by Jane C. Goerss, Ph.D.

 Mary Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross
Giotto, 1320



For me you have changed my mourning into dancing,
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
(Ps 29/30:12)


Joy and grief, laughter and tears, fear and anger: all the emotions of human life, are part of spiritual life. As we offer ourselves to God, we offer our whole selves, in all our “irrationality,”  in the rich, confusing complexity of our humanity.

        Benedictine spirituality emphasizes the central importance of community in spiritual life. In the field of psychology, the most useful theories of emotion also emphasize the interpersonal nature of feelings. Older conceptions included the hydraulic model of emotion:  people were like pressure cookers, and feelings were like steam that had to be “let off” or they would explode under pressure. This conception of emotions dates at least to Hippocrates, who believed that depression, melancholia, was caused by an excess of black bile and could be cured by purging the bile.  The idea that emotions exist in a person as quasi-substances, that they are often toxic and that they must be purged is an idea  that remains implicit in some schools of psychotherapy today. But a more sophisticated model of emotion has been emerging, a model  consistent with the Benedictine approach to spirituality.  This understanding of emotions can contribute to our life within community and to our development as full human persons in relationship with God and each other.

        The interpersonal view of emotions emphasizes their social functions. Emotions are evoked in relationships, are expressed in relationships, and are meant to carry communication within relationships. If we understand them clearly, emotions provide us with important information about ourselves and others. If we communicate them with love, emotions can move our relationships toward growth and wholeness. Destructive expressions of emotion can damage our relationships and call out for healing grace. More will be said about the damaging potential of emotions in later articles on shame and anger. In this introduction, I’ll begin with the positive: with joy.



Joy begins in infancy. A baby begins to laugh and smile very early in development, and always in relationship. The parent is playing with the baby, talking to it, tickling it or throwing it in the air and catching it. Our earliest human relationships are bonded by these experiences of joy. As a baby suckles at mother’s breast, it gazes at her with wide open eyes, and mother gazes back. Psychologists now believe that this mutual gazing is the essence of the interpersonal bond. Lovers can gaze at each others’ faces for hours. And notice our imagery for union with God:  we seek his face. The psalmist prays, As for me ...I shall see your face, and be filled when I awake with the sight of your glory (Ps 16/17:15).

        Experiences of human love are the archetypal situations for the emotion joy. When we feel happiness in another’s presence, whether a parent, a child, a friend or a spouse, our relationship with that person grows strong, strong enough to survive the frustrations that are inevitable in human loving. Joy weaves us tightly into the fabric of our relationships. And our experiences of happy contentment and security give us the internal strength to persevere through life’s difficulties, knowing that “at night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn” (Ps 29/30:6).

        Some human experiences approach the transcendent, and we feel bliss.  Freud believed that mystical religious experiences are regressive attempts to return to the “oceanic feelings” we first felt in the archetypal suckling situation. From a spiritual standpoint, this idea neglects the reality of our ultimate union with God. States of blissful union do not merely recall an earlier primitive bliss, but also foreshadow our ultimate spiritual destiny: joyful union with God.

        As a psychologist, I am all too keenly aware of the possible psychoanalytic interpretations of my prayer life. I resist the reductionism inherent in those explanations and take refuge in our spiritual tradition, which richly supports images of God as  Father, Mother, Bridegroom. All are metaphors involving loving human relationship. But human relationships, while reflecting and instantiating God’s love, remain pale shadows of the Love that awaits us. Although human happiness foreshadows the joy of our union with God, ultimate bliss is not comprehensible to us now.

     Screwtape, the fictional devil created by C.S. Lewis, is intensely irritated when the human “patient” falls in love. He instructs Wormwood, the junior tempter, about God, their Enemy:

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore.” Ugh!

(C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1961, Letter XXII.)

     Although human-to-human relationships are our most profound experiences of loving joy, Scripture also abounds in nature imagery in which all of creation becomes the rejoicing community:

Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad,

let the sea and all within it
  thunder praise,

let the land and all it bears rejoice,

all the trees of the wood shout for joy

at the presence of the Lord for he comes.

