Share Your Shame Stories – Just Not With Everyone

I’m not telling any secrets when I say that my mom can’t keep any secrets.  One our favorite family stories is about the time that she had a somewhat embarrassing medical issue, and upon its discovery she told us, “I really don’t want to tell Jane [her best friend]. That’s going to be so embarrassing.”  My sisters and I laughed and made the unheard of suggestion that perhaps she didn’t need to tell Jane at all – if she didn’t want to.  She laughed too, recognizing just how impossible it is for her not to share.  And I’m confident that within a few hours, she had called her and told her all about it.

My mother’s struggle to acquire a social filter has become endearing over time, but it has left me with some particular challenges as an adult, especially an adult in ministry.  What is appropriate to share, when, and with whom? These were not skills we practiced much in my growing up life.  But they are critical lessons, and I have worked hard as an adult to try to learn them – sometimes through the best but most painful ways – by sharing with all the wrong people, at the wrong times, in the wrong ways.

In this video, Brene Brown is talking about a really specific kind of figuring out who to share with.  The sharing of what she calls “shame stories.”  Those stories where you are beating yourself up and digging yourself into a hole – those stories that most of us most often will put up a big defensive wall around.  Because they are embarrassing and painful and we don’t want anyone to know about them ever.  They are the things that are hard to say out loud at all, let alone to someone else.  We all have these things – even my mom.

Growing up catholic, I was taught that these are the sorts of things you might confess – in private – to your priest.  I still remember an evangelical friend who told me how ridiculous and unnecessary the practice was – because our sins are between us and God.  Period.

And yet I didn’t know any grown up – or kid – who actually shared their deepest sources of shame with their priest.  Why would you tell your priest? What would he think about you then? No, to the priest I told stuff I figured were kind of standard.  “I got mad at my sister.” “I didn’t want to play with my friend so I told her I was busy.”  As far as I could tell, even the priests were not worthy of holding your shame.

By the time I was a teenager, we had moved to a mostly communal practice of confession – not one-on-one.  Priests presided over a communal ritual of confession and absolution.  No speaking aloud required.

As an adult, and as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I’ve spent a lot of times wondering about the role of confession – in speaking aloud those things that feel unspeakable – in our collective emotional and spiritual health.  We don’t have an official ritual or practice.  Do people share these things with their ministers? Sometimes.  Rarely.  Not officially for sure.  Could small groups be a place that becomes safe for some of this? Or will it be in the dyads that form after a small group concludes? How could we help these conversations occur safely – within or beyond the congregation? How could we help people be more capable of being the kind of friend that can receive and help transform these shame stories?

Because even though I have learned over time just how critical “the right time and place and person” is to sharing your authentic truth and boldest vulnerabilities, sharing them at all – and then being received with love and continuity – to be drawn in closer as I described in my 12/29 sermon/post – is critical to transformation, wholeness and a life of courageous love – to what I would call salvation in this life.


About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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