Episode 30 – Create Compassionate Spaces with Curt Thompson

What does it really mean to know someone – and to allow yourself to be known? What it root of shame and how do we reframe that story to experience compassion? Those questions, what on earth neuroplasticity is, and much more this week as Jessica chats with her friend, mentor, and special guest, Curt Thompson. Curt is a best-selling author and the founder of Being Known, an organization that seeks to help people explore the integral relationship between deep, meaningful connections and the development of healthier minds, healthier communities and ultimately, a healthier world. Also, this week continues a special series of shows where Jessica takes us through the themes of her brand new book, Imperfect Courage.


Jessica: Hey, there. It’s Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand, Noonday Collection. And this is the Going Scared podcast, where we cover all things impact, entrepreneurship, and courage. Before we dive in, I wanted to let you know that I recorded the audio version of my new book, Imperfect Courage. You heard that right. So head on over to Audible, you probably have a free credit that you didn’t even know about, and let me know how well I managed to both talk and cry at the same time.

Also, my dear, wonderful, little, Going Scared podcast listeners, somehow, none of you let me know that I don’t pronounce the plural of women correctly. But guys, I think I’ve been fixed because I had to record an entire audio version of my book all about female empowerment where the voice director had to have me repeat, "Jessica, it’s not wuh-men, it’s weh-men." Go let me know if I am cured.

OK. On to today’s episode. We are not messing around. This is a conversation with psychiatrist, author, teacher and a mentor of mine, Dr. Curt Thompson. His books, Anatomy of the Soul, and The Soul of Shame have literally shaped me over the last few years. I got to know him at a leadership retreat I attended a couple of years back. I actually write about that story in my book. More recently, I flew him down to lead a small leadership retreat of about eight other women here in Texas a few months ago. And if you are popping in for the first time, I just wanted to let you know, we’re in the middle of a podcast series that’s walking us through my book, Imperfect Courage. So if you don’t have it yet, go grab it, you’re gonna get a lot more out of this podcast series.

Today, we are talking through Chapter Six, which is called “Create Compassionate Spaces.” Curt founded a counseling center called the Center of Being Known. That’s right. So, I couldn’t think of another person that I would rather have on the show to teach us how to create compassionate spaces where we both feel known and where we can help others to feel known. Give it a listen.

So, this week, Curt, we are talking about, really, we’re talking about compassion. And in my book, Chapter Six, it’s titled "Create Compassionate Spaces." And this whole second part of the book, really, we cover neuroplasticity of the brain, and we talk about vulnerability and connection, and you’re a psychiatrist and I think that neuroplasticity of the brain sounds kinda crazy, you know, kinda makes you kinda check out when you hear big words like that. But it’s a concept that I really learned as we were in the adoption process. So will you just breakdown for the lay person, the listener, what is neuroplasticity of the brain and why should this matter to us?


Neuroplasticity—Literally Changing Our Minds  

Dr. Thompson: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s funny. When I was in medical school, now about 30, 35 years ago, you know, we learned about neuroplasticity, but even then we learned about its limits. And what we mean by neuroplasticity, we really are fundamentally talking about the capacity of brain cells—neurons—the capacity of those neurons to either repair or to grow both in size and/or in connection with other neurons, or even for new neurons to be generated in the brain. And for a long time, the medical scientific community, believed—and rightly so, I think—that neurons really had a very limited capacity to regenerate, to grow new neurons, to connect after they’ve been damaged, and so forth.

And so when I was in medical school, if you had a stroke, you know, a stroke that damaged large sections of neurons in the brain, it wasn’t very hopeful because we didn’t really think there was much that could be done recover, certainly not to recover from those neurons that have been killed, or that we could do much with the neurons that remained to help them maybe even compensate for those neurons that have be killed. As opposed to for instance, skin cells, right? We have skin cells that we slough off all the time. You cut your skin, and it repairs itself really quite easily. There are a range of different other kinds of cells in the body that can regenerate when they’ve been damaged. But neurons, we didn’t think so much.

