Can Shame Ever Be Healthy?

When I first began to research the topic of shame, I was surprised to find so little mention or use of the word in the Fathers. There are a few significant examples in which shame features largely, such as Book 4 in The Ladder. Nevertheless, the word seems somewhat scarce if you think about the profound nature of this experience and its place in the spiritual life. What became clear to me over time, however, is that the great body of writing and thought on the topic of shame is filed under “humility.” This itself is deeply instructive. Our popular culture tends to treat shame as a terrible problem, treating almost all shame as “toxic.” There is certainly a need for understanding toxic shame, and learning how to approach its healing. However, shame itself is not inherently toxic, and the popular writers who fail to make this distinction do a dis-service to their readers.

John Bradshaw, one of the earliest popular writers on shame, was careful to make this distinction and wrote in a very helpful manner on healthy shame in his bestseller, Healing the Shame that Binds Us. I have not seen this same clarity in some of the more recent popular treatments. This is unfortunate. Indeed, I have seen a number of cases in which people have been forced to retract writings on “healthy shame,” being told that “all shame is toxic,” and that speaking of “healthy shame” simply gives support for a diseased culture that has used shame to humiliate and control people. This an unfortunate artifact of the present distress in our culture. Ironically, it is a use of shame that prevents discussion of the topic.

One reason I find this lack of clarity to be unfortunate is its failure to actually understand or engage the neuro-physiology of our body’s shame response. We are hard-wired for a response (one of the nine identified neuro-biological affects) that is accurately described as “shame.” It is not a product of culture. It is universal, timeless, and biological. It can be compared to other affects such as the “surprise-startle” affect, or the “distress-anguish” affect, or the “interest-excitement” affect. The “mechanism” of the shame experience, whether toxic or healthy, is the same, differing only in its intensity and the issues that surround and embed themselves as complex, emotional triggers. For myself, I have found that understanding the mechanism and being able to make a distinction between toxic shame and healthy shame, has been essential in my own healing, as well as a help in understanding more accurately what is taking place in someone else’s life.

The tradition has this:

For there is a shame that leads to sin, and there is a shame that is glory and grace (ἔστιν γὰρ αἰσχύνη ἐπάγουσα ἁμαρτίαν, καὶ ἔστιν αἰσχύνη δόξα καὶ χάρις). Sirach 4:21

Toxic shame is the fruit of abuse. It is the manipulation of the shame response for dark purposes. It is a common result of violence and a primary tool in almost all efforts of control. Its wounds can continue for years, creating an emotional memory within an individual that is crippling, able to color the whole of a life experience. But it must be born in mind that toxic shame is the abuse of something natural, a misuse of our emotional responses. Shame itself is not the problem nor the enemy. Its abuse, which is properly termed, “toxic shame,” is not shame itself. The shame response, as well as healthy emotions attached to it, is a necessary part of our existence and serves a key role in the human life, including our spiritual life.

The tradition of the Church typically enshrines, not a received dogma, an a priori set of assumptions that demands our assent, but a deeply developed and nurtured reflection on human experience in the very depths of the soul. Above all else, the tradition preserves for us the fruit of listening. That listening can be seen in the many volumes of spiritual writings that describe the motions of the soul in its inmost actions and reactions. There is a whole psychology embedded in these writings, frequently with greater depth and insight than much of modern history’s various attempts. [Bishop Alexis Trader wrote a number of interesting works comparing modern psychology and the understanding of the Philokalia during his time as an Athonite monk]. This deeply experiential listening and its observations allows for subtle distinctions, born of viewing what actually is the case, rather than what fits a truncated and distorted narrative.

Its healthy role often serves as a signal. It is a response that accompanies the interruption of an expected pleasure. It can be as innocent as “being caught off guard” or any experience that interrupts communion with others. We can experience this as mildly as embarrassment or an uncomfortable self-awareness. It is certainly possible for this to be an intense experience still without being toxic. It is an almost inherent aspect of our experiences of boundaries (cf. my upcoming webinar on that topic). Just as we are handicapped when we lose our sight, or hearing, so would we be handicapped were we to lose the ability to feel shame. Indeed, sociopaths and psychopaths seem to lack this ability. Narcissism is also bound up with disordered shame responses. It is important to have a normal, healthy experience of shame.

As noted earlier, within the tradition, healthy shame is most often discussed in the context of humility. Indeed, humility can be defined as our willingness to bear the truth of ourselves as God sees us. Because this experience requires an extreme vulnerability, a nakedness akin to that of Adam and Eve, it necessarily triggers the shame response that is hard-wired into our bodies. To experience such vulnerability and not have a shame response would be unhealthy, even pathological. However, shame is shame, regardless of whether it is healthy or toxic. It is thus the case, that, if we are enmeshed in the after-effects of toxic shame, experiences of what would normally be healthy shame can and do trigger the frightful burden of toxicity. We become over-reactive, unable to bear what should normally be both bearable and healthy. As a result, there is most commonly a need for toxic shame to be addressed and healed in order for us to make the deep journey into the depths where healthy shame resides.

Clinical researchers have dubbed shame the “master emotion.” As we move from situation to situation (boundary to boundary), the shame response is unconsciously triggered and sets off the cascade of emotions that mark our day. Something as innocent as being cut-off in traffic or interrupted in a conversation (or ignored) can trigger any number of responses. However, the truth of our inner life is that it is often marred by toxic shame. Even experiences of mild, healthy, shame can trigger a storm of toxic shame when that is a dominant part of your inner world. This reality is made more complex by the fact that the experience of shame is so painful that it is generally morphed into other, less painful emotions (most commonly, anger or sadness), meaning that we live unaware that the pain of our life is actually rooted in shame. The result is a culture (and a Church) filled with people who are often clueless about the true nature of their inner life. That which is broken within us (or which functions in a broken manner) is often too toxic to touch. It colors our perception of the world around us, as well as our perception of ourselves and God. When this is translated into a growing culture of wounded anger, the result is predictably disastrous.

This stands in sharp contrast to the tradition. There, the road map for healing toxic shame is set forth in a path of supportive nurture and gentle truth-telling. Such a pastoral practice is, unfortunately, often not what is found. Parishes (as well as dioceses and whole jurisdictions) can themselves be as dominated by the demons unleashed in toxic situations. Anger, greed, and dysfunctional personalities can easily rise to the top and become a source of sin rather than a balm for wounded souls. Perhaps this has always been the case.

Nevertheless, there is a road map. Patience, gentleness, kindness, and supportive listening establish the basis for pastoral relationships in which shame, including its toxic forms, can slowly be healed. The acquisition of humility through the practice of “bearing a little shame,” can be fostered in the safety of a nurturing pastoral relationship. Often, much can be done in professional clinical situations as well. Shame is healed by being exposed to the light. Toxic shame consists of lies, abusive messages that tell us that “who we are” is wrong (ugly, incompetent, stupid, clumsy, worthless, etc.). The Church’s message of sinfulness is not a message of toxic shame. It does not tell us that we are worthless, etc., much less that we are evil. The gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are created in the image and likeness of God. Sin is not us (you are not your sin). Sin is “anti-us.” Sin is the contradiction of the truth of our being. The good news is that this toxic burden can be lifted, forgiven, destroyed, and healed.

It is in this process of forgiveness and healing that we encounter healthy shame. In the presence of God, we are revealed as creatures, the beloved offspring of His work. In His presence, the false images which we labor so hard to construct are allowed to fall away. Our failures and our successes pass into shadows. There is a form of emptiness that we find in that moment, while at the same time, discovering that God does not see us as worthless and sinful. Indeed, the truth and fullness of how He sees us is a mystery that exceeds description in its wonder.

Humility is learned by practice.

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! … Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. I John 3:1-2

The journey to this vision does not come all at once. It is a battle. We wrestle against the toxic lies of the enemy (as well as our own and those of others). We struggle to accept the abiding and continual balm of the love of God that is poured into us from Liturgy to Liturgy. “Holy things are for the holy!” This movement in which the lies of toxic shame are banished by the purity of the face of Christ, and the truth of our being as children of God is affirmed, is the daily motion of salvation. This is not a declaration that we have no sin, but a proclamation that we are not sin. It is the declaration that we renounce the devil, all his works, and all his pride. It is the declaration that we accept Christ as King and God, together with His original word spoken at our creation: “It is very good.”


Ancient Faith Ministries is sponsoring a webinar on the topic of shame – particularly focusing on healthy shame and the role of boundaries in our knowledge of God. You can register for the conference on the link below. I am encouraging those who “come” to read the article above as preparation. It will help our conversation greatly. I would love for you to join me!


