me the way girls did.
Eric Huffman:... unconditional love that accepts you and welcomes you home and longs for you, regardless of what kind of day you had or how you performed at work or what your deliverables are.
Julie Mirlicourtois:I mean the food's bad. My mom's from New England, which is basically like the polar opposite of France. I mean the food's bad, at least it was when I lived there, and people don't talk about things like sex.
Eric Huffman:Grace is pure love. That is what Jesus came to show us when we live as Christians, and sometimes Christians fail to really internalize and grasp this concept. But when it happens, it's beautiful to see the transformation in people [crosstalk 00:43:38].
Julie Mirlicourtois:I mean the food's bad, at least it was when I lived there, and people ... Yeah, and I think the most powerful thing is, at least in my own story, once I was able to feel that grace for myself in my own life, I can extend that grace so much easier to everyone around me, too.
Eric Huffman:I wonder, my earliest memories of the word "shame" were all indicative of the idea that we should embrace it, that we should feel it. You ought to be ashamed or have you no shame. Is that true? Should we be ashamed sometimes?
Dr. Thompson:I find Paul's language in the seventh chapter of 2 Corinthians to be really helpful here, where he writes that there is a godly grief that leads to repentance and there is an ungodly grief that leads to death. I read that and I think, to me, those words apply to this question.
Dr. Thompson:In Genesis chapter three, the problem was not that shame existed. The problem is what we do in response to it. If it's happening in a context in which it's easy for me to become isolated, and I don't have a community of people with whom I'm regularly revealing myself and to whom they are revealing themselves to me, I will practice the inclination that shame tends to lead me toward, which is isolation. Then everything just snowballs from there.
Dr. Thompson:If I am in a context in which I'm practicing revealing shame, one of the other things that I do is I also develop the capacity to feel shame and associate it properly when I've done something for which shame is a proper response.
Dr. Thompson:I think there are plenty things, actions that we take for which we don't have any shame, but I would suggest that even those actions that we take that we don't have any shame about are the result of lots and lots and lots of practice, coping with shame that we can't tolerate. Once you develop enough callous over your heart, you don't feel anything.
Dr. Thompson:I mean we've had plenty of people that come into our office who have committed acts, the nature of which they're not really all that ashamed of, until we start to ask them questions about their life story, questions that have to do with parts of their story that are far more ancient than their current behavior that is shameful, but they don't feel any shame for it.
Dr. Thompson:When you start to have them reveal what life with their father or their mother or life with growing up in their systemic abuse was all about, you find lights starting to go on that connect them to current behaviors. You see that we work really hard to stay away from our shame because primarily we don't know anything better to do, because we're so disconnected from each other. That's a really painful place to be.
Eric Huffman:When our shame bucket is full, whatever we throw into it just bounces off at some point.
Dr. Thompson:Of course.
Eric Huffman:Right. Fascinating.
Eric Huffman:I want to get into something that's a little more personal to me because you in your book, you go right at pastors and our problem with shame. I wonder why it is that you pick out this segment of your listeners to pick on or talk about when it comes to this topic in particular.
Dr. Thompson:I see a number of pastors, and I think they dwell in one of the most poorly defended professions on the planet.
Eric Huffman:What do you mean by that?
Dr. Thompson:I don't think anybody has a harder job and I don't think that they're protected well enough. There are many situations in the lives of the pastors that I know where it's not easy for them to find a community where they're going to be understood. I find that pastors are just really in vulnerable places in some ways like nobody else is.
Dr. Thompson:I grieve for them, I feel very protective for them. I.
Eric Huffman:That actually means a lot to me personally. I do think that there's something unique about this profession. I mean you have people asking how you're doing all the time, and some of them are sincere and would receive whatever you tell them. I have people like that in my life. But it's not about them, it's about me in that moment not trusting anyone with my crap. It's not just fear of being judged, it's fear of being discredited and potentially fired.
Dr. Thompson:Right. Again, that whole thing about being left, however that works itself out, being fired, being kicked to the curb, whatever this [crosstalk 00:49:41]
Eric Huffman:Forgotten. I have friends that have just been kicked to the curb and forgotten forever by the churches that used to champion them and love them because of some one indiscretion that happened. There are some favorite sin they committed.
Dr. Thompson:Yeah, right.
Pastor Romero:Hey, guys. It's Brother Romero. I just want to make this video for our church family and for the people that listen online. I just want to just tell you I'm sorry for what I've done. I went to Jacksonville and I went to a casino and I was drinking. There were girls there that were prostitutes. I committed adultery on my wife multiple times. I drank, I gambled multiple times. Last Wednesday, I resigned. I didn't tell anybody ...
