Shame on the Mormon Church for shaming innocent children!

Lately I’ve been feeling a bit more charitable toward the Mormon Church. It’s like they are starting to grow a conscience. Perhaps indirectly it is due to Pope Francis who has been reaching out to communities like divorced Catholics and gays, and that’s causing them to feel the pressure. Both Catholics and Mormons are still opposed to gay marriage. Not much of a surprise there. But surprisingly in January the Mormon Church has voiced support for housing and employment rights for LGBTs. It’s not wholly unconditional as they demand accommodations for those who see it as immoral, but for the Mormon Church this is quite a leap.

Well, that was January and here it is November and the Mormon Church just announced a policy that makes me want to spit nails. I guess I should not be too surprised that the church considers couples in a same sex marriage as apostates. To become Mormons these same sex couples must effectively divorce each other and must also disavow these types of marriages too. After all a marriage in the church’s eyes must be between one man and one woman (although at one time could be between one man and multiple women, so apparently the policy is fungible.)

But to discriminate against the children born from a same sex marriage is beyond reprehensible. It’s one thing to put a Scarlet A on Hester’s bosom; it’s quite another thing to do the same thing to her child’s. But the Mormon Church, yes, they are going there. According to CNN:

A new Mormon church policy considers church members in same-sex marriages as apostates whose children will be barred from baptism and church membership unless they disavow same-sex unions.

Suppose these children want to be Mormon? They must wait until they are adults. Oh and they must renounce gay marriage too, effectively estranging them from their same sex parents. Then they can join and be baptized in the Mormon Church.

I’m not too much up on Mormon theology, so maybe baptism is not as big a deal as it is in the Catholic Church. At least when I was growing up Catholic if you were not baptized and died you could not get into heaven. You weren’t sent to hell but the theology, as I understood it, was that these souls ended up in Limbo. Perhaps they eventually got into heaven at some murky date after the end of the world.

In any event to shame innocent children for the “sins” of their parents and worse to force them to effectively renounce their parents to belong to the Mormon community as an adult is just vile — it’s like the shaming bastard children used to endure. Maybe vile isn’t quite the word, I just can’t think of a word worse than vile. It should have any Mormon with any compassion in their soul running at a sprint to get away from their evil “church”.

The problem with being a Mormon is a lot like being a devout Catholic, particularly in Utah where the population is overwhelmingly Mormon. Not being a Mormon is effectively to be apart from the rest of your community, and not in a good way. Obviously it’s not like that everywhere in Utah, and in particular not true in Salt Lake City with its heavy LGBT population. In any event the policy is just plain mean and the exact opposite of Christ’s message, which was about inclusiveness and unconditional love.

The Mormon Church is effectively sticking a badge of shame on any child of a same sex couple. It’s a badge that in certain heavily Mormon communities will put these children at a disadvantage. For when society says you are different and when you get this message from most of the people in your community, you can’t help but pick it up and bury it deeply inside you. The unspoken message is there is something wholly broken in you. As children it doesn’t take much to feel and integrate shame into your personality. Many children never get over these feelings of toxic shame. They carry it throughout life, in this case through no fault of their own, living broken lives.

So this policy is not only wrong, it shames the institution of the Mormon Church and proclaims very loudly to the rest of us that it is a false church. The rest of us — that is the rest of us with a conscience — must send a loud and clear message to the Mormon Church that this latest act is truly evil.

We must embrace the innocent children of same sex relationships with the same unconditional love due any child. Every person, child or adult, has equal dignity, has inherent respect and must be loved for who they are. God is color blind, but apparently the Mormon Church is not.

To the elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: shame on you for your toxic and evil policy. To the extent I am a praying man, I pray that this policy is short lived and that your so-called church personally apologizes to every couple or child or such couple affected by this decision.

Circles of shame

It’s been a long while since I wrote about shame. I come back to it after so many years because of a book I have been reading, which I alluded to a month or two back. In that book the author provides a fascinating, if somewhat dense insight into white privilege. The root of white privilege comes down simply to shame and how we cope with shame.