In the last 15 years, there’s been new research that has really opened our eyes to the fact that brain cells—actually neurons, not just in the brain but in the spinal cord, in our extended neural networks like out into the tips of our fingers—have the capacity to do three things. A, the brain has the capacity to grow new neurons where before we didn’t think it could, and particularly in the parts of the brain that are responsible for kind of compartmentalizing and capturing and containing new memories, turning them into older memories. So, they can generate new neurons, number one. Number two, neurons can grow in size. And that’s important because the larger the neuron becomes, the more efficiently it works, the more flexibly it works. And third, neurons can actually grow in connection with other neurons, which means that we can have parts of the brain—that weren’t connected to other parts of the brain—that we can train to be in greater levels of connection. And you might say, "What might that look like?" Well, we might say, for instance, the parts of our brain that are responsible, for instance, for what we feel, like emotional states, are different neural networks, different parts of the brain, than that are responsible for, for instance, what we think, logical linear thought processes.

And some of our listeners, you know, know what it’s like, for instance, to grow up in a house where emotion is never talked about. You know, we might feel things but we never put it to words and so we don’t have tools where by which we can regulate those emotions. Or perhaps, for instance, we grew up in a house where emotion was all over the place, right? So, people could get angry and throw chairs or people around the kitchen, but no one ever connected that to language. So, for instance, if you can’t connect words or language, and the neurons that represent that, with feelings, especially intense ones, we have a hard time regulating that, which can, that dis-regulation, that disconnection within the brain which is mirrored in our disconnection relationally between us and other people, makes it such that we can become more vulnerable for anxiety disorders, for depression disorders, for panic disorders, those kinds of states, our facility, that disintegration, that disconnected state often are what take place when we experience trauma of emotional and physical and sexual trauma of a range of different kinds.

And so, the notion of neuroplasticity—the notion that we can reconnect, that neurons can be connected to one another in ways that we didn’t think they ever could be before—leads to the reality that our minds can change. And when we talk about our minds changing, we’re also talking about our brains changing as well. And so, for our listeners who are people of faith, when we hear St. Paul writing in the book of Romans, where he says, "Therefore, don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind," he, though he wasn’t a neuroscientist, you know, if he were alive today. I’m sure that Paul would say, "Well, of course, we’re talking about the renewal of your actual brain, not just some imaginary thing that we call your mind that you just think with." And so neuroplasticity is really a hopeful sign, I think, that God has offered to us with this new research that is emerging over the last couple of decades that is very hopeful about the possibility of change because of how we can both grow and be more connected.

“The notion of neuroplasticity—the notion that we can reconnect, that neurons can be connected to one another in ways that we didn’t think they ever could be before—leads to the reality that our minds can change.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: And so the way you described the brain, it’s almost—it’s like it’s got the emotional part and then it’s got the memory part, all these different pieces. And is that, the integration of all of those is what you would say leads to us—it leads us down a path of healing and wholeness when we can begin to unpackage and integrate? I love what you say in Anatomy of the Soul where you say, "Even though you cannot change the events of your story, you can change the way in which you experience your story."

Dr. Thompson: That’s right.


Healing Our Minds from the Inside Out

Jessica: Could you walk us through a little bit of that integration process? Because to me, how you described that is so hopeful. I mean, it’s so hopeful. And that’s why when we were in the adoption process and we’re thinking, "OK, we’re gonna adopt a kid who’s most definitely come from grief and trauma," we didn’t know at what level, but it gave us so much hope because we thought “what we have learned, we can unlearn.”

Dr. Thompson: Exactly. Well, let me just give you an example. An example of a patient that I have seen where when I first met them, you know, I asked them about their, you know, a standard kind of evaluation that a psychiatrist will give to a patient, will ask questions about their home life, background, and, "What was it like growing up in your home?" And he described his home as one in which he had two really loving parents. And, of course, you know, we can say that and we can mean a hundred different things with, you know, when we use those words. So, I asked him further, "So who was in charge of discipline in your house?" Well, as it turns out, as he further unpacked that, it turns out that he grew up in a house where his father was extraordinarily angry. And so his mother was in charge of discipline but primarily because his father could at times become quite brutal.

Now, you know, here’s the question. How is it that when I ask, "Tell me about what it was like growing up in your house," he says, "I grew up with two very loving parents." But then when he further unpacks it as it turns out he didn’t have two very loving parents. And what this means is that he tells himself a particular story and he tells me that story, that he has two loving parents and his life was fine, but the reason he’s in my office is because he’s quite anxious and his anxiety is spilling over into his marriage, and into his parenting, and so forth and so on, into his business work. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that he has, though his story was one way in which he grew up in a home where there was a great deal of emotional turmoil, in order to cope with that, he’s told himself a very different story.

