Dr. Curt Thompson: Lighting up the Mind – Overcoming the brain’s dimmer switch (shame)

In this episode...

Shame is like a 1950’s air conditioner that costs a fortune to operate electrically in the brain. My tangle with depression is teaching me to pay attention to all the “appliances” that drain energy from the soul, including my long-avoidance of a part of me that used to talk to Jesus every day.

In this episode I talk with Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist and the author of The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves about the neurobiology of shame.

Thompson's writing is unapologetically Christian, infused with solid fundamentals about interpersonal neurobiology.

Dr. Thompson is an expert in interpersonal neurobiology and seasons his knowledge of this budding scientific field with outright come-to-Jesus language that a devout Christian would appreciate.

As much as I would have liked to edit out my relationship to Christianity and its formative role in how I learned to feel shame for being human, it was Curt’s friendship and love for me, and for his readers, that moved me past my fears to once again feel pride for my native faith as a young boy.

This episode is about unashamedly exploring all sources of energy in your life, improvising with that energy, and keeping a beginner’s mind toward all parts of your life.

Fundamentally provoked

I challenged Curt to consider how yielding to a rigid, literalist interpretation of a spiritual text like the bible could be neurologically restrictive – like the shame he eloquently teaches about. In other words, if you’re writing a book about shame, why not start with how fundamentalist theology is one of the many sources of toxic shame in our culture that arguably contributes to keeping clinics like his and mine busy?

But truth be told, Curt is a friend of mine and and I deeply respect his conviction and passion for shining light into corners of this world that need love. I spoke to Curt because his writing touched a part of my soul that, in a certain way, needed this kind of provocation. I needed to remember how I used to have a kind of theology that would lead to taking on cosmic levels of responsibility for ordering the chaos of the universe.

Says Thompson in The Soul of Shame, “Shame…is not simply an unfortunate, random, emotional event that came with us out of the primordial evolutionary soup. It is both a source and result of evil’s active assault on God’s creation, and a way for evil to try to hold out until the new heaven and earth appear at the consummation of history.” 

I’m not afraid to say that evil is a real thing. But I differ from my friend about evil being the result of supernatural forces lurking in the shadows.

Shame shatters the mind

More importantly, we both agree that shame shatters the mind. And we know from countless hours spent administering shame’s antidote that shame evaporates in the presence of acceptance, belonging and love.

When we are disconnected from ourselves…those parts of the brain—those parts of my mind that are disconnected from one another—I have to actually burn more energy to manage that.

Welcoming all parts of you

The secret to dealing with shame effectively is knowing that shame is a biological process that belongs to you, but this is by definition, impossible to do by yourself. We need to witness others like us in the shit with us. That’s probably why I reached out to Curt because he’s very open about his awareness of shame’s influence in his story.

When we tell our story to others and they are able to join us and reassure us – tell us that we belong, we’re not crazy, we make sense – the physical pain of shame can subside. 

This poem by Rumi is a wonderful way to visualize how to work with shame.

A guest house

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Dr. Curt Thompson practices psychiatry in Falls Church, Virginia.
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Episode 11

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