Follow this link to register.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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92 responses to “Can Shame Ever Be Healthy?”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, our toxic culture seems to be built on two diametrically opposed assumptions. 1. We are each our sinful self and we should not be ashamed of our sins and no one else should challenge that identity, and 2. Anyone who does challenge should be shamed into silence.
    This dynamic is literally everywhere, making actual human community of any kind almost impossible. Such rampant destruction of humanity creates a situation where we clamor for a “savior” to restore everything.

    It is an environment that creates a fertile soil for martyrs and confessors to be revealed. Humility and repentance will be rewarded I think both inwardly and outwardly.
    The Cross is close at hand, even closer than hands and feet. His mercy is bottomless well of grace welling up within to eternal life. “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. Yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous hand. ” Isaiah 41:10.

    On the righteous power of shame: I saw a video recently of armed Canadian police attempting to forcibly enter a Protestant Church to disperse the congregation. The Pastor stood in there way and told them to leave as Gestapo were not welcome there. The six armed officers turned and retreated in shame.

  2. Joan Lake-Cummings Avatar
    Joan Lake-Cummings

    Thank you for this article on shame. It’s a huge problem with people and most don’t even realize that their shame is what provokes their choices in life. Covering the shame is poor self-esteem. I love your sentence: Toxic shame is the fruit of abuse. As a new designated spiritual director, I am hoping I can help others with this malady since it hinders so much of their relationship with God.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I just started reading St. Gregory Palamas’ sermon on the Precious and Life Giving Cross from the 2008 book “The Saving Work of Christ” edited by Christian Veniamin. Only a few pages in and the nature of the shame we suffer and it cure is clearly dealt with in precise and healing words.

  4. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    It seems that while the shame response can be healthy (like a pain or pleasure response), I am having a hard time understanding how there are any healthy triggers. For instance, Adam and Eve first experience shame (good) in the context of broken communion (bad). In their prior state of humility and obedience, there was no obvious shame. So, are there any good *sources* of shame?

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Joseph, is not the impetus to repent (shame) a good thing? The source in that case is a sincere recognition of our sinfulness–humility. Just as Father says.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Absolutely, there are good sources. I’ll explain.

    The “shame” response, as I pointed out, is one of the nine, identified “affects.” It is hardwired in our bodies and is as normal, healthy, and natural as all the affects. An example of the affect in an infant is instructive. Think of approaching a mother with toddler-in-arms (I get this all the time at communion). You make eye-contact, briefly, with the child, start to say something, and immediately, the child turns and buries its face in its mother’s chest, and refuses to turn back to you. What is going on is the shame affect.

    We might describe this as “shyness,” but it is the shame affect that is being triggered. The child feels exposed in some way or fashion, a little unsure and unsafe. Note, particularly, that it is their face that they seek to hide. This is almost always a manifestation of shame, even in adults. Adults are more subtle, and will often just avert their eyes lest they draw too much attention to the shame they are experiencing. We look down at the ground, or elsewhere, but not at the object or event that is shame-inducing.

    These are innocent encounters. There is nothing wrong or evil in this – nothing sinful. It is a natural, and proper response to the exposure. Incidentally, I’ve learned in such cases not to try to make eye-contact with a child (such as at communion) at such times. It somehow seems less threatening to them.

    At its most fundamental level, the shame affect represents an interruption of one of the pleasurable affects: interest-joy, or interest-excitement. Tomkins explorations of this on the neurobiological level are very helpful and accurate. Those hard-wired affects combine with the emotions and form the very complex emotional experiences that color our lives.

    As I’ll be explaining at the webinar – healthy shame is an inherent part of the experience of boundaries, and is an essential part of the experience of awe and worship. Every encounter with God that we see in Scripture is accompanied by some sort of initial shame response. We have to be called beyond that boundary in order to know true communion. But if the boundary is not sensed, we will sense nothing.

    It struck me as interesting that Bradshaw’s work, years ago, recognized the role of healthy shame in worship and the experience of God. Classically, Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1917) was an early 20th century work exploring the human description of the experience of the “numinous.”

    Why, for example, do people instinctively begin to whisper and move quietly about in the old gothic cathedrals? (and elsewhere, surely) It is instinctive. That instinct is the shame response.

    These are all “good” triggers. The response is not a judging response – but does give us a certain signal – as essential as eyesight or hearing. Of course, what we do with it depends very much on many other things in our inner life. But noticing what we do with these signals is part of “paying attention.”

    There is, for example, the experience of “shamelessness” in which people have developed a neurotic response to shame that purposely ignores it (but usually does so by acting out and misbehaving). In so doing, they show not that they have no shame, but that they do not know how to bear it. It is disordered.

    Shame makes us feel exposed and naked. Thus, we try to find ways to “clothe” ourselves. We can do it socially with music, clothing, tattoos, and other identifiers that serve as that “mother’s chest” the infant is hiding in. Again, it can be quite neurotic. Adolescence is almost one long experience of shame-triggers which is why they are so cliquish and given to bullying, etc., all of which are neurotic efforts to deal with the pain of shame that has become unbearable.

    Our social movements are vast networks of shame-avoiding group-think, which is why they can be so brutal. For that matter, religious-belonging can be just as neurotic. Go to some Orthodox websites or chatrooms and express a wayward opinion…and be eaten by shame-driven versions of ersatz Orthodoxy.

    I’ll have much more at the webinar. I do hope it is recorded.

  7. Kristyn Hall Avatar
    Kristyn Hall

    Maybe, Joseph, the trigger may always be bad (i.e., a bad action) but can be followed by a good reaction of our conscience (shame), which would then lead to a good action (repentance). Of course, sometimes our immediate response to our own sin is more of pride than shame. But I see your point, that the starting place of the sin-shame-repentance continuum does indeed begin with something bad. Shame is only necessary because of sin.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry to be contrary – but the shame response does not require sin to be present. It is perfectly natural – as innocent as hunger, the feeling of hot or cold, etc. It quickly becomes quite complex. It is certainly involved in our awareness of wrong-doing – but not because of the wrong-doing itself. It is our sense of exposure in our wrongdoing being seen or acknowledged. That, in and of itself, is a good thing.

    But, let’s say I meet someone at a conference and they greet me and begin to praise something they’ve seen or read of mine. My initial response is likely to be a bit of embarrassment or blusing of cheeks. It is the shame response – though it would be wrong to say that I feel shame about the work, etc. It’s the natural response to such praise, because the praise makes us feel exposed. We would like to hide (at least a little). Again, there is no sin in any of that. It is perfectly natural and without sin. There can, however, immediately be set in motion a range of sins (a perverse pride, etc., or other such things). But these are things that follow (and not necessarily).

    I hope that’s helpful.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is not the response to praise (even justified praise) a version of humility and modesty? Is that the same as a shame response?

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes – humility and modesty are tied up with the shame response. There is, of course, false modesty or false humility, where we pretend to be somewhat shamed or embarrassed by praise, but secretly covet it. And – I suspect – there’s frequently a sort mix – a bit of real humility and a bit of false humility. We’re complex creatures.

    And, then there’s how we respond to the opposite (blame and criticism). It’s much easier to bear the mild shame of someone who exposes our excellence. It’s very difficult to bear it when someone exposes our flaws and failures. “Love covers a multitude of sins,” and we generally try to avoid these sorts of things when we love someone (or we’re very gentle about it).

    I will emphasize again that the shame response – in all of its manifestations – is extremely powerful, probably the most powerful of our emotions (when it gets that far). It also has these complex elements that are worth understanding. It is probably less than helpful that we use the word “shame” to cover everything from the initial affect-response to the complex of emotions (both good and bad) that are set in motion by it. In English, the word “shame” has very few good associations with it, making conversations about it difficult.

    I was set to do a talk on shame, once upon a time, down at our cathedral in Miami. Someone told me later that when they saw the title of my talk, it was a trigger and they had a hard time attending. I use a bit of humor throughout such talks to make it easier for listeners (humor untriggers shame, interestingly).

  11. Kristyn Hall Avatar
    Kristyn Hall

    I agree with Michael, modesty may be confused with shame but they do not come from the same place. Shame can come from believing you are bad without there being any sinful action, but I don’t think that’s what Father means. I was raised to feel a lot of shame for what I *might* do. This was a preventative used in my upbringing, and for the most part it worked. I rarely did anything wrong, but it was always out of fear of being unloved. I am 45 and I doubt that I will ever shake that. But I will never see shame for what I *haven’t* done as a good. A sense of guilt for wrongs done, however, is a wonderful thermometer.

  12. Jonathan Avatar

    It’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on this applied to young men. The “deaths of despair” corporations are noticing. Young guys feel unbearable shame, without a wife, or family, or home. Without status. Working 40 hrs a week guarentees none of these things anymore, and money is the number one stresser in any relationship.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Feeling bad about “who I am” is one of the primary experiences of shame (as an emotion). It is almost always tinged with some toxicity, or burdened with a lot. It makes it hard to talk about shame that might not have that coloration. But, there is such a shame, and modesty is a minor form of it.

