Shame among Sexual Minorities

I co-authored an article on shame among sexual minorities that was just published in Counseling & Values. The lead author, Veronica Johnson, wrote her dissertation on the topic, and this article is a reflection of her literature review with a focus on implications for counseling. It was nice to see it published in a mainstream counseling journal. Here is the abstract:

Theorists, clinicians, and researchers have suggested that shame is a central concern in the lives of sexual minority individuals. Cognitive theorists believe that shame occurs when a person fails to achieve his or her standards, which are often based on social, cultural, and spiritual values. Although it is asserted that stigma causes shame among members of a sexual minority, the empirical evidence suggests that negative internal cognitions are partly responsible. By targeting negative beliefs, counselors can help sexual minorities reduce their sense of shame, particularly around issues related to sexual identity. The authors offer counseling strategies for reducing shame in sexual minority clients.

shame1What is shame? Shame refers to “an intensely painful affect resulting from an exposure of the self as flawed or inferior, and a concurrent deep belief that this deficiency will result in rejection, abandonment, or loss of esteem.” If your mom ever said, “You should be ashamed” or “Shame on you!” she was likely hoping you would feel something more like remorse. Shame is the emotion that comes “from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others.”

Shame is not guilt. People feel guilty for things they have done wrong–or when they have failed to do the good/right. Shame is feeling bad (self-condemnation, self-rejection) for who you are; it reflects the idea that you are fundamentally flawed, and that if others knew who you really are, they would reject you too.

Johnson offers a formula for shame that is based on a cognitive theory by Lewis. Here is the formula:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed;

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure);

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution);

Step 4: The result is shame.

How does this connect to sexual minorities? For many years now it has been understood that sexual minorities experience shame. In response to this, I have heard conservative Christians respond, “Well, they should!” –perhaps wanting to see guilt or remorse (or a sense of personal conviction) but without much genuine empathy or appreciation for how debilitating shame really is.

What I want to explore is how shame affects sexual minorities and how the church could respond to reduce shame. Let’s do a thought exercise: Think about a teenager in the church who experiences same-sex attraction. She grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals specific to sexuality and sexual identity. If the church is not clear about how to understand these standards, she can quickly surmise that she is wrong for even experiencing same-sex attractions, even if she did not make this choice (in other words, she found herself experiencing same-sex attraction as she went through puberty). She is then unable to live up to the standards of her faith community, if those standards are that no one is to even experience same-sex attractions or that the experience of such attractions is sin. If another expectation is that she experience a dramatic change in her feelings through prayer or involvement in ministry, that becomes another source of shame. If she prays and ask God to remove her attractions or otherwise enter into ministry to change her feelings and does not have as much success as she had hoped for, she may confirm in her mind (and to others) that she cannot live up to the standards, rules and goals of the Christian community. The result? Shame.

shame2So this is not a simple matter of helping people become more sensitized to things they are doing wrong so that they can make necessary changes. Shame is a different kind of emotional experience, and one that is frequently associated with depression, anger, blame, and withdrawal from others. If you know a sexual minority who has struggled with shame, you know that it is a very painful emotional state that is not easily overcome.

In the article we offer several suggestions for reducing shame, so let me go over these briefly. First, we point out that a counselor can help a sexual minority identify and name their experience of shame by helping them become aware of related feelings (e.g., inferiority, inadequacy), thoughts (e.g., “God hates me”), and behaviors (e.g., Withdrawing from others).

A second recommendation is to learn to manage or regulate emotions. A person learns more helpful ways of releasing negative feelings, like shame. Here’s how we put it in the article: “regulating shame includes (a) withholding natural maladaptive reactions, (b) using self-soothing techniques to mollify the feelings of shame, (c) willfully refocusing attention outward, then (d) deciding how to act.”

The next recommendation is to address unhelpful thoughts. For the person who contends with shame, the thoughts they hold are self-condemning: “Shame is aroused when an individual holds self-condemning beliefs and fears of condemnation from others, particularly when the individual believes that he or she is failing to attain” standards, rules, and goals held by the community. At this point I am not thinking of what the local church teaches about sexual behavior, but what I am thinking about (as I mentioned above) are standards, rules and goals that may be associated with even having same-sex feelings (which the person did not choose to experience) and not experiencing as much change in their feelings as they may be expected (by their community) to experience. I’ve frequently said we need to find realistic biblical hope, which resides somewhere in between cynical pessimism that says, “No one has or ever will experience any experience of change whatsoever!” and arrogant optimism that says, “Anyone who tries hard enough or has enough faith can expect a 180-degree change from gay to straight!” I will have to return sometime to realistic biblical hope, but I will say that in most churches I visit, arrogant optimism is more often the norm and frequently to the detriment of sexual minorities who are unable to meet its standards.

The final recommendation we offered has to do with healthy and healing relationships, and in the context of mental health services, this usually begins with the relationship a person has with his or her counselor. (BTW: there are other recommendations not mentioned in this article that are better suited for a Christian setting, and I may do a future post on those.) It is frequently through that relationship that a person who struggles with shame can explore that emotional state and associated, unhelpful thoughts, as well as learn that a relationship can be sustained over time–they are not going to be rejected as they are known by another.

What is obviously more complicated in a conservative Christian context is how to address shame when the community (including the sexual minority) adheres to a traditional sexual ethic. How do you help a person feel better about themselves when they have feelings that draw them to engage in behavior about which they themselves feel ambivalent? They want to–they experience strong impulses, and they also don’t want to–they hold values that proscribe such behaviors.

You can understand why the mainstream gay community would ask, “Why are you working so hard? Why not change what you believe? Others have!” In other words, one response is to change what is taught in the church about sexual ethics. If a person feels cognitive dissonance between what they believe and how they live, one way to resolve that dissonance is to change what the person believes. Significantly, many sexual minorities do not believe it is there prerogative to make these kinds of doctrinal changes; their beliefs and convictions are that the Church (globally and historically) has been correct around general principles that inform sexual ethics. So they are looking at another way to respond to the dissonance they may feel. (As an aside, psychology cannot adjudicate the theological questions that surround sexual ethics. Psychology can inform our understanding of emotional experiences like shame, as well as help us recognize some of the complexities in attempting to reduce shame. The theological issues have to be resolved within the church and by the church.)

It is in this context (of retaining conservative or traditional religious beliefs and values) that pastoral care and counseling around shame is especially difficult. All the more reason for those in church leadership to understand ways in which they may inadvertently contribute to shame by how they talk about the topics of homosexuality, sexual identity, and gay and lesbian issues. I will try to come back to this in another post, as I know that many pastors have asked for guidance here. But I wanted to at least let you know about this article and to make the recommendations available for those who find them helpful.

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