A couple of weeks ago we finished a ten-week therapy group focused on reducing shame. The group was for Christians who experience same-sex attraction, struggle with shame, and were looking for practical resources to help them in this area. I was co-leading it with a doctoral student who had developed a curriculum on reducing shame among Christian sexual minorities (she did this for her dissertation), and we used that curriculum and collected pre- and post-group data to see the impact of the group therapy experience on participants’ experience of shame.
What I like about co-leading groups is that the very act of coming together with people who share similar struggles has a way of reducing shame. I’ve run several other groups over the years that were not focused specifically on reducing shame, and my sense what that the group experience itself helped reduce shame.
As I learned from my student’s background research on the concept of shame, shame is very isolating. Shame wants to keep a person from others and from the truth about themselves. Group therapy, by definition, takes a person outside of themselves and places them in relationships with others, and it normalizes their experience and their struggle. On the idea of how shame keeps people from the truth about themselves, I think a Christian perspective says that people are valuable because they are made in the image of God. However, shame tells a person that if others really knew them, they would reject them. This often leads people to put on a mask and to relate to people out of an appearance that they believe others will like or approve of. Shame can also lead people to make choices that end up isolating them further (and confirming in their minds that others would not really like them or care to be in a relationship with them). This only increases the pressure on the person who struggles with shame to keep others from knowing them. Talk about pressure – that is a difficult way to live and relate to others. It doesn’t meet basic needs for connection and relationship, in part because there is no sense of affirmation or acceptance for who a person is.
Christianity actually offers a helpful starting point that affirms that all people are made in the image of God and are to be valued for that apart from any acts or behavior as such. With this as a starting point (a more stable and accurate sense of identity as valued by God), a person can eventually reflect on how they wish to live, on habits that they might wish to cultivate, and they can benefit from a healthy sense of guilt about things that they do (or do not do), but that is a very different experience than shame, which centers again on who a person is (rather than what a person does).
In any case, the group therapy experience was a very positive way to explore the topic of shame, its impact on a group of people who shared many commonalities, and how to respond in practical ways to reduce the impact of shame on Christians who experience same-sex attraction.