    But, often in our lives, shame is used for control, for punishment, or worse, and leaves a lasting bit of damage. It is the slow healing of this damage that I’m describing in the article. Depending on how much toxic baggage someone carries – the experience of shame will be confused and confusing.

    My experience is that it is an area of life, a primary area of life, that stands in deep need of spiritual healing. We need to know God’s unconditional love and acceptance in order to move forward (because we’re certainly never going to be “good” enough on our own). It’s also helpful if this is embodied in a human relationship, or numerous ones. A primary version is that of a gentle, caring confessor. A safe and wise therapist can also be of use. Getting the toxic stuff and its lasting damage healed enough to be able to experience healthy shame in a clean manner, without interference, is a useful goal, one that can take years. There are things in my life that I think I only begin to see as I move towards the end of my years.

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is the nature of our economic/political system that we make individuals feel responsible for their lives: job, marriage, wealth, etc. It excuses those with wealth and power from any responsibility. The economy crashes, millions of people are thrown out of work, and suddenly there is a wave of depression as people feel bad about themselves (instead of rising up and hanging the bankers from the lamp-posts – which is not something I recommend, btw).

    Having said that, it is understandable that young men (and some young women as well) carry deep burdens of shame for things over which they may have little to no control. Or, even if they are mistakes (like going $100k in debt for college when you’re not old enough to really comprehend what you’re doing), spending a lifetime burdened with something for which you were set up by a diseased system. I get all of that.

    There is a spiritual path out of all of this. If we measure our lives by the American Dream, then we will live with the consequences of that false image. Status, wife, home, job, etc., are the stuff that the “Dream” is made of. The Kingdom of God does not consist in these things. Indeed, all of them (even marriage) can be a stumbling block. The way forward is to learn to live life without that Dream. It is to wake up from the lies that have been told us for generations. It is to become a Christian.

    This is a very hard word. In renouncing the Dream, it will likely become necessary to forgive those who are selling the Dream. Those who have achieved the Dream, need to renounce it as well, and begin to live their lives on the basis of the gospel. Jesus did not die in order to save the American middle class. But many preach the gospel as if that “Dream” were its fulfillment.

    For a variety of reasons (social, economic, political) the Dream is becoming increasingly unattainable for many. As this continues the lies it is built on may be unmasked (though, I doubt it). God is our true Dream – His Kingdom alone is our sufficiency. Anything else becomes idolatry – quite easily. I recommend a frequent reading and re-reading of the gospels.

  15. Randy Evans Avatar

    Father, of all the articles you’ve written on shame, imo, this is by far the best and most thorough. Bradshaw’s book was for me, and many of my male friends I recommended it to, very very helpful. As an addictions counselor, I teach on the distinctions he made, and attempt to, without being “preachy”, ask my clients to think more of their intrinsic value which can never be lost, rather than getting caught in the trap of “I’m a pretty good person in spite of . . . . . (fill in the blank.) Or it’s opposite, many of these toxic messages they got from their shame-based family of origin. Looking forward to your webinar – I also teach much about how essential personal boundaries are in all our relationships. Thanks again for your faithfulness in these important and universal topics.

  16. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    If you were a baseball player, you’d be famous for making a lot of homeruns.

    This is a very helpful article that goes straight to the heart of the matter.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Krystin, I will be 73 Saturday. My mother was raised with a great deal of shame. She tried hard to shield my brother and me from it. Yet, both of us went through shame to get to the Church. Both my late wife and my living wife were seriously abused growing up and carried that shame with them.

    By God’s grace, my late wife was released from that as she died. My living wife still struggles with it. Part of my duty as her husband is to love her in such a way that the shame is healed a bit.
    But the real healing I have found comes in forgiveness. A hard work.
    The spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Church have helped me a great deal.
    It takes constant effort. I still have a long way to go.
    But His mercy endures forever.

    That is real and substantial.

  18. Kristyn Hall Avatar
    Kristyn Hall

    Thank you, Michael, for sharing this. I have had one real “epiphany” in this matter and that is to look at others in the way I wish I had been considered, and then to look back at myself the way I would look at those others. (I realize that this is an overcomplicated version of, “Do unto others…”) God remembers that we are dust. He is not impatient with our failings. What a blessing.
    P.S. Thank you, Father, for all your gentle responses here. God bless you

  19. Byron Avatar

    Shame = Exposure speaks a great deal to me in light of the Biblical concept of light and darkness. There is so much to consider here….

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, humor is designed to create a cognitive dissonance that allows us to see the reality of things just a bit removed. Both the distancing and the recognition combine to create a release in laughter. Such laughter can be cleansing and restorative. It is interesting that professional comedians in this day and age are finding it quite difficult to find the place. There are many reasons that have, I think, to do with how pervasive shame has become and how it has been weaponized.

  21. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    An interesting article, Fr. Stephen. While I haven’t spent the time you have delving into the topic of shame, I am well acquainted with it on both a personal and professional level. Having said this, a few thoughts:

    If someone praises my work, I may feel a discomfort akin to shame but that is because I am conscious of my desire to be better than others and, at the same time, my awareness that this is sinful pride. Hence, there is a dissonance in me as I both want and don’t want their praise. The shame lies in my fear that my sin will be exposed and I will feel humiliated that others will see that not only am I not better than others, but worse. I have projected an image of myself being a “good” person and, when the evil within me is exposed, I will be cast out.

    Shame is hard-wired into us because we need the fear of being cast out as part of our survival. Human beings survive best in community (clan) and suffering and death are much more likely if we get separated from the herd, so to speak. Hence the shame response, when functioning in a healthy manner, serves to protect us from this fate. With shame, we fear exposure of our evil inclinations and this (ideally) motivates us to control or change them.

    Unfortunately, however, the discomfort also motivates us to hide these “bad” things in us and then the shame festers and grows until it becomes unbearable. Rather than believing in our ability to repent of our sinful inclinations, we begin to believe that we are evil and will be cast out if our true nature is known. The more we believe this, the more we hide – which (ironically) isolates us from the community and actually threatens our survival, emotionally and sometimes even physically. (This, of course, is how the enemy works – by distorting a health response until it is unhealthy.)

    Our perceptions of what is bad or evil in us are at the heart of toxic shame. Abuse and overly rigid values can result in the shame response being unnecessarily and excessively triggered. If, as a child, I learn that I am bad for making noise, asking a question, mispronouncing a word, etc., my sense of self develops in the context of constantly fearing exposure and expulsion. There is little if any sense of security as abandonment feels imminent, especially if there is no mechanism for repairing the breach. Hiding becomes a way of life.

    A good confessor or therapist can help by creating safety so that the individual can experience an exposure of what they have hidden and discover that, not only are they not cast out, but they are loved and embraced in their imperfection. Infinitely loved and welcomed in…

    (I must confess that I have not kept up with all of your articles on shame, Fr. Stephen, and I realize I may well have written things here that you have already explained better. I tend to reflect by writing and these are simply my reflections on your thought-provoking article. BTW, I don’t think the face-covering toddlers are experiencing shame ;-). But they ARE seeking safety. They just aren’t very good at it at that stage of development as they think they are safe from the scary man with the beard if they can no longer see him!)

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. While I respect your professional training, etc., you are wrong about the toddler’s face-hiding response. I am referencing the work of Tomkin’s Affect theory. An excellent work developing that is Gershen Kaufman’s Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. I could add several others.

    What I think you are missing or have not understood is the reference to the affect of shame. It is the affect of shame (the neuro-biological trigger) that is hard-wired (literally). There is no thinking, or even emotion involved in the trigger itself. The trigger is a neurological response to a stimulus. The emotion is secondary, and, with time, becomes quite complex as it is mixed with memory, scenes, and other stored experiences, etc.

    From Tomkin’s work on the nine affects:

    Tomkins defines this affect in a way that is significantly different from the mainstream use of the word. The trigger for innate shame is the incomplete interruption of excitement or joy. And even though infants don’t yet have a sense of their own social lives, they experience the affect of shame whenever their experience of joy or excitement is thwarted. The facial display might be quick and fleeting, and it is less about broadcasting a feeling and more about hiding. The eyes look down and away, the neck muscles give way and the head falls. The purpose of shame is to be sufficiently negative so as to bring attention to whatever might have caused the positive affect to be impeded, so that we can learn how to avoid the loss of the positive in that moment or in the future. Shame affect exists to help us foster our sense of belonging and mastery by asking us to make sense of and overcome what might get in the way.