(Ps 95/96:11-13)

Hildegard of Bingen speaks of God as “the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”



When we, God’s creatures, laugh with the grasses, we participate in the joy of creation. Even the demons know that joyful laughter brings us closer to God. Screwtape discouraged Wormwood from the naive assumption that laughter is inherently sinful:

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in heaven--a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of hell.

      Fun is closely related to Joy--a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us....it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils. (Letter XI.)


Joyful laughter is life-affirming. But laughter, like all our gifts from God, can be twisted to demonic use. Screwtape goes on to discuss Flippancy:

Every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.  This is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.  (Letter XI.)


    In addition to flippancy, we might add other destructive forms of laughter: cynical mirth, malicious sarcasm, and hostile teasing. All are a thousand miles away from joy.



Our capacity for joyfulness can also turn sour when we seek pleasure where it is not to be found, condemning ourselves to fruitless searching for an unattainable satiation. This pointless search for earthly satisfaction is one of the dynamics of addictions and compulsions of all kinds. Another component of addictive behavior is the active avoidance of negative emotions, which are, after all, inevitable. We seek escape from discomfort in “sedative acts” that provide, more or less successfully, temporary respite without providing true joy.

    One of the necessary capacities of mature humanity is the endurance of our existential situation, expressed by St. Augustine:

You have made us for Yourself;
And our hearts are ever restless,
      until they rest in You.

    This restlessness is an inescapable aspect of human life, and our capacity for joy is reduced if we cannot tolerate frustration as well.

Nonattachment as a spiritual value is the ability to enjoy God’s gifts without grasping at them, to relax into our pleasures gratefully and to relinquish them gracefully. It does not require joylessness. Joy and grief, contentment and periods of want, follow each other in the natural course of life. Each of us will have opportunities to learn from suffering, but also opportunities to rejoice in the abundance of creation. Depression is not mandatory, only the willingness to learn gracious acquiescence to the vicissitudes of our lives.

     Our human existence has fundamental flaws. But none of this is cause for joylessness, for the pervasive chronic depression that fills too many “religious” families and communities.

We need to affirm and embrace our capacity for joy, in God and in one another, and we need to raise our children with the capacity for simple joyfulness and healthy laughter. Let us learn to “exult and rejoice all our days.” We can trust that God will guide us:

You will show me the path of life,
    the fullness of joy in your presence,
at your right hand happiness forever.

                (Ps 15/16:11)





Look towards him and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed.

(Ps 33/34:6)


Spiritual truths are often expressible only as paradoxes. Ancient Taoist poetry expressed these paradoxes particularly well:

   Yield and overcome;

Bend and be straight;

Empty and be full;

Wear out and be new;

Have little and gain;

Have much and be confused....


Is that an empty saying?

Be really whole,

And all things will come to you.[1]

There is a dynamic in these paradoxes, a movement that suggests life, like the soft breathing of a sleeping person. The spiritual life is, indeed, alive with movement. Thomas Merton, just before his death, experienced a timeless moment of enlightenment in front of the massive reclining Buddhas at Polinaawara. Their enigmatic half-smiles bely their sheer mass and suggest that even their stillness is dynamic. Increasingly, I am drawn to movement metaphors to express spiritual themes: dancing, sailing, even surfing. Balance in motion, rather than balance in stasis.

Shame is an interruption in movement. Imagine a dancer, rehearsing alone on a stage, moving to the music, lost in her movement, enraptured. Suddenly she is caught by a harsh spotlight. She is startled, exposed, and she freezes in the unexpected glare. Or imagine a sailboat, gliding along in the delicate interplay of the winds, and suddenly the sails crumple, the wind gone out. Imagine the surfer, down. Shame is an interruption in the movement of life, a sudden emotional paralysis.

