Hiding Our Faces


We might think that people who have lost their jobs or who have completed their formal education but have so far been unable to get jobs would seek understanding, support, and encouragement from their faith communities. We might think so, but much of the time we would be wrong.

Psychiatrist, professor, and theorist Donald L. Nathanson has provided us with “the compass of shame” which indicates the four natural but non-restorative responses to high intensities of the shame-humiliation affect: withdrawal, attack-self, avoidance, and attack-other. The first response to shame is to hide one’s face or wish to. People caught in sustained shame affect do not seek to be understood, supported, and encouraged; they seek to be rendered invisible and left alone. So, they stop attending worship services for the same kind of reasons they stay away from class reunions: they do not want to have to explain their situations or answer questions about their job searches. In our current recession, few people who have lost their jobs or have been unable so far to secure first jobs will wish to give weekly non-progress reports to even the most well-meaning and truly caring inquirers.

Shame does not make us want to be seen and understood. It does not welcome sympathy or encouragement. It wants to be hidden from sight.

When people are feeling pitiful, they interpret concern as pity and inquiry as judgment. The reason they do so is not a misunderstanding of the friendship and good intentions of others but, rather, the literal, physical re-triggering of the shame affect within their systems. The well-meaning question of how their job searches are going makes them feel the shame again, admittedly with less intensity than at the time they were being laid off from their jobs, but the feeling is the same. If we use physical pain as something of an analogy to shame, well-meaning questions probe the wound and reopen it, making it bleed a little.

So, how many times on a Sunday morning do I want my wound reopened? The obvious answer is none. But I may very well need to be with a community of people who are glad to see me and be in my presence, and I may want to turn to God in their company. There’s no need to ask about my job search; believe me, if I have gotten a new job, especially a good one in my field, I’ll tell you. In the meantime, I need to experience the truth I’m finding it hard to believe: that I am a valid, worthwhile person and friend rather than an unfortunate case. Yes, I know that in this recession, it’s not my fault (although I may still be tormenting myself with hindsight questions of “what if?” and speculations of “if only”), but feeling shame is not contingent upon deserving it. I do know it’s not my fault, but being asked about “it” triggers the affect again.

Friends and faith communities can welcome without probing the wound. They can provide a context of acceptance that says without stating it, You’re still you, the person we’re happy to see, the person we respect and need in our company. Instead of, “Are you getting any closer to finding a job?” maybe the question can be, “Hey, what do you think about this new project we’re undertaking?” Or something like, “Can you give me a hand moving these tables?” Or even, “How about those Phillies?”