And so it also is an example of how the sadness, and the grief, and the anger that he experienced as a kid, in order for him to cope and live in his life, he’s had to find a way to put that aside, he’s had to find a way to compartmentalize that, to not pay attention to that because he had no place to go with that. Well, that doesn’t mean that the brain isn’t gonna be working, burning energy, trying to keep all that emotional energy locked up in some place, which we all do all the time. When he came to see me, his story began to change because he began to access those emotional states that he felt in his early childhood and in his teenage years that he has not allowed himself to touch in 20 years, but that has been waiting for him represented by those neural networks that represent all of that emotional state.


Interpersonal Neurobiology—Speaking Our Truth Out Loud

Now, the beauty of all this, of course, our listeners might think, "Oh my goodness, like, I don’t wanna go back and find that old ugly stuff. You know, that would be unpleasant." Of course it is. We would say it’s like lancing a wound. You know, we don’t like to look at the abscess, but it is in looking at the abscess, and again, looking at the abscess together with someone else. You’re not looking at that by yourself. My patient was not doing this work by himself. He was having an experience in which it happened to be me but it could have been any other friend, clinician, psychiatrist, therapist who when he told his story, he could see that I was with him in that process, and his mind was not alone in that.

And in that process of not being alone, while you retell your old story, that old story is now being told in a context in which you’re allowed to feel felt, in which someone else is being compassionate with you when as a 6- and a 16-year-old, nobody was being compassionate with you for having to live in a battle zone, and that very act of feeling someone else’s empathy and compassion for you as you relive that memory necessarily changes the very memory itself because it’s changing the neural input in your brain because now, where all I have in my brain is a memory of a brutal dad, now, I have in my brain an awareness that my dad was brutal but someone else is coming to my rescue in this very moment. That is where neuroplasticity makes it possible, not only for our brains to be changed but our minds to be healed.

“And in that process of not being alone, while you retell your old story, that old story is now being told in a context in which you’re allowed to feel felt, in which someone else is being compassionate with you.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: It is so powerful. And this is the point that I just want to drive home for our listeners today. I think sometimes we can hear about neuroplasticity and rewiring our brain. And we think that somehow, we can do that alone because we are so afraid to speak our truths out loud, to speak the thing out loud that we’ve never said and yet, your work is really about this idea of speaking our truth out loud. And I think you would call this interpersonal neurobiology.

Dr. Thompson: Right. I think you know, the very notion of this field of, as you rightly say, interpersonal neurobiology, that phrase, those two words interpersonal neurobiology, really refers to the research study that looks at the mind, its nature, but not just what it means from the standpoint of the brain, from the standpoint of the individual, but the fact that our minds are never isolated things that exists only within the context of our brain or just our bodies. Our minds are deeply shaped by and influenced by our interpersonal interactions. And our interpersonal interactions shape our brain in the same way that our brains then once shaped, then circle back to shape and influence our relationships.

“Our minds are never isolated things that exists only within the context of our brain or just our bodies. Our minds are deeply shaped by and influenced by our interpersonal interactions.” Dr. Curt Thompson


Learning to Speak Our Truths “Truly”

I do wanna point out that, you know, at one level, it’s fair to say that speaking our truth is important. But just as important is not just that we speak it, but that it is heard in proper context because we live in a culture where, you know, culturally, historically, we’re like at the very end of the whip of modernity, right? This kind of cultural phenomenon that began, you know, some would say somewhere between 200 and 400 years ago, this notion that “life is really all about me and what I think, me, the individual,” and that “I’m gonna speak my truth, and that my truth is ultimately the only truth, and nobody else can determine that for me or decide that for me. Certainly, nobody can tell me what to do.”

The problem with that is that brains don’t work very well under those conditions. Merely speaking my truth in and of itself isn’t enough. Because what if my truth is, "I think you’re a jerk," right? What if my truth is, "I hate you?" What if my truth is, and then I spill at all kinds of things that I think my truth is at the moment. So, part of, you know, the "truth" can be lots of different things, but what we’re really talking about is what does it mean to, I would say, not speak the truth as my friend, Jeff Dudiak, who’s a philosopher in Canada would say. He said, "Truth, certainly it does mean those things that we believe to be absolutely true, three times two is six, there is a thing called gravity," so forth and so on, these facts. He would say, "Truth is much more helpfully understood as an adverb," meaning, not just “am I speaking the truth, my truth, but am I speaking truly?”