Joy, grief, anger, fear: each of these human emotions has a healthy form and a destructive form, a potential to promote loving growth and a potential to damage our relationships with others. Joy, the topic of the previous article in this series, bonds us into loving relationships, but when misunderstood may lead us into an unfulfilling search for pleasure. Grief is a necessary part of the process of healing, but can become pathological if it leads to morbid preoccupation and passivity.  Anger provides the energy to protect ourselves from abuse in relationships, but that same energy may fuel vengeful rage or manipulative tantrums. Fear warns us of danger, but, if we allow it to dominate us, we may refrain from taking actions which require existential courage. Each of these emotions has a primitive purpose for existence in our lives.

Shame is different. There is controversy about whether shame has any useful purpose, about whether it has a healthy aspect or is manifested only in damaging forms. My current view is that shame is the emotion most likely to lead us away from God and others. Neither anger nor fear have the potential to poison so deeply our capacity for love and compassion. C.S.Lewis agreed:  “I sometimes think that shame, mere awkward, senseless shame, does much more towards preventing good acts and straightforward happiness as any of our vices can do.”[2]



Many theorists have attempted to define shame and to distinguish it from guilt. No attempt has been entirely successful, but the most popular distinction is this:  Guilt is an internal sense of wrongfulness about our actions; shame is a sense of wrongfulness about our very selves. When we are ashamed, we want to hide, from ourselves, from others, from God. It feels as though there is no possible expiation, no escape from an unforgiving scrutiny that finds us wanting in our very hearts.



In my previous article, I talked about the prototypical situation for the most primitive experience of joy: the infant suckling and gazing into the mother’s face, while the mother gazes back. This mutual gazing, into each others’ eyes and at each others’ faces, is an expression of joyful loving. Mothers and infants gaze; lovers gaze. In more casual relationships, meeting someone’s eyes is an expression of trust and openness. But when we feel ashamed, we want to hide our faces, hang our heads, avert our eyes. We speak of “saving face” when shame is avoided.

Our self-esteem depends on healthy relationships in which our deepest selves are loved and affirmed. As children, we must feel loved and wanted as unique and particular creations of God. We develop self-respect as others respect us. Our self-esteem is never developed in isolation, but only as love and trust form a bridge across the gulf of our existential aloneness. Shame is experienced as a rupture of that bridge:  Suddenly we feel alone with our flawed self, rejected by those we need for our emotional and physical survival, unworthy of love.     Shame is probably first experienced before the child is capable of language, when the child first encounters parental anger or disappointment. Before the child is capable of understanding the parent’s emotions, negative emotions seem to threaten the relationship itself, and thus to threaten the very survival of the child. It is only when the relationship is healed through reconciliation that the child comes to learn that relationships endure. After an angry interaction, a child sometimes holds up its arms, asking to be lifted into the parent’s arms. The parent must respond to the child’s need for physical reassurance by holding and comforting. Anger must give way to reunion.

Children invariably make mistakes, exasperating mistakes, and parents inevitably show anger and disappointment on occasion. This is not in itself emotionally damaging. It may lead to the development of a capacity for healthy guilt, if it is clear to that the child that the life-sustaining relationship can survive mistakes. For guilt to be healthy, the child must understand that the deepest self is not demeaned by mistakes, but that it is only human to stumble and then to carry on.

When the process of healthy self-observation fails, adults carry shame that manifests itself in a distorted self-image, in damaged relationships with others, and in a damaged relationship with God.



Shame can generate problems in forming a complete and well-integrated self-image. As children, we must be affirmed in our wholeness and in our uniqueness. If we are not affirmed in our wholeness, we may experience parts of ourselves as shameful. For example, a child may be shamed for basic bodily functions, and this may be supported by religious beliefs which denigrate physical existence. Even in adulthood, such a person may have difficulty accepting incarnation as a gift from God. If we are not affirmed in our uniqueness, we may feel ashamed of our differentness instead of celebrating our special gifts.