    Unlike the previously described affects, shame is an affect auxillary. It is triggered by the incomplete reduction of interest-excitement or enjoyment-joy, and like other affects, it is an analog of its trigger. Once triggered, shame-humiliation further impedes postive affect. While shame can operate when the individual is alone, it is tremendously important, and often unacknowledged, in relationships throughout life.

    It is also described as the “self-protection signal.” Such toddlers are, indeed, seeking safety – but that is an inherent part of the shame response.

    It seems that a portion of the psychology community is unfamiliar with Tomkin’s work – though, Kaufman and others have built significantly on it. Frankly, psychological theory that is not grounded in an understanding of what is happening on a neurobiological basis is flying half-blind. It has been extremely important for me, when possible, to ground such reflections on what is known and understood about the brain/body. It seems properly incarnational to me.

    Deeply important in the study of shame for me, the fact that there is a neuro-biological shame response in infants, from birth, is extremely important. It is not an artifact of sin or merely a response to sin. It is, indeed, the safety response. Understanding how that response works, as well as how it develops over the years of childhood and adulthood, how it can become the toxic monster that many live with, is key.

    I heartily recommend Kaufman’s work and would be glad to suggest others.

    Perhaps I should start footnoting my comments and articles. 🙂

  23. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Hi Fr. Stephen,
    As I noted above, I respect all of the research you have done on shame and I was not trying to diminish your teaching on this. I do not think we are disagreeing as much as perhaps you suggest. You quote Tomkin’s:
    “Shame affect exists to help us foster our sense of belonging and mastery by asking us to make sense of and overcome what might get in the way” which essentially is a positive restatement of what I was suggesting about the inherent need to avoid being cast out, i.e. what might get in the way of our belonging. I was simply reflecting on the survival value of shame. It is not hardwired into us incidentally but there for a good and positive reason.

    Having an understanding of the value of our hardwired responses is indeed helpful. Because shame feels bad, we tend to think it IS bad and it becomes another layer of potentially toxic self-blame. I find, for example, that many people feel that anger is “bad” – I know that I absorbed this in my own religious upbringing. When I learn that anger is a normal response, hardwired for self-protection, I can step back from it and observe it more objectively. It is not bad in itself – it can serve a positive function but it can be the catalyst for destructive behavior, aka sin. Seen thus, I am not bad for feeling it and I see that I am not its prisoner. When I understand its function, I can make proper use of it.

    It is indeed helpful to our healing when we understand how wondrously we have been made. I have no desire or reason to challenge Tomkin’s theory. I might only add that theory is not the same as fact. In psychology, we deal with much more theory than fact because our brains/psyches are so complex. There is much that cannot be unequivocally proven. Theory is very useful nonetheless because it gives us a framework for understanding – which is what we seek. Still, it is most often a work in progress, modified as we discover more about ourselves. Thank you for all of the work you have done in this area.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks. I think it can be confusing, at first, that the word “shame” is applied to the biological affect (shame/safety) and also used to describe the complex emotion that we experience as we go along in life. The “theory” part of Affect Theory is in the naming. That the body responds as it does to certain stimuli is not theory, but observable fact. If we called it the “Safety Affect” it would not change the theory – though – I think, in the long run, it would be unhelpful in that we experience exposure (lack of safety) with the complex of shame emotions.

    Again, I have found it very helpful to follow the path of Affect theorists in thinking through this pastoral/theologically, because it allows the origins of the triggers involved to be looked at without the entire burden of complex emotions. Just like the fight-or-flight triggers that initiate anxiety/panic. It’s useful (as a panic survivor) to understand what is happening to my body – that an adrenalin storm has been set in motion, etc. It also makes sense of how shame is related to anxiety/panic in that shame brings a sense of the lack of safety with it.

    What is an innocent “safety” response of a toddler in its mother’s arms, if handled wrongly, can easily become tangled up in a script (another Tomkin’s Affect Theory term) that becomes a more serious experience of shame. Religious experiences (priest, church, sacraments, etc.) are very numinous. They are layered with symbols (strange dress, smells, chanting, etc.) that are beyond the ability of a toddler to process.

    Thus, I pay close attention (as should parents) to these “safety signals” of children in Church. How do I, as a priest, nurture a sense of safety and comfort for a child in the presence of God, of a priest, of the sacraments? One example in my parish – we have a child-sized icon stand in the Narthex. You can see toddlers come in, kiss the icons (some of them even hug the icons!), and make themselves at home in the Church. I encourage parents to let children be involved in the lighting of candles and other things – become familiar and safe with these holy things.

    When this is not done, we can accidentally nurture a dark shame response in a child (as many have found to their later dismay). A child feels unwelcome and exposed, like they’re going to do something wrong and be constantly corrected in Church. Who wants to go to a place where you’re always being corrected?

    This plays a huge role, for example, in preparing children for first confession. My only(!) goal for a first confession is safety and comfort. Any questions of sin will come later – it’s really not a problem at age seven or eight. What a child needs is to develop a safe relationship with their confessor, where they can experience trust and engage in the vulnerability required as the grow in Christ. Often in that first confession, we simply talk, and then I place the stole on their head for absolution. They do not need to be taught about sin – or frightened – or overthink their relationship with God.

    My experience has been that the ignorance of shame – particularly of its primal mechanisms in children – does harm. The religious world is riddled with shame. At its worst, the misuse of shame can be part of spiritual abuse.

    Again, it can be confusing that “shame” is used to describe these very innocent trigger responses – but they belong to a continuum that later will be helpful.

    In the greater scope of my writing on the topic – talking about the emotionally unburdened hard-wired response (the “Shame Affect”) that may and usually does trigger the emotions of shame – is important in thinking about the experience of “healthy shame.” Healthy shame is necessarily a part of boundaries. People who have difficulty with boundaries often do so because of shame-related issues. As I will make clear in the up-coming webinar, boundaries are an essential part of the experience of God and communion with Him. Without boundaries, we cannot know God. That means, in essence, there will likely be some kind of shame-related experience in our encounter with God. You can see this, for example, in Isaiah 6, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips!” Something like that can be see in almost all Bibilical accounts of a divine encounter.

    Understanding what is going on in that encounter – including the shame that we might find repulsive (and thus we run away from such an experience) is important. Over a lifetime, we can move deeper and deeper into that encounter, de-toxifying the shame that stands between us and God, slowly moving to where we can stand naked before Him and unashamed as we behold Him face-to-face without the need to turn away and hide (like the toddler).

  25. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I appreciate your post very much. I know I always have this interest in trying to find how these things – shame response here – ties to death. It seems clear to me, that the shame response, since it is a survival mechanism – while not sinful just as trying to stay alive is not sinful – is one of these things caused by death. In one sense there is never a way to be free from shame as long as you are a sinner or live in this world. To be totally free from shame would require glorification I would think – though I suppose shame would describe the six-winged Seraphim, etc. But in describing them with the word shame, like you’ve mentioned, we will have confused things due to language. In this sense it is not a survival response, because if it were then they live in constant fear of annihilation. It would be shame filed under humility. I just come around again and again to Pascha being the only healing to our psychological condition. But personally I find it hard to apply and this I see is where I need to make use of my Father Confessor much more. The intensity of emotion triggered by what seems like a survival situation needs something more than me telling myself, “Christ is Risen,” – though I know that’s what I need applied to my heart. I think it’s much like everyone has mild-extreme PTSD caused by death. Triggers cause flight or fight in mild-extreme ways and coping becomes blocking shame/emotion instead of feeling free being exposed to God. I just have this deep feeling that Christianity’s healing process is Resurrection applied to survival mechanisms. Fear is not always a bad thing, sinful, but with the infant it occurs in a fallen space, and I would think, due to the death they bear in themselves/in their nature so to speak. In the New Earth I have to believe this survival response is removed and the Seraphim response is replaced. And say I’m basically right about what I’m saying, and believe it, yet I have a very hard time applying it when I most need to. It’s hard to get relief from survival mechanisms out of control with the voice in your head or even with prayer – though I would be less inclined to pray in those moments anyway. Isolation is an unhealthy shame incubator/breeder.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew perhaps the ultimate shame is that we are subject to mortality? A ontological memory of our expulsion from The Garden?
    But, I am a bit of a reductionist: forgive and repent going boldly before the mercy seat of Christ and shame will rule one’s life less.

  27. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, even though the webinar doesn’t reach the $75 mark, can I still get it with free shipping? (wink)

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Speaking about “healthy shame” is similar to speaking about the “fear of God.” Both shame and fear are, for the most part, experienced as very negative things. Neither of them, on the most fundamental level, are sinful, or even born of mortality, per se.

    The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; Psalm 19:9

    Healthy shame is something that, like the clean fear of God, is not well known by most people. We are burdened with toxic and negative shame, as well as darkened forms of fear, such that we cannot see clearly to understand these pure forms of our human experience.