Pastor Romero:Most of you in this church only experience what I do on Sundays, but the reality is, as a leader and a pastor of a church, what happens in between those Sundays is just as important, and it requires a lot of leadership and it requires a lot of leadership energy. Leaders in any realm of life, leaders who lead on empty don't lead well. For some time now, I've been leading on empty. I believe that the best thing for me to do is to step aside from CrossPoint, and so I am officially resigning as the pastor of CrossPoint Church.
Eric Huffman:There was a time for about 12 years, when I was a pastor and preaching and leading churches, but I really wasn't a believer. At times, I was outspoken about that, and most of the time I just covered it up and spotted the company line as much as I needed to and pursued social justice. That created a disconnect in me. I think that created some kind of fragmentation that led to some deeper shame. I felt this inadequacy in that way that was deep, deep inside of me. Then what ended up happening, and I'm not blaming anyone but myself for this, but I got into some pretty unhealthy coping habits.
Dr. Thompson:Welcome to the club.
Eric Huffman:Yeah, yeah. But I treated the coping habits like it was the thing. It wasn't the thing. All those other stuff was the thing. For me, the big thing was like porn and stuff, which was obviously something that drove me deeper into the shadows of isolation for years and years and years. It was literally, for me, hell on earth. It did stifle creativity and capacity for relationships and leadership.
Eric Huffman:But it was a secret only I knew, and that's a terrible place to be for many, many years. When we came here, I knew that from the very beginning, I was going to have to tear down those old monuments to the darkness in my heart and so that no one else would find out about them later. I wouldn't be found out. I knew I had to take a proactive role and disempower the darkness in that way and share. Boy, did I share.
Eric Huffman:I know you're not surprised to hear a pastor come out against pornography. I mean big shocker there that a pastor is standing on his pedestal, his soapbox looking down at all of you heathens with your perversions. Listen, this is not me on a soapbox judging you for your porn problems. This is me, a former porn user, empathizing with you.
Eric Huffman:What was fascinating is how people started coming out of the woodwork immediately, as if I had said something that they've been thirsting for by just telling my story. Most people said, "I've never heard porn talked about in church before." But everybody said, "My husband or me," or whatever, like, "What do I do now? What do I do now?" Like I did, they were thinking that the porn was the thing. The porn was just an echo of the thing.
Eric Huffman:I think, for me, that was a good first step, but I confess that I still deal with shame. The shame now comes from the disconnect between how I think most people see me and how I see myself and who I think I really am. That gets worse the more successful you are in ministry.
Dr. Thompson:Indeed. That's predictable.
Eric Huffman:Yeah. The more people I have sitting in those chairs out there, the lonelier it gets.
Dr. Thompson:It's tricky when there are more people who are hearing you do your work because your work is good. The more intentional and intensive would be the need for you to have your Wesleyan group of people that you are meeting with every week by whom you were being known and who are knowing you and who will not leave you alone and that you don't leave alone, the group of people who are protecting you, the group of people who see it as their mission to take care of you come hell or high water, regardless of how many are or aren't in the auditorium.
Eric Huffman:I really don't think pastors are the only ones who experience this sort of performative-based shame. I do think it's exacerbated sometimes in our little world. But most of the shame I experience now is the emails I never sent, the Bible study I punted and didn't do a good job with, the call I didn't make to that widow to check in. I carry that stuff around in ways that I think few people understand.
Dr. Thompson:What's striking about having a regular place for us to unload that, for us to name these things, and for the others who are hearing this story say, "Eric, you're working so hard. I just want you to know I'm so proud of how hard you're working. I'm not proud of the benchmarks, I'm not proud of the things you're getting done. I'm proud of how hard you're working.
Dr. Thompson:I really hear that Bible study get punted and so forth and I'm like, 'I get it. We're totally good.' I would want you to hear and see me say to you we're good, you're good while we're talking about the punted Bible study," because from a brain standpoint, it is in that moment that your memory of the punted Bible study literally is narrowly altered, because it's now gotten my voice and face painted on it.
Dr. Thompson:Now if this becomes a regularly held practice that I do, pretty soon I come to a point where my brain is actually no longer holding these things by itself. It's literally being held. If you take quantum mechanics seriously enough here, it's literally being held with me by other people. This is not just metaphor, this is physics in which I am not by myself with this. If that's the case, then I literally have that energy now available for me to do the things I really want to do.
Dr. Thompson:I'm 56. For 25, 26 years, I've got two guys that I meet with on Tuesday morning for prayer and confession. There's nothing about me that they don't know.
