In John Bradshaw’s powerful book “Healing the Shame that Binds You” he talks about the many manifestations of “toxic shame” (as opposed to healthy shame), how they are generated and how to heal them. One important way in which toxic shame is generated is through cultural systems that require or encourage a striving towards perfection in thoughts, emotions and actions.
Perfectionism denies healthy shame. It does so by assuming we can be perfect. Such an assumption denies our human finitude because it denies the fact that we are essentially limited. (1)
Healthy shame, according to Bradshaw, is a feeling that informs a person of his limits. For example, when a person makes a mistake or engages in a shameful behavior the feeling of shame kicks in and informs the person to go no further. By contrast, toxic shame becomes internalized. Instead of a person being made aware that he has made a mistake and perhaps vowing to to better next time, the toxically-shamed person will feel that he, himself is a mistake and intrinsically flawed. This is an excruciating feeling to experience and one that cannot be easily remedied.
Unfortunately, according to Bradshaw, the modern incarnations of religion have played a role in this dynamic.
Religion has been a major source of shaming through perfectionism. Moral shoulds, outghts and musts have been sanctioned by subjective interpretation of religious revelation. The Bible has been used to justify all sorts of blaming judgment. Religious perfectionism teaches a kind of behavioral righteousness. There is a religious script that contains the standards of holiness and righteous behavior. These standards dictate how to talk (there is a proper God voice), how to dress, walk and behave in almost every situation. Departure from this standard is deemed sinful.
[Moreover, what] a perfectionistic system creates is a “how to get it right” behavioral script. In such a script one is taught how to act loving and righteous. [According to this system it is] actually more important to act loving and righteous than to be loving and righteous. The feeling of righteousness and acting sanctimoniously are wonderful ways to mood-alter toxic shame. They are often ways to … transfer one’s shame to others. (2)
Shame begets more shame because it is an uncomfortable feeling. This often inspires the person feeling the shame to engage in a mood-altering behavior. Consuming alcohol is a prime example of mood-altering behavior but it is not the only one. Interestingly, shaming another person (i.e., causing them to feel shame) has mood altering effects as well. For this reason, many toxically shamed people will feel compelled to shame other people in order to temporarily relieve their own feelings of shame. This has the effect, however, of begetting more shame in both parties.
In this way, when a person claims to “strive for perfection” ostensibly based on religious grounds he is very likely motivated by shame. When this claim is also associated with behavior or rhetoric designed to shame others, this motivation is only confirmed. This is not to say that people should not strive to be the best people they can be, however, this striving is called into question when it involves internalized shame and the shaming of others for mood-altering purposes. It is called into question because at its heart it is really an attempt to obscure the truth disguised as an attempt to improve the self morally or in some other positive way.
(1) Bradshaw, Michael. Healing the Shame that Binds You. Health Communications, Inc. 2005. p. 88.
(2) Ibid. p. 94.