    In Orthodox thought, it is good to bear in mind that we primarily think of children in terms of innocence. They are, indeed, born into mortality, and from that mortality, they will “learn” to sin. But they are not born sinful. The toddler (to use my example) who hides his face is not thinking about death or mortality. That darkness has not set in yet.

    Reform thought, with its false notions of depravity and such, really looks hard for evidence of sin even in a newborn. That is contrary to an Orthodox instinct. We are born innocent.

    And, though our sin and mortality color many things in our lives, we are still able to gain varying levels of purity. Sometimes, by the gift of God, we see wondrous things. I think there is something of a dance in our journey. We get glimpses with some amount of purity, and we respond. Then perhaps we boomerang back in the other direction. But, in the consistent movement, on-again, off-again, towards God, He draws us by His grace.

    Resurrection will have its final fulfillment – but there is this:

    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory,while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
    (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)

    “Day by day.”

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s slightly embarrassing to me that the webinar is a monetized event ($10). But, Ancient Faith Ministries requires money to operate. I don’t mind doing my bit to help support them (as should we all). I only regret that there’s not a t-shirt or coffee mug involved.

  30. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    God works in us even down to the most fundamental, molecular, even sub-atomic level. He moves in us even while we have a choice to move toward Him or not. Part of the difficulties we have in grasping this relationship, this communion, is a kind of cultural fixation on a form of logic involving linear sequential order of cause followed by effect.

    We don’t live in a virtual world, regardless of how much we might try. And the abstractions of our life experiences, especially that which we conduct online, can be a way to avoid what is uncomfortable to us. We may construct a narrative, a personal story, that we might use as a mental escape hatch to avoid what is hurting us. It seems there are many social movements going on in this culture (USA) in which the memory of historical events have been captured and modified with a narrative to avoid responsibility and healing. An example of this is the prevalence of and the elevation of the use of the word ‘pride or ‘proud’.

    We each have our own ways of navigating the social world whether they be virtual exchanges or person to person. Ideally it is best for us to have a health dose of reality however, and toward that endeavor, the Orthodox tradition is not only helpful, but more importantly, life-saving. Also, as an aside, science literacy has helped me as well to navigate around some of the cultural narratives that are flat-out not helpful or truthful. Careful use of science and the Orthodox tradition can and does lead to healing.

    Now I come to the point I wish to make about theory. The sight of a beautiful waterfall is not a theory. And yet western culture has the propensity to parse “fact” from “fiction”, and “fact” from “theory” in a way that would elevate particular perspectives, for example the ones ‘on trend’ at any given moment. The abolition of man is deeply tied to our shame in this culture, because we know at some level in our hearts, that we don’t speak the truth to ourselves.

    For many reasons Father, I’m grateful for your work on this topic. Your years of pastoral experience combined with your study of the Orthodox tradition, and now your study of this particular phenomenon of shame within the framework of Orthodox life, theology and psychology/sociology is most helpful. On the science side of this topic, as someone who has (I hate to say it but according to our so called cultural standards it is a “fact”) expertise in science literacy, your presentation is “on point” and scientifically appropriate. The reasons I say this would likely bore your readers, so I’m leaving it as that, a statement from a scientist, for whatever that’s worth.

  31. Byron Avatar

    Father, the toddler is born innocent but innocence is not the state of full communion with God, correct? As the Church Fathers mull, Adam and Eve were not adults in the garden. In the same way, we require growth for theosis and not just innocence. Am I correct in my thinking?

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That’s right.

  33. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    On re-reading my words, if my use of communion was a little ambiguous, I apologize. I should be more careful.

    As a follow up to what I believe Byron is pointing out, receiving communion in Orthodox life involves the initial sacraments of Baptism and Christmation and the receiving the Holy Spirit. Therefore babies and toddlers receive the Eucharist, (Communion) after their Baptism and Chrismation, which distinguishes Orthodox theology and the life founded on it. Babies are given Baptism, Christmation, and the Eucharist, as far as I know, with no deliberation considering their innocence but out of consideration of their vulnerability to death. This theology is certainly different from western Christianity and as Byron points out, “full communion”, more often than not, is a life long process. And some Orthodox who were later canonized as saints, did not perceive in themselves to have reached “theosis”. Their self awareness of their condition was due, no doubt, to their humility as they looked upon the face of God in Christ.

    I’m posting a link here about prelest which refers to a form of errant thinking that might befall Christians, especially as they attempt to deal with shame in less fruitful ways. I hope Father, that it is acceptable to post it here.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron, Dee, et al
    On the innocence of children:

    One of the most moving, emotional experiences for me was the burial of one of my granddaughters, Anna Kathryn, who lived only a number of days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, having been born prematurely. She received an emergency Baptism in the NICU unit.

    The service of the burial of an infant differs from all other funeral services in the Church (and I’m working from OCA practice, don’t know about the other jurisdictions). However, in that service there is no mention or prayer for the forgiveness of sin, as there is in all other funerals. Instead, we speak of their innocence. Deeply moving.

    I have over the past several years been spending a fair amount of time with her younger brother, my grandson, Eli (I mentioned him in a recent article). He now has a new younger brother, Aiden. But the joy of Eli is similar to what I have found repeatedly with other young children over the years – their innocence. This is often quite intact, even up to the age of seven or more when they make first confession. And, after that, their confessions tend to have a purity about them that staggers the soul to hear.

    What begins to change as they move into adolescence is a kind of “slipping away.” The innocence is not replaced with anything “evil.” Instead, there is an immediacy that is lost, they begin, I think, to gain some distance within themselves from their true self. It has been, for me, as a confessor, a sort of very sorrowful parting, a recognition that this pure soul whom I knew and saw is passing into a sort of hiding (even from the person themselves). In time, as an adult, with great effort, and likely great suffering, it is possible to regain that innocence – not again as innocence (for that would be to lose all memory and such). But to regain the innocence through humility and an immediacy of soul in the presence of God.

    I have encountered that – just a few times – and it shook me to my core each time. It shook me because it is so profoundly unlike my own interior life. But, having encountered it, I long for it and try to pursue it.

    Please forgive such intimate sharing – I violate no secrets – but I mean to whisper what I’ve seen and what I hope. “Theosis” is the deification of the person – and, I think – includes an integrity that is this regained wholeness. If ever you have opportunity to meet a whole person, you’ll not forget it.

  35. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father, thank you for these reflections. Food and balm for the soul.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    God grant us to find that wholeness in this life…

  37. Michael Avatar

    Thank you for your comments re: innocence-wholeness Father.

  38. Milos Dobic Avatar
    Milos Dobic


    The beauty of your comment on the innocence of children brought tears to my eyes. The soft sorrow surrounding it pierced my soul, even if deeply hidden away.

    Thank you.

  39. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


    I don’t imply sinfulness in terms of moral sinfulness, or I don’t mean to. I mean, a child, any human, is born with death, born dying. This body of death motivates fear as it motivates fight or flight. I guess I would think of an infant – if it were born in heaven without death – as not having this innate impulse. I think this is distinct from fearing God, not the same thing. In this world we want a child to have a sense of fear because it protects them. But in the New Earth I don’t think the impulse will translate into it. So, as with any blameless passion, that is caused by death/survival, it is not sinful, but it does originate in death I would think. I think this distinction in the OT and in the Church Fathers – where in the OT death made you unclean but not morally sinful and in the Church Fathers of blameless passions – is a very helpful way of thinking. If you touched a dead body by accident in the OT you were unclean, but not sinful morally. Yet, God would have been a threat to you potentially because of your exposure to death. You were sinful/unclean but not sinful morally. I think the OT and the Fathers knew this distinction well. And I believe this is why we Baptize children in large part. Yes, all are raised in the Resurrection, but not all participate in eternal life with God in the same way. Baptism, in part, removes the death liability you carry due to being born dying in Adam versus being born depraved in Adam. The barrier was really access to God in Sacred Space not being depraved. Now that we are to be Sacred Space ourselves, Baptism makes us Sacred Space by uniting us to pure Life in Christ. The barrier of death is gone in union with Christ’s Resurrection. So, I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but I hope I’m tracking correctly. Blameless passions are survival mechanisms that would not exist (potentially) in the right conditions. Blameless passions are a result of the fall. Shame is a result of the fall and death. Good shame would be filed under humility. Good shame would be more an overwhelming sense of your inferiority (not in a bad sense) in the presence of God in the heavenly sense. Good shame would be a healthy response to internal realization of failure or inadequacy that leads to humility and repentance on Earth. And amoral shame would be like the child burying it’s face in the mothers elbow. But amoral shame would still be in some sense – a sad reality – though so common that we would not benefit from mourning it. If blameless passions continued on into eternity it quickly implies to me – and I’m probably overthinking it by now – the possibility of falling again. If Adam had conditional immorality (which fits with our view of theosis and the fall) then he could have had blameless passions that were supposed to go away. I’m going on too long. Thank you..