And to speak truly means: I’m gonna speak to someone who’s actually hearing me, I’m gonna speak all of what I feel, but sometimes, those feelings need to be contained. Sometimes I need to have someone hear what I have to say, and validate what I have to say, and be empathic to what I’d say on the way for me then to learn how to better integrate and contain those feelings. You know, as we like to say, one of the reasons why it’s good to have, you know, at least two parents in the house, this is not to suggest that single parents are not in a place to do this, it’s just a little more difficult. One of the advantages of two parents is that one parent needs to be able to talk to the other parent so that they don’t kill their children, right? Because, I mean, this is what we have to do because how many times have we, like, if I wanna speak my truth about my kid, my kid’s driving me crazy. And I need someone that I can speak to who can hear that but who could also then help me integrate that so that when I go back and speak actually with my child, I can speak in a way that is more true in order to create space for my child’s mind to grow as well.

“To speak truly means: I’m gonna speak to someone who’s actually hearing me, I’m gonna speak all of what I feel, but sometimes, those feelings need to be contained.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: I think we know, science has proved, we have to go at this together. Like, if we are going to be fully integrated in our minds, if we are going to remember our stories differently, if we are going to reimagine these experiences, we have to go together. And for some reason, that can be the biggest obstacle for so many people. And I say this in Chapter Four, that we compare instead of collaborate, we judge instead of empathize, we stand by instead of fight. And that these patterns prevent us from cultivating spaces where vulnerability and connection can take root and can emerge.

So, help us find our way. I mean, especially right now, I feel like the environment publicly is so visceral. So, what are our obstacles and how do we begin to choose courage and vulnerability and choosing togetherness so that ultimately, we can reimagine our experiences and we can live these whole and integrated lives because it just can’t be done alone. It cannot. Like, if you want to live in wholeness and in integration, in connection with yourself, you have got to go it with somebody else.

“If you want to live in wholeness and in integration, in connection with yourself, you have got to go it with somebody else.” Jessica Honegger on changing our minds together.


Creating Space to Speak, Listen, and Belong

Dr. Thompson: You’re absolutely right. And again, not to beat this horse to death, but, you know, one of the things about our culture that’s difficult is that at the same time that you and I are saying what you just said so eloquently, and you’re absolutely right, we then walk out our front doors into a world that encourages individualism almost to an extreme in many, many, many other different ways. And certainly, there are things that are important for us as individuals to do, to take responsibility for, and so forth and so on. But this notion that we are able to do things on our own then leaves us at a bit of a loss when we find, A, that we are limited and we can’t do everything on our own, let alone, when we are trying to deal with the parts of our lives and our stories that have been wounded, where we’ve contributed to those woundings, and we really desperately need connection with other people in order for those wounds to be healed, and for us to be recommissioned to be doing that which God is calling us to do.

So the first thing, I think, to acknowledge is that this is really hard work. It’s not like you can just walk out onto the street and point, you know, the first three people you come to and these are going to be people who have the capacity to listen deeply, to be present with you. But I would say despite the fact that it’s hard work, it is work that is doable. And there are people who are out there who are also hungry and thirsty for relationships of depth in order to be connected. And so, you know, just practically speaking, you know, to your listeners, you know, sometimes it’s as simple as asking, well, if you were to name three people that you have some degree to closeness with that you think that you like them, and they like you, and so forth, would be the notion of asking them, "Hey, could we get together and just talk about our stories, talk about what it was like for us growing up?" Now, these are not things that people normally do.

You know, we do this kind of, you know, off-the-cuff and we do it sometimes quite superficially. But there are books that are out there that it can help guide people. I mean, I’ve written a couple of books that help do that. My friend Dan Siegel has written books or others who have provided guides, for instance, for these kinds of conversations in which people can begin to tell their stories, allow themselves to have others ask them important questions. I mean, you know, the very fact, Jessica, that we’re having this podcast, and one of the things I’m aware of, I mean, I could go on and on and on about how grateful I am that you, or grateful to God that we, you know, that you and your husband and my wife and I met each other at that conference a couple years ago, and that you stepped out and invited me to come to the ranch. Like, that is a welcoming invitation. And I’m just so grateful for that. The fact that we’re on this podcast now and you’re asking the kinds of questions that you’re asking, means, first of all, that you also are doing your work internally that needs to be done. If you weren’t doing your work, you wouldn’t be asking me these kinds of questions.