Displays of emotion may be shamed, so that shame becomes associated not only with the expression of emotion, but even with the internal awareness of emotion. Then the inevitable and natural experience of certain feelings may become associated with shame, so that any awareness of anger, for example, immediately evokes shame, or any awareness of pride in accomplishment, or of fear. It is common in our culture for boys to be shamed for signs of vulnerability: fear or sadness. Conversely, girls are more often shamed for anger or high-spiritedness. (More will be said about healthy and unhealthy expressions of emotion in the article on anger, next in this series.)

The defense of “splitting” is a common result of shame dynamics. In splitting, the self-image is broken into “good self” and “bad self,” rather than becoming integrated into a rich sense of identity which incorporates human complexity. Similarly, others are viewed as “all good” or “all bad,” or may be alternately over-idealized and utterly denigrated.[3]  Certain forms of religious training promote splitting by generating rigid dichotomies between a self loved and affirmed by God and a self rejected by God. God actually loves us entirely, of course, as whole and unique beings, in all our complexity.

Whatever our personal experience with shame, whatever we are taught to reject in ourselves, we grow up as part-selves rather than whole-selves. The rejected parts of ourselves continue to influence our lives, but in unexamined and unintegrated ways, as “shadow.” This half-existence continues until we allow God’s healing light into all the shadowy corners.

Sometimes shame is doled out on purpose “for our own good,” to protect us from the sin of pride. This method of correction is based on a misunderstanding about pride itself:  Pride, in its malignant forms of arrogance and narcissism, does not result from a shortage of shame, but grows from shame itself as a defense against the painful inner experience. Adding shame to shame does not weaken pride defenses, but fortifies them. Pride swells the ego like tissue around a wound.

Our talents are God-given, and we can revel in them as manifestations of God’s generous creation. Our faults are forgiven, and we must learn to accept them, not with shame, but with tender compassion, as God accepts us. We have the dual duty to avoid malignant forms of shame and pride. We have the duty to work sincerely on ameliorating our faults, and we have the duty to use our talents fully and joyfully to the glory of God.

Just as shame is sometimes given as an antidote against the vice of pride, shame is sometimes confused with the virtue of humility. Humility comes from the same root as “humus,” earth. It has to do with being grounded, firmly planted in the down-to-earth realities of who we are. It has to do with being centered, balanced, neither crumpled with shame nor inflated with grandiosity, but living simply, with the awareness of our utter dependence on God.



There are obvious ways in which shame can damage our relationships with others: by causing us to be self-consciously shy, pathologically self-effacing, or sycophantic. We may fail to assert our most basic rights as human beings in community.

But perhaps less obviously, when we refuse to be aware of our own shame, we can harm our relationships as we defend ourselves against the inner experience. Defenses against shame result in some of the most malicious interactions among human beings. People who have been shamed often attempt to avoid the inner pain by shaming others. Contempt, hostile sarcasm, blaming, disparagement, name-calling, vicious teasing and other humiliations: all are attempts to divert shame from the self to others.  In shame-based families, these are accepted ways of interacting, and the torment of shame is passed from generation to generation. Entire subcultures succumb to shame dynamics; parochial schools seem particularly prone to developing a shame-based culture.

Arrogance is a defense against shame, as is cynicism. Paranoia is one of the more severe shame defenses, in which one’s own negativity is projected onto others. Religious training must guard against promoting defensive projection by over-emphasizing the demonic as a reification of the human potential for evil.



 The experience of shame involves being seen, being inescapably visible, unforgivingly exposed. If one has formed a punitive image of God, then God’s omnipresence may be experienced as tormentingly invasive. Parents may teach children that God sees everything they do and knows everything they think. While this is true theologically, in a shame-based family it is distorted into an emotional torture tactic. In a healthy family, God is known for his love and all-powerful compassion. When a child can trust in loving relationships and in a loving God, then God’s all-pervasive protective presence can be experienced as profoundly comforting. If, however, a child has come to fear God as a vengeful dictator with universal espionage capability, then omnipresence may induce paranoia rather than security. Notice how some of the lines from Psalm 138 (139) would be heard quite differently from these two emotional positions:

O Lord, you search me and you know me....
     You mark when I walk or lie down,
all my ways lie open to you....

