Mormons and Shame: When You Feel You Don’t Measure Up to the Ideal
In the LDS Church, we have high expectations and high ideals. Leaders do not shy away from teaching a very specific ideal family constellation, sexual purity before marriage, and patterning our life after the Savior’s life in every possible way. There is nothing wrong with teaching ideals and one could argue that that is the primary job of religious institutions. However, in real life, holding up ideals often leaves members never feeling “good enough” because they have not achieved the ideal righteous Mormon life. Chronic feelings of “never good enough” because your life doesn’t look like an Ensign magazine cover, your child has left the Church, your spouse isn’t committed to church callings, you’re struggling with the word of wisdom, you’re having difficulty forgiving someone, you’re not a good provider, or you’re not an attentive mother or father, can erode our whole sense of self.
What is shame?
Shame is a universal emotion defined by researcher Brené Brown, PhD as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame inspires us to hide ourselves from others, to judge ourselves and to go deeper into secretive behaviors.
Religious institutions are not the only place we get messages about ideals. We are bombarded with messages about how we “should” be–what ideal women and men look like and act like, what the ideal house and household looks like, how your children should behave and more. Not living up to our ideal identity or how we want to view ourselves and be viewed by others has been identified as the primary trigger for shame.
One of my ideal identities is the desire to be viewed as a “good mother.” If I am not behaving as a “good mother” – if I’m being preoccupied with work, forgetting their doctor appointment, or losing my patience– my ideal identity is challenged and I am susceptible to feelings of shame. Shame can be triggered not only by how we view ourselves, but also by how we think others view us.
What’s wrong with shame?
You may be thinking, “What’s the problem with feeling shame when you don’t measure up to your ideal? Doesn’t that make you want to change?” No, shame does not inspire self-improvement. It most often initiates and fuels self-destructive behavior. Chronic feelings of shame are present in toxic perfectionism, eating disorders, problematic sexual behaviors, substance abuse, and sexual abuse. Over time, shame can become integrated into our self-image, into our core experience of who we are (not what we have done).
Where shame gets particularly tricky for Mormons is that while we can discount the world’s messages about our ideal selves as shallow, uninspired and sometimes downright evil, faithful members can’t easily discount the ideals put forward by inspired Church leaders. Nor should we. How do we accept the ideals set forth by our Church leaders without spiraling into self-destructive shame because we don’t measure up?
1. Draw clear distinctions between ideal and real
I am not suggesting that we throw away the ideals presented by our doctrine and teachings. What I am suggesting is that we overtly discuss that the image of an ideal family, ideal mother, ideal priesthood holder, ideal child or teen as something to strive for, not to actually achieve anytime soon. I have seen the damaging consequences of believing that the religious ideal is actually attainable in this life contribute to destructive perfectionism, depression, anxiety, low self-worth, and shame. Dr. Brené Brown suggests that “healthy striving” toward a goal is very different than toxic perfectionism.
As an adolescent, I recognized my blessed and privileged life and yet, for a period of time, I still wasn’t happy. I concluded that something must be inherently wrong with me. I started to experience deep feelings of shame–that I was somehow flawed because I went through periods where I wasn’t able to feel joy and gratitude. I have the Gospel. I should be happy. I slid into several years of toxic perfectionism, denying my emotions, and hiding my authentic self.
2. Understand the difference between shame and guilt
Shame is different from guilt. “I did something bad” is the underlying experience of guilt, whereas, “I am bad” is the core of shame. Guilt is akin to godly sorrow, as the apostle Paul called it, pricks our conscience in a way that helps us turn away from unproductive behavior or sin. Unfortunately, in LDS culture, the differences between guilt and shame are rarely talked about. It is not uncommon for shame tactics to be unknowingly used by parents or leaders to bring about compliance or change.
In my clinical practice, I have never worked with a Mormon who sought help for issues related to sexuality that wasn’t swimming in a swamp of shame. I wonder if our tendency to focus on sexual issues (modesty, chastity, porn warnings) actually compounds feelings of shame and fuels the continuation of prohibited behavior. Shame (I am bad, I am flawed, I am unworthy of love) continues to feed the cycle of sexual acting out, whereas, guilt (I am good, I am making harmful or hurtful choices) separates the person from the behavior allowing more freedom to choose different behavior.
3. Develop and practice shame resilience
Brené Brown’s model of shame resilience offers four steps to that can help us manage shame in a healthier way. The first step is to recognize when we are feeling shame and understand its triggers. This includes identifying our physiological signs of shame and identifying and understanding our ideal identities. The second step is to practice critical awareness, or normalizing our shame, by knowing that everyone experiences shame. Step three is to reach out to trusted relationships for support, instead of hiding your experience. And the fourth step is to tell our stories of shame to someone who will respond compassionately and with empathy. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our ward communities could be a place where we could safely share the experiences the have caused us shame? Think of the healing that could occur within our own hearts and between each other!
4. Be an empathetic voice
Dr. Brené Brown’s research suggests that shame needs three things to grow and fester: secrecy, silence, and judgment. What is the antidote to shame? Empathy. Since all of us experience feelings of shame we also need someone who will listen to our stories and respond with understanding, compassion, and empathy. Many times our knee-jerk response to hearing someone else’s shame or other painful emotions is to try and cheer them up, offering “look on the bright side” advice. While this approach comes from good intentions, it is not helpful in healing shame, it often feels dismissive, and it doesn’t feel like empathy.
The four core aspects of empathy identified by Theresa Wiseman clarify what empathy is and how we can practice it in our relationships: 1) to be able to see the world as others see it, 2) to be nonjudgmental, 3) to understand another person’s feelings, 4) to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings. Empathy is not about cheering someone up or telling them how great they are. Empathy is about cognitively understanding and emotionally feeling with another person, and about communicating your empathy in a way that allows them to feel felt, to feel known, to feel connected.
Lacking emotional awareness, passing on the “sins of the fathers,” or misinterpreting doctrine can fuel feelings of shame in families and communities. As a therapist working with LDS clientele for over twenty years, and as a lifelong member of the Church, I have seen the adverse result of unacknowledged shame. It is time to recognize shame in ourselves and others, to differentiate shame from guilt, to openly acknowledge that the ideals put forth by the Church are goals to aim for, but are rarely attainable, and to include listening to others’ shame in our promise to “comfort those who stand in need of comfort.”
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to KSL TV's Studio 5, and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Facebook & Twitter. Her book The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide for Women are available now.