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is important:

    That which we call “passions” are a disordering of something natural – all of them. Indeed, mortality is a cause of their disordering, but all of the passions are inherently good, when rightly ordered. And, yes, that reaction that I am describing as “healthy shame” is identical to that which would be involved in the “fear” of God.

    Death is the result of the fall (after a fashion). We have no evidence of the world in which we live have ever been not subject to death. Paradise seems separate, somehow. St. Basil describes us as falling out of paradise “into this world.”

    My caution, I think, is not to overthink the “fall” of human beings (which is a strong habit of Reformed Protestantism). All of our “equipment” works fine – except that it easily becomes disordered. Orthodox thought (as in the innocence of children) tends to see us a becoming corrupted with age rather than starting out that way. Even though we are subject to death.

    The acquisition of virtue in the Fathers is sometimes described as “apatheia” or “passionlessness.” That is not actually a precise term. For the passions remain, but are transformed into their healthy form. This acquisition of virtue is part of our life in Christ and is an ongoing matter.

    Because of Christ – and our participation in Him – we will not be able to fall again. Indeed, we tend to have a mistaken notion of free will when we think of “falling again.”

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, where do contrition and joy fit in?

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure, in the context of this conversation, how I would “place” them.

  43. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    I need to think over what you’ve said. I get it initially but I need to think it over. I think my imagination has been to think of primordial Adam – or – of us as completed human beings – what I mean is, even if Adam did live with death, the new Earth doesn’t seem to keep those elements – as having a survival instinct arise that was foreign to him. I try not to let evolutionary theory color my view too much. That following the fall, a disruption in the natural world allowed a world red in tooth and claw – due to survival needs brought in by death. At the same time, I don’t think Adam was immortal, but conditionally immortal because he needed continual access to the Tree of Life. And even if this is off, I’ve thought often that the entire world was not Eden, only Paradise was. It may have been the case that evolution is true in some way but that it was to be undone by Adam – and that he failed.

    Surely I have overthought these things on one level, yet, there is a need to have some conceptual framework to start with. I’m flexible, but there is no denying that death motivates an enormous range of our behaviors. So, maybe the lion keeps its canines in the New Earth and reorders their use? Or, maybe they go away?

    Neither one of us are psychoanalysts, but I get what you’re saying about the child’s response. You see it as good and semi-equivalent with holy fear, that’s what I think you’re saying. I tend to see it as something not proper to life with Christ in the Age to Come, unnecessary. Regardless, the gist of your post remains. Your posts on shame have been very beneficial.

    What I usually think is, if I can trace shame, bad shame, to either survival mechanism or to disordering arising from death, then repairing to Pascha is a straight-line, obvious, method. In the end I actually want it to be simple. If my shame is a result of death, Pascha – finding how to apply Pascha to my shame (the bad sense) is the methodology. I’m just convinced there’s a psychology of death’s effects/affects that is more explanatory in nature than any other Jungian/Freudian system, that aligns perfectly with Orthodoxy, that we have known it all along, but that therapeutically we may only partially call attention to our complexes by not tracing the complex back to death’s affects/effects.

    This is a hypothesis and it is in reaction to Reformed theology (but I also place Catholic theology in with Reformed theology, and essentially every Christian tradition that is a modified form of Augustinianism/ Calvinism). Because for anyone who believe in Original Sin and Guilt, and follows the logic, the reason for sin and shame is your incapacity to do anything but evil with your will until the will is overpowered. That’s the ultimate locus for why you are they way you are, and your shame is ultimately rooted in being one with Adam in the fall, naked and ashamed. All your future sin and shame flows from this unanimity with Adam. The reason for your shame (bad shame) is your fallenness. To your point, shame for Orthodox, I think – you know I try my thoughts on you regularly for correction, and thank you for your patience – is not our damnability in Adam, but our death, and our cooperation in death and sin that arises from a disordered use of the will that has capacity for good – coming from fear of death and that fear is exacerbated and soothed by suggestions from the demonic.

    Again, I think more time should be spent on the shame of death from the OT. Leprosy, menstrual issues, disease, bleeding in general, having sexual relations with your spouse – all of these were little deaths – and they all made Sacred Space into a liability for you. The woman with the issue of blood had to have some shame, but it was overcome in a Pascha like event. All the things that made you unclean in the OT have to do with death: loss of life. Loss of sexual fluids even was a type of death exposure. Sex didn’t make you unclean, losing lifeforce did. All of these death moments, and the sacrificial system that dealt with them, created an awareness of death that was shaming in a sense, not necessarily in a bad sense. And those are all amoral events. You were just punished for moral sins or you made restitution or you were exiled. The sacrificial system was mainly about cleansing from death, getting provisionary life until Christ killed death itself and made removed the source of our uncleanness. Now, moral crimes are also forgiven (and surely they were in the OT as well) and they are the only real source of our uncleanness – but if we are unhealed by Pascha, as I am for sure, death still creates our shame. Immortality in Christ removes the motivator for shame, as death creates temptation/sins, and moral shame arises. Even Christ despised the shame of death, but for the joy set before Him endured the Cross.

    So, in giving death it’s proper place as a motivator, the blushed face of embarrassment is a little death, a little exposure in an either unsure situation regarding being safe, or fear of loss of security momentarily because acceptance among a group may be endangered – temporarily creating a survival situation. In many ways, it seems to me the holy fool is mocking death. While a child’s shame response may have some connection to holy fear and it seems quite unlikely to me that that is what’s going on – it is easy to imagine a child seeing Christ and intuitively knowing Him and reaching for Him from out of the mother’s arms. Knowing He is safer than the mother maybe. Christ will get hugs I have to believe in the New Earth, otherwise He will be nothing like the Jesus of the Gospels – whom children run to and He will not deny even at the supposed expense of the disciples. It just doesn’t fit well that the child will be veiling their face at the presence of Christ through eternity when the New Earth is this Earth. I don’t mean heaven is a commune of happy people, but that Christ will be physically available in ways recognizable to life on Earth. And it’s in this sense, that I see the child no longer fearing – though the fear is not sinful – but that the child – having no fear of hostility – can gaze into Christ’s eyes without fear, and actually experience the intensity of love and safety Christ has won for them. Again, I’m not reducing the worship of Heaven or anything, to having Jesus as your buddy, but to uphold the humanity of Christ as it was revealed.

    And last, here is where all the admonitions of not fearing death seem to come into play. Fearing death more than God is a denial of the Resurrection. It is not just blameless survival mechanisms at work. Fearing pain is understandable of course, but if life survival wins out over faithfulness, faithlessness is proven. Shame before men for the sake of Christ is to be endured because we don’t want to be found naked before Christ. The person who fears God, may be shamed by men, but will not have shame before God. I don’t have this negative view of infants or the ways they develop psychologically, but when death is in your DNA from birth, I can’t help but see behaviors as affects of death.

    If you stuck with me through this, thank you!

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is not contrition an aspect of healthy shame and joy follows?

  45. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I don’t think that the Orthodox theology stresses or even attempts to predict details of the conditions of ‘the new earth’. Rather the emphasis, to the best of my knowledge, is on the here and now.

    The healthy shame Father describes is part of ‘natural’ man. We need not wait for the ‘new earth’ to participate in that life which includes it. Rather it is a returning to our true and natural person here and now, in communion with Christ.

    Father, I interject and ask for corrections as needed.

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would describe contrition as an aspect of healthy shame. Joy would follow. Joy, it seems to me, can accompany many other things at the same time.

  47. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I’m remembering a situation that happened years ago that I believe might be an interesting example for this conversation.

    My husband grew up in the high northern latitudes near mountains, where when it rained, rarely were there events of thunder and lightening. His family had many outdoor outings, hiking, camping in the mountains, and as a result he was very familiar with the outdoor world where he grew up. In contrast to where he grew up, I grew up in the deep south, particularly in Florida, where when it rained, it poured great deluges instantly. Rivers suddenly ran through the streets, the skies thundered mightily with spectacular shows of lightening.

    We met in his world. And when we took walks together in the woods, it would be me who would become disoriented, particularly on a mountainside. But when at one point in our lives, we moved to my childhood place, it was a revelation to us both how easily he would become disoriented in the woods there. Neither the trees nor the way the light fell through them provided him clues to where he was. There, more often than not, we depended on my skills to orient us in these outings.