Jessica: Right.

Dr. Thompson: And so, we want to be with people who are willing to do their work. And by do their work, I mean, be curious about their inner life, curious about their stories, curious about what they feel, what they think, interested in not just like what’s going on the surface of their life, but really interested in the deeper wellsprings, the nature of which you’re talking about. And so, I don’t mean to go off the beaten path here but, I mean, you know, really practicing, asking one, or two, or three people to join in a group of people who can begin to be committed to walking on a deeper journey is hard to do… but once you gain traction in doing that, you will find it to be life-changing forever.

Jessica: Well, I love that this is one of your first suggestions because there is a story that I write about in this chapter where I had let the shame drive me into isolation, the story that I was telling myself—that I couldn’t be a good mom of three children under five, one of whom we had just brought home from an orphanage, and also be a good CEO and a good, you know, run a successful startup. And I let this story really drive me in isolation and I chose every day, I remember I would drive home from work because I still had no money. We still had no money at this point so it was like, OK, driving home, we’re like, "Whatever. Make the tuna," like open the tuna cans. And I would drive past my neighbor’s house who had children under five and always was the car parked of my other friend. And of course, they were having a playdate together. And what I began to tell myself is, "See, I am all alone in the world." Like, everyone else, all these other moms, they are doing the better thing, and they are parenting their children, and they’re having play dates, and they’re connecting, and they’re probably talking about, like, what their plans are, doing on the weekend. And I’m not even included in those plans either, you know?

I mean, this story I told myself was such an—it was isolating. And I had to do that inner work to get curious, to go, "You know what? Maybe I am putting a story on them. Maybe they are not being intentional about, you know, excluding me or whatever the story was." And so I did, I had this moment of going, "OK. This is the life that I’m living and I want my neighborhood, at minimum, my neighborhood to feel like a place of belonging for me and then really also for the children that we’re raising." And so I reached out. I reached out to these two women who I thought I perpetually was feeling left out by, and I reached out to two other women who are best friends and they don’t live on my block. But if they had, I would see their cars too, you know?

Dr. Thompson: Of course, of course.

Jessica: I probably maybe did a drive by on a real day and feeling like a victim. "Oh, look. See? They’re together, they’re together." I mean, I was, everywhere you looked, I was confirming the story that I was alone. I was alone. And that drove me, and there’d been the shame, the echo of shame there. And so in that vulnerability, I reached out and I had the book. I think it was Brené Brown’s, I Thought It Was Just Me, (But It Isn’t) because I thought, "Well that’s appropriate. That’s what I’m feeling," you know, which is all about what other people will think. And I said, "Hey, guys, I’ve been feeling a little alone and I know, you know, I’m doing the startup and Jack, but I would love, could we meet?" And I think I started off at once a month because we’re so worried about rejection when we make a bid for connection, the first thing is you’re gonna hear, "Well, I’m too busy," you know? So I started with minimum. OK, maybe once a month. And then I had a space, oh, because my Noonday office, even though I had shame about that, I was like, "Well, it’s a quiet space for us to meet so we’re not figuring out, like, the kids, and the childcare, and all that." Every woman emailed back and they said, "I’ve been longing for something like this."

Dr. Thompson: Oh, goodness. Wow. Wow. Wow.

Jessica: And so there we went on this journey. And we begin meeting at the space that I felt was my place of isolation, that I couldn’t connect those two worlds, you know, of motherhood and work. And then there we are, and we’re talking about these vulnerable questions. And…


Unhealthy Mental Models and Shame

Dr. Thompson: So can I interrupt you for just a second? I’m sorry, I just gotta say this. So the thing that’s coming in my mind as you’re describing this is, you know, one of the things that we talk about in neuroscience is this notion that we create mental models. And by mental models, we don’t just mean abstract, you know, images in our head about certain things, we mean literally that our brain constructs neural, like, packages of neural-network firing patterns that all… So if you go to work every day, when you go to work every day, you step into your office, or into your classroom, or wherever it is, and that particular package will turn on in your brain.