O where can I go from your spirit,
     or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
     If I lie in the grave, you are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn
     and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
     your right hand would hold me fast.

This illustration can remind us that even the most well-meaning religious instruction must take into account the private emotional “set” of the child, the context from which the child hears the story or the teaching. In preventing shame-based dynamics in religious training, part of the task is to discover the inner world of the child, to listen as well as to talk, and then to provide the teaching in a form that will promote a healthy understanding of God’s all-embracing love.

The ways in which our images of God may be distorted by shame-based training are innumerable. Each reader can probably add examples from personal experience and from the histories of other people who have been damaged by abusive religious training. There seems to be some primitive, deep human tendency to suspect God of capriciousness and viciousness, to doubt that God is truly a loving God. We need regular reminders of the “good news” that God loves us and that loving relationships are the best metaphors we have: God as a good father, a good mother, an “implacably faithful lover.”[4]



Despite the availibility of psychological treatments for shame-based syndromes, I have come to believe that the deepest healing for shame comes through personal relationship with God and growing acceptance of his powerful and compassionate presence. We pray:

     Relieve the anguish of my heart
        and set me free from my distress.
          (Ps 24/25:17)

 A woman who grew up in an alcoholic and incestuously abusive family, and who eventually entered a religious community, meditated daily on the affirmation “God loves me.” Only after a year of this meditation was she able to transform her prayer into “You love me.”  As one grows in daily spiritual practice, one gradually becomes able to relate directly to this powerful Love beyond human understanding. We become able to “seek his face” despite our offenses. We can pray with the psalmist to be washed whiter than snow, and we begin to trust that God will not reject us, but desires us for our truest selves.

Healing shame requires facing shame, one of the most painful human experiences. Sometimes it is necessary to have a companion in this process, whether that be a mental health professional or a good friend. In addition to our daily spiritual practice, we may need to utilize techniques aimed more specifically at the healing of memories, at recovering and transforming “shame scenes.” This is where psychological treatment techniques may be of help in ameliorating our distress, facilitating our growth, and finally allowing us to open up to being loved totally. Gershen Kaufman has written extensively about the treatment of shame and shame-based syndromes,[5] and John Bradshaw haswritten for the popular press.[6]

Support and self-help groups can provide an accepting community in which to work through shame issues. Twelve-Step work can be particularly useful. Because the Twelve Steps originated with alcoholics who had “bottomed out” after years of denial, there is an emphasis in the program on breaking through denial and admitting our faults. This acceptance and confession of faults is an absolute requirement for healthy living, but it must also be constantly balanced by an appreciation of God’s transforming love.  We must work toward a full loving acceptance of ourselves and of others, with compassionate awareness of our flaws. After discussing anger in the next article, then in the fourth and final article in this series I will talk about the process of forgiveness and how it contributes to healing our negative emotions.

When we give ourselves to God as Benedictine novices or oblates, we say:

Uphold me Lord, according to Your Word

                and I shall live.

Let not my hope be put to shame.
       [Ps 118/119]

We ask that God accept us completely into relationship and that the relationship never be broken. However we go about healing and transforming our lives, the goal is the same: to love God and to love our neighbor, always loving ourselves as well. The healing of the toxic effects of shame will go far toward healing our communities, so that we are able to support each other compassionately in our spiritual journeys, as we move together toward God. Stumbling along together, but sometimes dancing. Or sailing.  Maybe even surfing.



[1]Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching. (Trans.Gia-Fu Feng & Jane English, New York: Random House, 1972).

[2]C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. (New York: Seabury Press, 1963).

[3]Splitting is considered a hallmark of Borderline Personality Disorder, but is now also recognized as a widespread defense mechanism in the psychological functioning of different personality types, especially in contemporary society.

[4]Andrew Greeley, The Bottom Line Catechism for Contemporary Catholics. (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1982).

[5]Gershen Kaufman, The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-based Syndromes. (NY: Springer, 1989).

[6]John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds you  Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1988).

This Webpage was created for a workshop held at Saint Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, California in 2003....x....   “”.