Book Review: The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves by Curt Thompson, M.D.

This is a book review of The Soul of Shame, a book by Curt Thompson M.D., released through IVP Books in 2015.
This is a book review of The Soul of Shame, a book by Curt Thompson M.D., released through IVP Books in 2015. As a read, The Soul of Shame, looks at how we retell the stories that we tell to and about ourselves. Specifically, this captivating book looks at the intricate relationship between shame and our ability to flourish as an individual.

Author Dr. Curt Thompson is a board-certified psychiatrist, a graduate of Wright State University, and is previously known for his book Anatomy of the Soul.[1] Thompson is based out of Arlington (Virginia), where he serves as the founder of the Center for Being Known, an organization that develops resources and educational opportunities for leaders on the intersection of spiritual formation and interpersonal neurobiology.[2] This book on The Soul of Shame, comes with excellent reviews from the likes of Jeffrey M. Schwartz (Author of You Are Not Your Brain), Walter Brueggemann (Columbia Theological Seminary), Dan B. Allender (The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology) and many others.[3]

The book, The Soul of Shame, is a captivating and insightful read that journeys through the story and narrative that shame tries to tell us, and then through the problems we face with shame, before exploring scientifically how shame targets the brain. From there, Thompson explores the intersection of joy and shame in the brain, the story of shame that we often chose to live, and then the way shame shows up throughout the biblical narrative. In the climax of his book, he explores the remedy for shame, and the need for vulnerability in a safe and healing community. In closing, he addresses what it means to work towards healing any sense of shame in our communal contexts and our vocational lives. Each of the nine chapters reveals the intricate relationship between emotions and the mind. Readers will find how inevitably shame is a key driver behind many of our tensions with addiction, anxiety, depression, and relationships; and we find an official examination on how our brain processes shame and is ultimately works consistently in response to experienced and perceived shame and abandonment in our lives.

Thompson uniquely shows how shame creates a false narrative, that we believe, about ourselves and our relationships. This includes our relationship with ourselves, our friends, our teachers, and even with God. That false narrative is not based in reality and ends up making us believe that we are not good enough. We also see how shame becomes a vicious cycle – the more you believe in lies about your story and yourself, the more your brain reinforces them and your shame.

Though we often think we can read a book and adjust our behavior, Thompson upholds that “shame is not something we “fix” in the privacy of our mental processes; evil would love for us to believe that to be so. Shame “is a shared process whose mission is to disrupt connection between people.”[4] From a spiritual paradigm, it is an “interpersonal neurobiological instrument that is intentionally and skillfully used to distract and disrupt the story God is telling.”[5] We don’t’ fix it, we combat it within the context of conversation, prayer and other communal, embodied actions.”[6] In fact try to control it or trying to tell “ourselves we shouldn’t be ashamed often only reinforces it.”[7]

Through this book, you clearly will see that “when we experience shame, we tend to turn away from others because the prospect of being seen or known by another carries the anticipation of shame being intensified or reactivated. However, the very act of turning away, while temporarily protecting and relieving us from our feeling (and the gaze of the “other”), ironically simultaneously reinforces the very shame we are attempting to avoid.”[8] Thompson calls us to be more alert to what is going on inside us, how many times shame manifests in our life, and take inventory of our thoughts and actions in moments of shame. He suggests that “if we are not attending to what we are feeling, it will be easy for it to have its way with us without our even knowing it.”[9] Though shame drives us into isolation, we first must accept that “to be okay as a human is first and foremost about being connected to God and others.”[10]

As we isolate and hide, we realize that “so much of what we do in life is designed, among other things, to protect us from the fact that we are vulnerable at all times. To be human is to be vulnerable.”[11] In combating our struggles with shame, “the question, then, is not if we are or will be vulnerable rather how and when we enter it consciously and intentionally for the sake of creating a world of goodness and beauty.”[12] Thompson argues that “because shame is an embodied affect, we need more than facts in order to undermine it,”[13] rather we need to reshape and learn to retell the stories that we believe about ourselves and we also need communities around us that are safe and healing places to help us begin and maintain the journey.

If you work in a communal or residential setting, or you have embedded shame from your upbringing and are now parenting, or you love learning the way the brain works - I highly recommend The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson, M.D. This book is a thorough, but practical guide to understanding the places, threats and effects of shame, and the book clearly outlines the way to begin a journey of overcoming shame in your life and/or communal contexts. The book is a must-read for anyone looking to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of shame and the way it can entangle our minds and emotions.

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[1] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), Back Flap.

[2] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), Back Flap.

[3] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), Front Flap and Back Cover.

[4] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 89.

[5] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 80.

[6] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 18.

[7] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 28.

[8] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 31.

[9] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 50.

[10] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 102.

[11] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 120.

[12] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 120.

[13] Curt Thompson, M.D., The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2015), 147.


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