But it’s not just like, "Oh, it’s a package of, I’m here at school," it’s everything that that means. It’s, "I’m here at school and I love my job, and I love these kids," and this felt sense of energy. And all these kinds of things are all part of the package. If I’m going to work, as you were describing, if I’m going to a place that now represents a place of isolation, that package gets turned on in such a way that it’s not just a place for you to go to work, it’s a place for you to feel ashamed about these other elements. So there is this, not that shame is the only thing as you feel it, it’s this other element, until you begin to meet with this group of people. And not only is your experience transformed but you’re actually transforming the mental model in your brain that the space has represented in the past, and as such the space itself becomes transformed, quite literally in its very physicality because so much of what you’re doing with this group of women is redemptive. And so everything about the narrative, about what it means, about the meaning that you’re giving to it, is changing and also literally changing your brain as you do it.

Jessica: That is so powerful. What makes me wanna ask you now is, so many of us have shame in our own homes. And I think, you know, I brought up shame in my last story because, and I know that’s your other favorite topic.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, I’ve been called the master of shame. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not but, yeah.

Jessica: But, yeah, your second book is The Soul of Shame. And that is what was the undercurrent. And of course, I didn’t use the word shame for years, Brené Brown is the one who gave me that vernacular, and then I think you are the one who really helped me build a very robust framework to understand kind of how I operated and felt like my car was really, really dirty before I met you. And somehow, through your work, it’s like it’s been cleaned and tidy and I know now, "Oh, my sunglasses, there they are. And I know where to put them." And that’s what your framework has really done for me.

So shame really is what drives us into isolation and when we’re in our isolation, we’re gonna judge, we’re gonna compare, we’re gonna spend all of our energy on confirming biases, we’re not stepping into our purpose. And so I know that you and I also are champions of this message of coming out of shame. So let’s talk a little bit more about shame in relationship to the conversation that we’ve had in the previous half-hour.

“Shame really is what drives us into isolation and when we’re in our isolation, we’re gonna judge, we’re gonna compare, we’re gonna spend all of our energy on confirming biases, we’re not stepping into our purpose.” Jessica Honegger

Dr. Thompson: Yeah. Well, you know, I think that one thing to say is that, you know, shame is an emotion that all of your listeners are familiar with. And we experience it in different ways. Some of us have experienced it in, like, large moments of either abuse or perhaps a significant traumatic event. Most of us actually experience shame as I’d say, it’s like, you know, it’s a death of a thousand cuts. It’s not just these big events that happen to us, but it’s the small things that I say to myself that are banging around inside my head all day, every day, you know, hundreds and hundreds of times, "I should have done this. I should have done that. Oh, I’m not looking good enough today. I’m not doing this enough." I mean, there are 100 different ways in which we receive and repeat shame to ourselves.

I like to talk a little bit about this notion of having a shame attendant. If one could imagine all the different times that, you know, I’ve looked in the mirror or thought to myself about what I should have done differently with my parenting or my this, or my that, or whatever, imagine, instead of it being me thinking that, so I had my own personal attendant who, you know, greets me first thing in the morning when my alarm goes off, and is, you know, ready to say, "Well, you’re late already." And what would it be like for us to imagine that we have this attendant whose job it is to remind us that we’re not enough, to remind us that we’re, you know, the list of things that we have not done well enough, and so forth?

Jessica: You worked out today, but really, you didn’t work out hard enough. And you made lunch for the kids today, but you didn’t actually sit down and, like, talk to them. You were on your phone the whole time, or you did the, yeah, make lunch.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, you are so right. I mean, and then what I say is that, you know, shame as a neurobiological phenomenon, it’s obvious, even if you look at the biblical story, shame is something that was, it would appear that God has built into the creation that is a signal to us. Its intention is that there’s something wrong, as St. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians that, "There is a godly grief that leads to repentance. And there is an ungodly grief that leads to death." This godly grief is this sense of like, "If I feel shame and I’m able to actually do something about it effectively, then that can lead me to corrected behavior," and so forth and so on. But most of how we respond to shame is not by simply saying, it’s a signal like, "Oh, I wanna do that differently next time." It’s, "No, I just, you know, run myself over the, rake myself over the coals repeatedly, "I didn’t do that well enough. I didn’t do that well enough. I’m probably not gonna do that well enough next time," whatever that is. You know, whether it’s all those things that you were listing earlier.