Shame is basically toxic guilt. Shame is the result of our inability to acknowledge the dichotomy between who we actually are and who we project ourselves to be. When we cannot acknowledge our failings to ourselves so that we are causing ourselves to suffer dysfunctionally, shame becomes toxic. Shame cannot be seen but is very real. Moreover, shame is extremely powerful. Shame even made the news recently when a 12-year-old girl was cyber-bullied to the point where she took her own life. Twelve-year-old children of course are not equipped to deal well with threats by their peers about their worthlessness. Her peers projected an image of what a child her age should be like and Rebecca Sedwick was judged as incapable of living up to it. She was a projection of their insecurities. Moreover, she could not handle the dichotomy, so she took her peers flawed advice, who basically told her to kill herself, and leapt to her death from a concrete plant.

From the book I am reading, I am learning that shame is an outcome of child development. A certain amount of shame may actually be unavoidable and probably is necessary. To survive, an infant is completely dependent on his or her parents. The infant senses this, and thus does everything possible to live up to their expectations. This of course pleases the parent. In real life most parents have no one that see them as role models, so it is flattering that their children do by instinct and gives them a feeling of self worth. This serves an evolutionary purpose, at least for a while. It keeps the infant alive and gives the parent incentive to take care of them. The child though is not the parent. Over time it senses that who it is is not the same as its parents. The dichotomy at some point is either expressed as rebellion or is buried deep within where it can grow cancerous.

Good parents will accept these differences and find ways to discipline their child that do not involve hurting them physically, mentally or spiritually. Good parents though are human beings, and are the product of being imperfectly raised too. Raising a shame-free child is probably impossible. Even if it were possible, most of us live such shame-based lives that such a person would probably be outcasts among us.

The root of shame though is really the feelings associated with our inability to be perfect, however we choose to define the word. We all measure ourselves against some gold standard, usually a parent. In my case, I measure myself against my thankfully still alive and active 86-year-old father. He set a particularly high standard since he has always been highly moral, highly religious and patient, basically a grown up Boy Scout. To the extent I cannot meet his standard, I feel ashamed because I feel that if he could do it, I should be able to do so as well. And yet my father too is a projection. There is no way I can say with certainty who he is on the inside and what inner demons he may be dealing with. I assume he is the man he projects, but that is almost certainly a false assumption.

Arguably it is much more mentally healthy to project the person you actually are rather than a false image. The person I actually am would probably be a lot less likeable than the one I project. This blog is a good example of my projection. For the most part it projects the person I aspire to be. Occasionally a less inspirational side of me creeps through, as witnessed by occasional vitriolic attacks on Republicans and lampooning of posters on Craigslist’s casual encounters sections. Arguably, my blog would be more faithful to the real me if I had more posts like the latter, and fewer posts like this one.

One thing is clear from the research: shame is toxic by definition. We all carry around certain amounts of shame, some more than others. If you have to look for a meta-explanation of why our world is so messed up then shame will do it. Since we know innately that we are internally inconsistent, but few of us can state their inconsistencies publicly, we tend to project this anger at people we don’t like. In the case of Rebecca Sedwick’s Colorado peers, they projected their feelings that maybe they were not on quite the same level as their peers onto Rebecca. She is dead and now those who bullied her are dealing with their own feelings of shame. They will likely feel shame because their actions are now exposed to public view. They would probably do better in the long run to acknowledge their failings publicly, because if shame can be acknowledged publicly, it can go away. But it’s more likely (particularly since they are children) that it will be hushed up and come out to clinical psychologists if it is expressed at all, and not to their peers. As they move into adulthood and have children of their own, it’s likely they will project some of this shame on their children, who will have to instinctively try to navigate around it in order to survive. They will probably carry their shame forward too although they may not be able to articulate the shame simply because they cannot name it.

If shame will not go away, it’s not clear how society can minimize it. Certainly good parenting should help. Parents can also let their children know that they too are imperfect and it is not only okay to be imperfect, but imperfection is also a product of being a human being. Perfection is an ideal, and no ideal is ever completely achievable, which in some ways suggests it is folly to try. My sense though is that income inequality promotes rather than defeats shame. Republicans in particular want poor people to feel ashamed of being poor. This in turn promotes a feeling of self-righteousness, because they are (generally) not poor, and thereby must be doing something right. This attitude promotes more shame. Tragically, people seem to live up or down to how they believe society judges them. It might also help if we as a society could stop insisting on measuring worth based on impossibly high standards, such as how much money you make or how well you model the perfect politician/actress/basketball player.