    One day on such an outing, the clouds formed suddenly and it began to pour. He wanted to walk home, but I advised against it because I anticipated the lightening to come and wanted to stay near trees to take the lightening if the storm drew near. So we stood near trees and waited. As the storm drew near, indeed, the lightening and the thunder came. I was accustomed to counting the seconds between thunder and lightening to prepare for our movement within the storm. Against his instincts I encouraged us to stay put.
    The lightening and thunder drew closer and the very air itself began to throb. I saw a mosquito land on his face and gently tapped his cheek to stop the mosquito. But precisely when I tapped his cheek, just overhead the thunder pounded and lightening streaked across the sky. My poor beloved fell to his knees. For a moment I thought he had had a heart attack. Then he looked up to me with tears in his eyes and asked me why I did that to him. He was shaking. I explained he had a mosquito on his cheek, but his deep embarrassment and uncertainty, took a while to leave him. It wasn’t so much fear but the association of the power of the thunder and lightening, combined with the tap on the cheek that made it difficult for him to recover, except with many embraces and apologies from me. Just as quickly as the storm came, it left, and we walked home.

    This event is a kind of personal experience somewhat similar I believe to what the three disciples felt when they accompanied the Lord, and witnessed His transfiguration. Our icons show the disciples falling to the ground. It seems to me as I reflect on that event and the experience my husband had, ‘out of his element’, a kind of meeting of a boundary, mixed with uncertainty of exposure, and a dose of ‘healthy’ shame.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A reason for thinking and writing about shame in the manner that I have (identifying healthy shame, and its “natural” character) is to help readers think about its place in their life. Humility, it seems to me, is not a fallen or disordered passion. Indeed, God is humble (“I am humble and meek, learn from me). What I think is more or less harmful in our thinking is to get all tangled up in theories of how the Fall has affected us and such. Shame is a difficult reality, and people find it hard enough to bear, even when it is of a good and healthy sort. Understanding its natural mechanism is, I think, useful in thinking about how it may work in our lives.

    More than anything, I’ve tried to write in a manner that keeps a close eye on what is actually done and how it is practiced, and a bit less on theological speculation.

    I do not think that death is in our DNA. Theoretically, DNA could be immortal. Death is not natural to us. Creation might be subject to death, but death is not inherent in it. Of course, that which is natural is not yet immortal – only grace could make that possible. But it is problematic to think of death as in our DNA – it becomes Manichaen.

    I think we may have very different starting points and assumptions in thinking about these things.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I find it useful in dealing with my own shame to remember what is on the other side of it: abundant life and transformation. If I face my shame, in Christ, and go boldly before the throne of grace, healing begins. Indeed, my shame starts to be transformed into joy as I open my heart to Him who Is. In Whom I have my being.
    The more deep seated the roots of my shame are, the more difficult it is for me both to face honestly and to submit to Jesus in humility. That is because such shame has become a seemingly essential part of my identity.

    While the insights of modern psychology have some utility, too often in practice the trend is to simply encourage people to accept the false identity as real and proclaim the lie to everybody. Indeed whole cultural movements are focused on doing that.

    Modern politics thrives on inducing shame, fear and self-loathing.

    But it is the still, small voice from within that speaks the truth.

    One fundamental shame I have right now is facing my own mortality. I celebrated my 73rd birthday yesterday, thanks to my wife. She adamantly refused to entertain my preference for no celebration. Many unexpected blessings resulted.

    To begin to perceive the still, small voice, humility is required. Being by myself at 3 in the morning (because my physical pain wakes me up) I can begin to hear as I take a prayer rope, crafted by my late wife and say the Jesus Prayer.

    It is also important not to blame other people for my shame. To be free of relational shame, I must forgive as I confess otherwise, more shame is induced.

    So from my most intractable shame (my body is dying and I can do nothing) comes great joy, awe and mercy.

    Who am I that the Lord of All should be mindful of me, yet He is.

  50. Dean Avatar

    Next month I am 75. I hear what you’re saying, brother. I once was speaking with an elderly Greek man. He had just visited the elder Ephraim. The elder had told him that once 70, you need to always stay in a state of repentance. After three score and ten, we are all living on borrowed time.
    I was just commenting to my wife of how we know so many sick people!
    But I guess that comes with the territory of aging. My 97 year old aunt said that she lost 11 friends in one month last year!
    Yet God is so good, isn’t he? He remembers us even to the graying of our hair… of which I have a crop! I’ve hear that old folks don’t need as much sleep. Perhaps. But aches and pains have much to do with sleeplessness. And Christ even turns that for good, as you note with your 3 a.m. prayers.

  51. Renée Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I often read your blog, but rarely comment. Your posts on shame and the book you recommended some time ago, The Ethics of Beauty, have started me thinking about the subject, and I have wondered how a certain kind of social embarassment fits into the picture and how we can heal from it. I’m thinking of things like looking back at a dinner party I’ve just attended, and realizing that I just told the exact same stories that I’ve told the same people numerous times before. It induces a kind of cringing, a kind of shrinking into myself like a slug at being touched, that a remembrance of my worst sins does not induce. What precisely is going on here? How do I heal from it? I tend just to say to myself, “Oh, well. I am often a fool. It’s not important in any fundamental way, so best just to ignore it.” But even so, I have to steel myself to remember these occasions.
    Many thanks.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ahh. Renee, the shock of recognition. You are not alone

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have mentioned, from time to time, that I have ADHD. It means, among many things, that I do not have great frontal control that would tell me when to hush, or not to tell (repeat) a story, and such. It has other disadvantages. But, I frequently have the experience of the sort of social shame that you describe. What I work at doing with it is (1) name it for what it is (2) accept myself for who I am – including that sort of tendency (3) give thanks to God for His immeasurable love that overlooks such things.

    Many times, I suspect this sort of occasion is good for me. It’s an opportunity to smile and “bear a little shame.”

  54. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Renee and Father, the telling of the same stories the same way is hard wired into us. In tribal times it was critical to the survival of the faith of the tribe. There are significant parts of Holy Scripture that began that way. Our Divine Liturgy also bears the hallmarks of that process: the passing on of tradition.

    When I was young my great aunt lived with us for a time. She suffered with dementia. I remember going into her room in the morning to here her stories again and again in the same words. One in particuler I still treasure to this day. It was about an old Native American man who carved delicate and beautiful things (I still have a carving of his that my great aunt brought out each time she told the story. It is a bear done with incredible detail. She always used to say: “His hands were as large as hams.”
    We would marvel together at how a man with such large hands could carve so finely and delicately.

  55. Renée Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and Michael. It is always helpful to know that others experience what you experience. One of my questions with this kind of social shame is precisely what is going on to cause the shame. Does it arises from a bruised ego, or is it the result of a feeling of vulnerability , or both, or is it something else entirely? Whatever the case, yes, I can see that it’s always an occasion for prayer and thanksgiving. (Our priest says that in the Middle East when someone asked you how you were, it was the custom to reply, “Thank God,” since whatever the circumstances, they came from God.)
    Thank you again for your time.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a bit of both, I suspect. I describe these episodes as “shame storms.” Even when I’ve done a talk at a conference, for example, it’s almost always followed by a “shame storm” when I get back to my room – even if the talk seemed what I wanted it to be. It is, I think, about the experience of vulnerability. As such, it’s just a feeling to let come and go. It is “ego” inasmuch as we’ve drawn attention to ourselves – and that leaves you feeling exposed (vulnerable). It would, I think, be problematic if we swam in it and found ourselves loving the attention. I would not worry much about the issue of “pride” and “ego.” It’s generally far more subtle.

  57. Renée Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    “Shame storms”–yes, that seems to capture something of the experience.
    Thank you, again.

  58. Dino Avatar

    It is by far the most traditional answer to “how are you doing?” in Greek to respond “glory be to God”.
    I don’t know about any connections of shame to mortality at all but I never forget how many of the Church Fathers have said that the highest “natural virtue” of the highest of all saints (the Mother of God) was quickness of (healthy) shame. It is fascinatingly counterintuitive today but made much sense in times of profound ontologically-moral integrity.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, Renee, I have just the opposite reaction. I have an “ego storm” because I love getting up in front of people. When I was um theater, being on stage was always a rush even in small parts. What does that say about me?

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Not sure what it says…but it would probably take years of therapy to figure it out…:)

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Or years in the Church. God’s mercy covers everything it seems.

  62. Jeremias Avatar

    Thank you Father.

    I am surprised to see little mention of Lewis’s Till We Have Faces in all your writings on Shame. It is a textbook of the toxic and healthy varieties; indeed it is almost a perfect allegory for your perspective—combined with Dr. Patitsas’s writings on the experience of Theophany. Psyche (soul) is wed to Eros, whom she cannot yet see or understand, much like her own beauty (1 John 3:2). The narrator (ugly, hurt, and ultimately envious) must herself, with help of the “divine surgeon,” unveil the Psyche within.

    Dr. Patitsas, I think, has not recently read this story either, and I would gladly pay money to have the two of you discuss the book and its many insights. and make it available via podcast, etc.