And so it’s not that shame in and of itself is evil, it is that shame is what evil uses effectively as a way to really cut us off within ourselves, cut us off from each other, cut us off from God, and mostly then, not just to make, I mean, it’s not just about making us feel bad, it is largely about truncating, about shearing off our capacity to create because that’s what we were made to do. We were made certainly to love God and to love each other as the Westminster Confession proclaims. But like, what does that mean like, you know, we were made in God’s image to fill the earth…

“It’s not that shame in and of itself is evil, it is that shame is what evil uses effectively as a way to really cut us off within ourselves, cut us off from each other, cut us off from God…” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: Yes, cultivate.

Dr. Thompson: …to cultivate. Exactly.

Jessica: To name, congregate,

Dr. Thompson: Right. We were made to make stuff. And one of the, like, yeah. And making new things of goodness and beauty is just so off-putting to evil. Evil can’t tolerate this. And so part of its mission is not just to use shame to disintegrate us to make us feel bad, but to keep us from doing the thing that we were made to do. And so we say, "Look, there’s a reason." You know, if you look at all the artwork. If you were to Google images of the crucifixion, for instance, you’ll see that if you look at a page of pictures of the crucifixion, you’ll see that all but about two of those pictures are actually inaccurate in that it’s, you know, they will have the Christ figure clothed around his waist, right? He’ll have some kind of a loincloth on. But the reality is, that the Romans, that’s not how they killed people on a cross, right? They stripped them naked. And they did so in order not just to humiliate the prisoner but to humiliate the people who would see him. It was all about humiliation as much as it was about death.

One of the things about the crucifixion that’s so crucial is that God is saying to us, "I am not afraid of your shame." Like, "I’m willing to go as far as evil thinks it can take shame. And I will extinguish it. I’m not afraid of this." And that’s the thing that God enters into those places where we feel most shamed and then invites us to do the same thing with each other, to allow others to see my shame, the places where I am feeling this in order for that shame to be transformed. And that gives the…

Jessica: It has to come out into the light.

Dr. Thompson: It does.


Courage in Vulnerability 

Jessica: Like, you can’t feel it alone because, hey, that’s where actually shame festers, alone. Shame is driving you to isolation and aloneness. So, it’s the shame attendant that’s telling you right now that whatever that thing is, like, you know, you couldn’t say it out loud because the person would reject you, or leave you, or think whatever it might be. But again, like, in an instant, when you begin to kind of get curious about this and come out, then you can be aware but in that same moment, not let shame win.

Dr. Thompson: Right. Well, and you’re exactly right. And I would say, you know, in Alcoholics Anonymous, if you enter where we call the rooms, right, of recovery. If you’re in recovery, you know, one of the things that people who are there, who are doing their work will say that, you know, one of the practices of AA is that when you’re in a meeting and you wanna say something, that you share, you share what’s on your heart and then you check, you share and you check, meaning that you’re gonna share and then you’re gonna kind of, you know, step back and get a sense of whether or not people are able to hear this. The point being that, you know, you might be in a meeting where you might have somebody who really wants to confront you, or tell you what to do, or be in charge of your business.

And what that means is that you might come back the next time and if that person is there, you might not share. The point being that we take these steps of vulnerability, you know, little by little by little. We don’t just jump into the pool in the deep end with someone that we don’t know. But we share a little bit and then we discover, "Oh, this person is trustworthy with this much. I’ll give them a little bit more, and a little bit more, and a little bit more." So again, back to your point that this is challenging work and we work at this little bit at a time, but as we do so, we find, you know, that as we walk further out on toward the edge of the board, the diving board, we get closer and closer to that moment where we can trust people with more and more of our shame in order for those elements of our life to be healed and all of it to be transformed. The other thing I would say is that in the sharing of those parts of our shame, of those parts of life that we feel shameful, we also… This is the odd thing, in our vulnerability, we actually open windows and doors for the listener, for those who are hearing us…

“The point being that we take these steps of vulnerability…this is challenging work and we work at this a little bit at a time, but as we do so… we get closer and closer to that moment where we can trust people with more and more of our shame in order for those elements of our life to be healed and all of it to be transformed.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: I love this. I love when you talk about this. Bring it, bring it.