Dr. Thompson:And a spiritual director that I meet with once a month, and there's nothing about made me that he doesn't know. I probably have another half dozen guys for whom this is true. If I don't have these guys, I'm a dead man. These are the people who protect me.
Eric Huffman:Right. I think your words earlier gripped me, the idea that, at the end of the day, I just need someone to come find me. We all do. That's what your guys represent is Jesus coming to find you every Tuesday morning or whenever you all meet. I think that's all of our only hope. In getting people to reimagine or retell their stories, what role does Jesus coming to find us in this gospel narrative play in that process?
Dr. Thompson:There's a story in the ninth chapter of John's gospel of Jesus healing a blind man, a blind guy who wasn't even asking for healing. He's healed and then all kinds of bad things happen to him immediately, which, of course, is ironic. If I'm the blind dude, I'm like, "What the heck?" At the end of this story, we read that when Jesus heard that they had put him out, he came to find him.
Dr. Thompson:I read the gospel and I read it as a story in which this is what Jesus is always doing. He's coming to find us. He's coming to find us in other people. He's coming to find us in ways that surprise us.
Dr. Thompson:I think this is what Good Friday really represents in such a powerful way. It's often said that we have these seven sayings, these seven "I Am's", "I'm the bread of life," "I'm the way, the truth, and life," these seven different things. It's rightly been pointed out that these are not just tidings of comfort and joy for us Christians, which they are, but they're also the very things that got him killed.
Dr. Thompson:For Jesus, we might say, "Well, he's just making declarative statements about the truth," but I also think that they're acts of great vulnerability for him, that he knows that in telling his story truly, people are coming for him, too. I think he knows what it's like. He knows how hard it is to be vulnerable. He knows how frightening it can be.
Dr. Thompson:If you were to Google images for crucifixion, you'd get about 200 pictures on your screen, and only two of them would be probably completely accurate. What we know about what the Romans did is the Romans didn't just crucify people to kill them. They crucified them to humiliate the victim as well as the community.
Dr. Thompson:Jesus wouldn't have anything on, he would be stripped naked, and we have a hard enough time allowing God to come as far as he came. But the gospels tell us that, in fact, is what he did, that he came to be with us and to demonstrate that he knows, a, what shame is like; b, he's not afraid of it; c, he's definitely not afraid to be in ours with us.
Dr. Thompson:It is in the being with us, as seen through the lens of Easter, that we get a picture of a God who doesn't just see and is willing to be with our shame, but is taking us someplace where that shame will be healed, and we will be re commissioned to start to pay far more attention to his delight in us and his joy with us and his desire for us to co-create the next new thing he wants us to make with him than he is wanting us to pay attention to our shame. To me, that's just really, really good news.
Eric Huffman:Amen. Curt Thompson, thank you so much.
Dr. Thompson:Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
Eric Huffman:A lot of us have bought into the lie that we're supposed to be self-sufficient, never reliant, never vulnerable, never transparent, never week, always standing on our own two feet, especially men. Listen to me guys. You've been told this lie. Many of us have bought this lie, and we're worse off for it. We have no real set of friends that are good for us, that not only pick up the phone when we call but they know what we're really saying. They can read between the lines. We can be honest with them. We can tell them everything. They can be our cloud.
Eric Huffman:But the Bible presents this idea of a cloud of witnesses as a protective force field that is vital to your overcoming in this spiritual struggle, because no matter how faithful you get, no matter how Christian you are, there will be times, days or months, seasons where you feel surrounded by the enemy.
Eric Huffman:If you don't have a cloud of witnesses that's closer to you than the enemies are, you will be susceptible to attack, defenseless, because what a great cloud of witnesses does when it surrounds you closer than those forces do is it drowns out the voices of the darkness in your life. They'll be the voices telling you who you really are, a child of the living God, redeemed by the blood of Jesus, worth the love of God.
Eric Huffman:If you're not a Christian yet, I would just say that line of fixing your eyes on Jesus means no longer being a scattered person, but just fixing your eyes and making him the center. There's no better place to fix your eyes. There's no better person to chase after than him. Make him the center of your life today. He will equip you whatever battle you're facing, whether its addiction, whether it's depression, whether it's self-image or shame. You need not fight it alone. In fact, in Christ, when he took on that burden of shame, he won the war you're fighting. You can walk in victory with him.
Julie Mirlicourtois:This episode of Maybe God was produced by Julie Mirlicourtois and Eric Huffman. Nathan Bonnes and Aubrey Snider are the sound engineers, and our editors are Shannon Stephen, Brittany Holland, and Justin Meyer. As always, a special thanks to our co-creator, Brandon Duke. For more information or to tell us what you think, head to our website, maybegodpod.com.