    With love.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I confess to having neglected the book. I read it years ago, and was impressed, but I have returned to it. I’ll have to do so in the near future, for sure!

  64. Byron Avatar

    Father, many thanks for so much that you said in your webinar last night! It is a shame (pun somewhat intended…) that it was not recorded. I don’t like taking notes while I’m listening, which, sadly, means I have already forgotten too much of what was said….

  65. Janine Avatar

    Hi Father, I just stopped by also to tell you how much I enjoyed your webinar and how fruitful it was for me. Unfortunately I had to leave before the Q & A, as I lead a Zoom Bible study. But I was able to share some of your insights with my Bible study group. It was excellent, please keep more coming. It really helped clarify some things for me that I had an intuition about. God bless and thanks once more

  66. Janine Avatar

    PS I find that several times those “shame storms” are especially intense when I am taking a step across a spiritual threshold, a leap of faith. (Those healthy shame moments of passage you described in your talk.) For that reason I think they might be correlated with whatever it is that doesn’t want us to get closer to God, even if also possibly linked to experience. After all, “the accuser” is one name we have too.

  67. Janine Avatar

    Okay apologies for many subsequent posts. But I just have to add:

    This is not a declaration that we have no sin, but a proclamation that we are not sin. It is the declaration that we renounce the devil, all his works, and all his pride. It is the declaration that we accept Christ as King and God, together with His original word spoken at our creation: “It is very good.”

    Wow, these are such powerful words! They also make more clear the very sad problems of at least some I know who impose toxic shame; clearly linked to the inability to discern between having sin and being sin. Lord have mercy.

  68. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think, in a week or two (maybe after Pascha), I will post the manuscript of the text I used in the webinar as a blog article – though it’s about twice as long as the usual article.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Predictably, my talk last night was followed by a bit of a “storm” (that’s almost always true for me). It’s the “exposure” of the self that is its source, and I simply treat it as normal now. The QandA, however, was like the “lightning round” on a theological/pastoral game show or some such thing and my mind did not stop running throughout the night. I woke up exhausted. But – that’s just life.

    What was missing for me were faces and voices. I long to be able to go back on the road.

  70. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    Re: Shame storms – C. S. Lewis mentioned something like this, perhaps not shame but loss of confidence. He said he would come away from doing a public lecture with heavy feelings of doubt concerning the truth of the talk he had just given.

  71. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I recently read an account of a public debate on the existence of God that he was in at Oxford (he liked those events), in which he was so devastated by his opponent, that he never did one again. Indeed, he changed his writing. Prior to that, his works like Miracles, the Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity, had been strongly on the side of apologetics – it is Lewis as the logical Christian. After that debate experience, he turned to writing fiction – which – to my mind – is Lewis at his most brilliant and where is heart is most fully exposed.

    Someone did us a great favor!

  72. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Here’s a second request for your transcript, Father. I came in late because of my working schedule. I’d love to hear what I missed from your podcast. It is indeed a pity that they decided not to offer the recording to those who paid to hear it. I suppose they had their reasons.

    But perhaps the transcript will offer even more in-depth reflections.

    Thank you so much for the podcast and for the transcript too when it comes out!

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As I understand, it has something to do with privacy and permissions. I’m not on that end of things. But I will definitely be posting the manuscript – perhaps sooner than I’ve suggested.

  74. Dean Avatar

    I mentioned my sister’s funeral yesterday in a post. After the pastor had spoken, I went to the podium to share some childhood memories of my sister. I had only just begun when I broke down weeping. I had to turn my face away from the full church and even emitted a loud sob at one point. I think this lasted about a minute (felt like an eternity) before I regained my composure and was able to continue. Talk about a shame storm! A soul laid bare before all.
    Yet afterwards many spoke to me very kind words and thanked me for the personal glimpse into my sister’s childhood life, from a younger brother’s perspective. And early this morning Christ gave me His personal consolation in prayer. So, we go on….

  75. Byron Avatar


    Those times are both hard and fulfilling. I only offered a prayer (for the dead) at my brother’s funeral but I paid attention to everything our friends said about him. It was enlightening and beautiful. I still greatly dislike “remembrance services” but I can see they offer a chance to heal together for many in pain.


    I look forward to your manuscript! Thank you for making it available.

  76. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Dean,
    May Our Lord grant you and your wife many years. Your comments are such joy. I have a younger brother, too, and he and I have had a close and loving relationship even while we’ve been apart geographically as adults. He has always had a sensitive personality. When he was young he was bullied by boys who would take advantage of his “Beta-male” behavior. On one occasion while he was bullied I held his hand and ‘stood-up’ to the boys who challenged him, berrating them for their behavior. They were bigger kids but I had no fear and was ready to “tango” as the perverbial silly statement goes. They saw I had no fear and backed off.

    My beloved brother remembered this decades upon decades later. He’s in his sixties and yet my love for my “little” brother still shines in my heart.

    Glory to God for the love He gives us in our hearts.

  77. Dean Avatar

    Dear friends Byron and Dee,
    Thank you for your goodness and kindness to those who have commented here through the years, especially from me!
    Byron, I will pray for your reposed brother. And prayers for your younger brother, Dee, who holds a sweet place in your heart.

  78. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    Yes, the fiction of Lewis stays with one and refreshes the soul. Like his theological works, his stories instruct, but not in the same way. What could give the idea of an unfallen world, beset by an evil agent bent on destroying it, better than scenes from Perelandra?

  79. NSP Avatar

    Before the webinar, I emailed the concerned person at Ancient Faith asking if they would object to me making a private recording for my personal use. She indicated in her response that they did not intend to prevent private recordings, but due to privacy concerns they don’t intend to publish the recorded video. So I made a recording of the webinar. In case anyone is interested, and if Fr. Freeman is okay with it, I guess I could share it privately over email – just a thought.

    @Fr. Freeman,

    I have read in several places that the Lewis/Anscombe debate on the refutation of Naturalism has been very much exaggerated out of proportion with what probably happened in reality.


  80. Ferial Baz Avatar
    Ferial Baz

    Even though I was present throughout the whole webinar as well as the Q & A, still I would be very grateful for the opportunity to listen to it again. It was late at night and I was very sleepy. Thank you for suggesting to send it by email. I would like you to send it to me please

  81. Byron Avatar

    NSP, I would love a copy of the webinar recording you mention. If you send it out, please included me in the recipients: email hidden; JavaScript is required.

  82. Ferial Baz Avatar
    Ferial Baz

    I forgot to include my email address
    email hidden; JavaScript is required

  83. NSP Avatar

    Byron & Ferial Baz,

    Hope you both have received it. If you don’t see it, please check your spam folders in case your email provider has tagged it as such.


  84. Barry Bruce Avatar
    Barry Bruce

    How is the book coming along? Or is it out already?

  85. Byron Avatar

    Father mentioned recently that it should be available in early 2023!

  86. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is finished (for my part) and sitting with the editor at Ancient Faith. God willing, it is due to be released in early ’23.

  87. Barry Bruce Avatar
    Barry Bruce

    Can’t wait!
    Thank you.

  88. LAURIE Avatar

    Hi, Fr. Stephen. Feel free to delete my comment if its too off topic, but I was wondering if you would ever write a column on how to understand the churches stance on sexual ethics in todays world.

    Recently I had a conversation with my husband (not Orthodox) who was concerned that I would use the Bible to judge him. This was based on something someone else (not me) said. The conversation was frustrating for many reasons, but I felt caught between wanting to uphold traditional ethics, which I believe safeguard children and families, I taught at a public school with a lot of absent parents and it clearly affected kids. On the other hand some people seem incapable of fitting into the paradigms set up by traditional teaching, for whatever reason whether it be trauma, sin, addiction, etc. Curious how you understand these things. Thanks,


  89. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll give it some thought. How people think about sexual ethics is, I think, quite complex (not because the questions are really all that complex) in that they exist within a web of culture/personal history/etc. Of course, the world seems to be exploding this week in response to the overturning of Roe v Wade, and the media noise surrounding it (I’m having a hard time lowering the volume in my brain noise). I think shame would be an interesting umbrella for thinking through all of the questions.

  90. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, shame is a necessary component in understanding one’s approach to sexuality, marriage, etc.. There is a deep ontological reality to shame, I think, that influences one’s approach to sex and often creates a poisonous feedback loop around a person’s being that prevents proper self-knowledge and repentance that heals rather than judgement that exacerbates.
    I encourage you to delve into it.

  91. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What is the title of your book? I would like to per-order it at 8th Day Bookstore, the best bookstore in the world thanks to its owner, Warren Farha.

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s sitting in the hands of editors, etc., which means the title is still up-for-grabs. It’s a little like being pregnant (in my imagination)…

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