There is a powerful antidote to shame: compassion. If we could all learn to be more compassionate, we would also spread the value that it’s okay not to be perfect, that we all stumble and fail from time to time, but even when this happens it doesn’t mean that we have less inherent dignity and worth. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be compassionate. It is easier to be compassionate with people in our peer group, but much harder with those that are not. For example, I find it hard to be compassionate toward Republicans. Most of us find it excruciatingly hard to be personally compassionate toward the very poor and homeless. To the extent though that we can say regularly and to all kinds of people “you are my brother” and “I feel some of your suffering and I am so sorry,” I believe we can make significant strides toward building that world and ending the multi-generational poison of shame.

The Quest to Graduate to Human Being

Wow! The more I get into this book on shame by John Bradshaw that I mentioned the more my mind is opening. This is excellent material. Even though I am only on Chapter Three I am already of the opinion that if it is not on your reading list I think it should be. In some ways this book makes me feel like I have been choosing to see the world through squinted eyes. Only now are they wide open. And only now are some of the big mysteries of life coming into focus.

Like: why are so few of us humans truly happy with ourselves? How many of us wake up excited to engage the world? If you are one of these people then count your blessings. You are a human being. John Bradshaw suggests that the rest of us are human doings, stuck in patterns learned early that squeeze a lot of the joy out of our lives. No wonder we are a nation where addiction runs rampant. For most of us getting up and tackling the day is about as much fun as getting a high colonic.

The irony is often times we delude ourselves. We tell ourselves we are happy with our family, or our marriage, or our employers, or the beliefs we subscribe to. But in fact most of us are not getting much out of life. Instead of living we are existing. We have allowed outside forces to direct our lives. It’s not just mommy who has attached apron strings to us. It is society. It is everyone we choose or inadvertently let slip in through our psychic front and back doors. We are unhappy because we are playing roles in our lives out of guilt and shame, not out of genuine desire.

In many cases we have taken our natural desires and stuffed them into a strong box. We have locked it in a dark closet or buried it underground and swallowed the key. And yet it tugs at us day and night. “Help!” it says. “You are living a false life! You are meant to be happy, not be the actor of your own life! You are squandering away your life!” We try not to hear it but occasionally the voice comes through. And when it becomes deafening we deal with it by deadening it. Out comes to booze. Or the cigarettes. Or the Bon Bons. Or we go out cruising for sex. Or we rush to church to hear from our ministers that God tells us we must never give in to the voice. Our life is to be used wholly in service to others. Yes, that’s the paradox of the whole altruism bit. You are supposed to make everyone happy but yourself. You supposedly gain the highest level of happiness only through abject misery which you delude yourself into thinking is actually ennobling.

Now I’m not going to go Ayn Rand on you and start preaching the virtues of Objectivism. I think altruism is fine. But as is true of any virtue or vice, altruism can be taken to extreme. It is okay to give of ourselves and nurture others along too. But I don’t think it is okay for most of us to become Mother Teresas and spend our lives doing nothing but helping others. This is not to diss Mother Teresa. Her life is an extraordinary accomplishment. I hope giving service to others was something she truly enjoyed. I hope she woke up every morning absolutely thrilled to help the poor and the destitute. On the other hand if she woke up every morning preferring to eat Godiva chocolates and instead decided she’d do nothing but help the poor from dawn until dusk every day of the week I would suggest that while she did great good she was also a woman with huge issues. To use Bradshaw’s words she would have been a human doing.

Now I know where all this dysfunction comes from. It comes from survival. I can pin it on bad parenting, or nutty religions, or the educational system where your worth as a human being is determined by your grade point average. But basically we survived as a species by deferring our wants to make sure our needs were taken care of. We are only now beginning to emerge from the lower reaches of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If we reach self-actualization, then that’s fine. Part of self-actualization is often altruistic in nature, but it is not just about altruism. It’s about finding our authentic self. It’s about becoming a human being instead of a human doing.

