"Empathy is the antidote to shame."

“Empathy is the antidote to shame.”  Brené Brown, in her TED talk (now viewed by millions) and in her various New York Times Bestselling books, is famous for saying this.  She is a shame researcher, someone who has talked to literally thousands of people about shame, and is the foremost expert on how to combat shame.

Shame, says Brown, is different from guilt.  Guilt is, “I did something bad,” whereas shame is, “I am bad.”  Shame involves statements about who we are, which cut to the core of our very identity… “I am an idiot,” “I am stupid,” “I am unworthy,” “I am unloveable.”

In my work as a therapist, the common denominator in 99.9% of my clinical cases is shame.  Everyone feels shame.  And at one point or another, everyone has been shamed by someone, or by society, or by an institution, or by all of the above.  It is my job, as their therapist, to be an agent for change and help them lift themselves out of the darkness, isolation, and loneliness that is their shame.

Empathy (which is different from sympathy) involves picturing what their experience must be like, putting myself in their shoes, genuinely giving them the benefit of the doubt, and imagining what they are feeling.  By doing this, I am able to suspend judgment, to be sensitive to their feelings, to truly understand their experience, and to speak from a place of compassion and genuine love.  As a result, they feel heard, they feel understood, they feel that they are not alone, they feel that they are worthy of love, and their shame fades.

There has been a raging debate recently in the Orthosphere about homosexuality and gender variance, prompted by recent world events.  Everyone in the Orthosphere has an opinion on one or the other side of the debate.  I’m not here to argue about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality or gender. I’m here for one reason – to encourage empathy as the antidote to shame in the debate.

Debaters often forget that this is not idle discussion about an abstract theological concept.  What is being discussed has real, profound effects on the lives of thousands, if not millions of people.  What is put out on the internet is there for the world to see, and some of the people reading are the ones whose lives are actually impacted by this debate, because they themselves are LGBT or express their gender in a way that is variant.  And while both positions can be expressed with love and humility, it seems that the loudest recent messages on BOTH sides have been ones which shame LGBT people, or shame the debaters themselves.

As an example, in Fr. Lawrence Farley’s recent article, “Another Jesus,” featured recently on OCN’s The Sounding blog, it is stated that anyone who believes “Jesus blessed homosexuality,” as he words it, is preaching another Christ, and forfeits his or her right to be called a Christian.  He also asserts that the Orthodox Church should cease ecumenical dialogue with any Church which blesses gay marriage, as they are, in his opinion, not really Christian either.

Leave aside theology (or lack thereof) for the moment, the message in the article – that essentially anyone who advocates for LGBT populations and their place in the Church sacramentally and spiritually is unChristian – is shaming.  This message can result in driving LGBT people and their advocates into fear, isolation, alienation, silence, and disconnection.  It is a direct attack on the person, a judgment of their heart and intention, and expresses the sentiment that they are foreign and unwelcome.

Just as intolerant are the messages in the comments that follow the article which state that those who believe more conservatively are “bigots,” “haters,” or any other manner of names. Those messages are equally intended to shame people and result in feelings that one’s religious expression is being attacked.  Likewise the comments which condemn LGBT people and their advocates.

Notice that in each of these examples, I am not talking about the theology of the messages.  I am not arguing the Church’s teachings.  I am talking about the subtle (or not so subtle) messages that are expressed as a result of the authors’ choice of words.  And while we may think that these messages have no effect, studies have shown the accumulation of such messages leads to anxiety, depression, addictions, eating disorders, and all manner of other mental health problems.  The LGBT population is vulnerable to high levels of shame and suicide, some would say because of the accumulation of such shaming messages.  All it takes is one article, one comment, one message of shame to push someone who is already vulnerable out of the Church, or worse yet, to take his or her own life.  I don’t think that’s what anyone wants.

A theology of shame – whether shaming LGBT people and their advocates or those who take the conservative perspective – is NOT an Orthodox theology at all.  As Orthodox Christians, we have a responsibility to express our positions with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (no matter what position we take).  And, I daresay, we should not express our positions until we have exercised some empathy for our fellow Christians, and in this case for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

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Presvytera Marilisse Mars

Presbytera Marilisse Mars lives in Atlanta, GA. She graduated valedictorian from Hellenic College in Brookline, MA with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and earned a Master’s of Science with honors in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Mercer University and, while in residence there, she completed her practicum and internship at Peachford Behavioral Health Systems in Atlanta, Georgia. I am a Nationally Certified Counselor (learn more about nationally certified counselors at at www.nbcc.org) and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Georgia. She is a member of the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Psychotherapists, and the South Eastern Brainspotting Institute. She currently is an Intimacy and Sexuality Counselor practicing at Petrichor Counseling, LLC in Duluth, GA (www.petrichorcounseling.com/about-Mari). She specializes in intimacy issues with individuals and couples, infertility, LGBT issues, sexual trauma and abuse recovery, and sexual issues in disability.


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