And that’s the hard part. Many of us don’t have a clue on how to find our authentic self. If we have survived in the jungle of life long enough to be at the plain where self-actualization can happen then we find that we lack the tools to get there. Instead we often feel guilt or shame when we reach. “I shouldn’t do X. Instead I should cut the grass, make love to my spouse, pound the beefsteak, dust the furniture and clean the kitchen floor.” And if we finish those things on our immediate To Do list, then we are told we should also spend the rest of our time doing things for others. We should be ushering at church, or going to PTA meetings, or doing Mormon missionary work, or tutoring children. We don’t know how to just kick back and take delight in things that may give us inward pleasure.

And I notice that some of us do things that genuinely do make them happy but they won’t cut themselves any slack for it. For example there is a significant other in my life who is this way. She will spend her days surfing the Internet reading stories written by others. And then the day will come to an end and she will berate herself for being such a bad human as to have actually spent the day having fun.

So many of us are stuck in these toxic patterns that are ultimately debilitating and self-defeating. We need escape. We need to find a way to say it’s okay to revel guiltless in the pleasure of doing things that feed our fancy.

I myself find myself stuck somewhere between the two extremes. I am finding lots of things that I enjoy. I don’t usually give myself a hard time about enjoying them, but I haven’t quite turned off that nagging voice in my head. It tells me what a horrible human being I am because I am blogging instead of removing cat gorp stains from the carpets. But with every passing year these feelings of shame recede more. I am too engaged. I have found activities that really turn me on. My list is doubtless not your list, but they are interesting enough where I find I am usually eager to take them up.

I even had a little fun today grading my students’ papers. Why? Because I chose to teach as an extracurricular activity, not because I needed the money. Between my job (which is about 50% fun, which is higher than most jobs), blogging, hanging out in electronic communities, biking, movies, theater, romance and even good dirty sex I feel pretty darn good most of the time. So it’s not so hard these days to laugh at those voices telling me what I should do. Perhaps one of these days my total liberation will be complete.

If you are a human being in the fullest sense of the word: congratulations. If you have a moment please reach down and pull me up. But if you are like me and you still hear those “shoulds” in your brain more often than you would like, then here’s hoping we both graduate to human being.

It’s a Shame

It’s a shame so many of us have their lives defined by feelings of toxic shame.

I am reading Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw (1988). I am trying to figure out if shame may be at the root of some of my (hopefully modest) issues. I don’t think so. I certainly got a huge heaping of Catholic guilt as a child. (Catholics are born guilty. They have the stain of original sin. They are not inherently worthy of salvation and only through baptism is there the hope of salvation.) But guilt and shame are not the same thing. Toxic shame is dysfunctional guilt. Pretty much all of life’s experiences are filtered through these extremely powerful feelings of unworthiness.

I don’t think I am a dysfunctional adult. I love myself just fine. I know I am not a perfect person. None of us are. Yet my life is clearly defined by people I know and love that seem wrapped up in toxic shame. So something is going on. I need to figure it out why I am bound to love so many people with feelings of extreme shame. Perhaps it is normal because there are so many shame-based people in the world. Perhaps the same way I might stop to help a homeless person my heart goes out to those who I see as having worth and dignity but cannot find it within themselves. (I like that one; a sure sign I think that I do not have toxic shame.) Or weirder still, perhaps some part of me seeks them out to work through my own issues.

I am struck by the simple truths in the book that seem to be born out from so much experience:

Neurotic shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive/addictive behaviors. The drivenness in any addiction is about the ruptured self, the belief that one is flawed as a person. The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship. Each one mood alters to avoid the feeling of loneliness and hurt in the underbelly of shame. Each addictive acting out created life-damaging consequences that create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction.

Shame begets shame. The cycle begins with the false belief system that all addicts have, that no one could want them or love them as they are. In fact, addicts can’t love themselves. This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc. The shame turns on in what Kellogg has termed a “human doing”, rather than a human being.

Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside. The mental obsession about the specific addictive relationship is the first mood alteration, since thinking takes us out of our emotions. After obsessing for a while, the second mood alteration occurs. This is the “acting out” or ritual stage of addiction. The ritual may involve drinking with the boys, secretly eating in one’s favorite hiding place or cruising for sex. The ritual ends in drunkenness, satiation, orgasm, spending all the money, or whatever.

“I am no good; there’s something wrong with me,” plays like a broken record. The more it plays, the more one solidifies one’s false believe system. The toxic shame fuels the addiction and regenerates itself.

It is all manifested in words and behavior that say, “I am not worthy”. Among the people I see with toxic shame is my mother. She is about to turn 85, but I believe she has been caught in this shame cycle all of her life. I can only speculate where it came from, but being one of 12 children living in poverty in the Depression, and a girl in the shadow of energetic brothers must have been at least contributing factors. Bradshaw seems to have his own theory that its roots are in early childhood:

As shaming experiences accrues and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank. Because the victim has no time or support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory as do the visual images of the shaming scenes. As each new shaming experience takes place, a new verbal imprint and visual image attach to the already existing ones forming collages of shaming memories. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow.

When I see someone I love whose life is defined by toxic shame I find it hard not to get irate, but not at them. I have heard many stories about people who were raped. Some, despite years of therapy, never really quite emerge from its shadow. But toxic shame strikes me as something like being raped as a three-year-old child. Whatever potential the child had to grow up to have respect for themselves is gone. What remains is a person who can never truly know their authentic self. Not only are they separated from their authentic self, the ideal conditions are in place to make sure they never become in touch with their authentic self. It seems they are denied their right to wholeness as a human being.

The point of Bradshaw’s book though is to offer hope that those suffering from toxic shame can be rehabilitated. But from my perspective the hardest problem of all is to get those who live their lives in toxic shame to admit that this is their root problem. To most of the world they will deny they have these feelings. But people who love them can pierce through the layers sometime. And out from their ego comes the anguished cry: I am not worthy. I am not loveable. In their minds there seems to be no solution to toxic shame, only the ritual of addiction that acts like a Band-Aid for a while but only exacerbates the feelings of shame.

I think I grasped some of this as a father and decided it wouldn’t happen to my daughter. Raising Rosie I had an almost myopic need to be a loving and supportive father to her. I tried very hard not to make her feel worthless. But I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I have a sarcastic streak, and she has definitely picked up this side of me. It is only recently that I have come to realize that this dominant part of my personality was affecting her, and probably not in a good way. It may well be a sign of passive aggressive behavior in me. I may be passing on some of my own issues to another generation. I find the mere thought appalling.

I strongly suspect that even with perfect parents a child is going to grow up with issues that they will have to tackle as adults. But now that I am tuned into toxic shame I am aware of the scope of the problem. In our mental health landscape this is the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. And much of it can likely be traced to early childhood issues wrapped around insufficient or inappropriate nurturing from parents and caregivers.

At nearly 85 I don’t think it is possible for my mother to find her authentic self. She is so physically immobilized she often can’t get out of bed without assistance from my father. Her feelings of being unable to care for herself just feed her feelings of toxic shame. I should be able to care for myself. I cannot care for myself. So it must be my fault. There is something wrong with me. I am not worthy. This is the context of what I hear from her when I talk to her. This is the tone of her emails. We hear it in words like “That costs too much money” and “I don’t deserve that.”

The amazing thing about toxic shame though is that no matter how much time and energy we spend telling people with toxic shame that we love, value and appreciate them that none of it leads to transformation. They don’t really believe us. They need to hear it and they appreciate hearing these wonderful things, but they don’t believe it applies to them. We are talking about someone else. The person we love is never their authentic self. The only balm that momentarily satisfies is to go back and revel in their destructive rituals. Drink too much. Eat too much. Complain that no one loves them. The ritual varies and depends on the person, but the ritual must go forward when the feelings of shame overwhelm them.

Perhaps a start is to pick up books like this and read them. But oh, the travesty to never know hold yourself in any esteem. The body survives but it seems like the spirit was killed in its infancy. It’s a crying shame.