Dr. Thompson: …to have the courage to do the very same thing. Because as I’m talking about that part of my life that feels vulnerable, whether the listeners want to or not, accept this, in their minds, in their brains, those places where they also feel shame are gonna start to resonate. They’re gonna have resonance with this. Literally, neurobiologically, like, their own stories are going to start to emerge. Their own memory will be reactivated. And they might not even know exactly where it’s coming from at first. It might just be like a feeling that gets activated for them and they don’t even know where that feeling is coming from because they buried their story for such a long time. And this to me, this is one of the powerful hopes of the gospel that when the Holy Spirit comes and is doing its work, its doing its work through the very way, through the very mechanisms by which we had been made. And as God helps us tell the truth, it is the case that in telling the truth about my vulnerability, creates courage for others to do the same, and it is in that space where our corporate anxiety is reduced, and healing becomes a possibility for everyone not just for the one who’s talking about their shame.

One of the things, we run groups in our practice, and one of the primary things when we’re interviewing people, we want someone to join a group, I will tell that person, "You know, I think you’re gonna get a lot out of this group." But I said the other thing is like, "I think the group is gonna get a lot from you. They’re gonna gain a lot from you. But oddly enough, they’re not gonna get from you your insight, your wisdom, your suggestions for how they can fix their problems, that’s not how you’re gonna be helpful. You’re gonna be most helpful in your vulnerability, in those moments when you are revealing to the group where you don’t have all of your stuff together. And it is in those places where you create moments of strength, and beauty, and courage to everyone in the room."


Reimagining Failure and Overcoming Fear

Jessica: So powerful. OK. So the prize. Why? I mean, what can we leave the listener with now? Because I think, you know, I want everyone to be on this path of leadership, which is holding people accountable to their potential, and holding yourself accountable to holding others accountable to their potential. And, you know, using our influence to be the co-creator, to bring flourishing into the world, to get to partner with God, to partner with others. I mean, there’s just so much prize. What can we leave a listener with to say, "This is all worth it," because I know some people, this was probably their scariest podcast. My podcast is called Going Scared, so that’s OK. That’s OK. And, you know, it’s all about feeling the fear. But I think some of our biggest fears are not about doing that thing, you know, or finally starting that business, or finally, you know, doing whatever. It really is confronting this inner dialogue that’s keeping us isolated and preventing us from walking with others in the way that’s gonna bring wholeness to our lives.

“It really is confronting this inner dialogue that’s keeping us isolated and preventing us from walking with others in the way that’s gonna bring wholeness to our lives.” Jessica Honegger on “going scared” and courage.

Dr. Thompson: Well, you know, it’s a great question. Whenever people are considering taking risks and, you know, you ask them, you know, "Well, what’s the worst-case scenario? What is it that you’re really afraid of happening?" And they might say something like, "I’m afraid of failure." And I understand that, like, we all kind of mean what, we understand what we mean when we use that word, but the reality is like, "I have no idea what that means." Like, "What does failure actually mean?" So, we usually press people to say, "Let’s talk about this in real concrete terms." Does failure mean, you know, you’re gonna live in a box under a bridge? Does failure mean you’re just gonna lose your investment of money? What we really want people to recognize is two things. One, it’s always helpful you’re gonna have a hard, you know, if you’re gonna take risks to, you know, start at the scariest place, begin the… If you’re gonna have a hard conversation with somebody, you begin at the end and say like, "I’m really afraid that at the end of this conversation, you’re not gonna wanna have anything more to do with me." That’s a scary thing.

But, you know, interestingly enough, how that relieves people of fear, but the other thing that we say is, you know, and this is where the brain where neuroscience is helpful. We tell people, you know, we aren’t actually afraid of actual events in the future. When I say I’m afraid of failure or I’m afraid that, you know, I’m gonna have to close my business, it may be true to some degree that, yes, I’m afraid of that thing, but ultimately, what the mind is most frightened of is not those facts per se. What the mind is most afraid of is what it presumes it will feel in that moment. "I’m afraid I’m gonna feel ashamed." But not only that, that, "I’m gonna feel this and there will be no way out of that emotional state. I’m not just afraid that I’m gonna feel ashamed, I’m afraid I’m gonna feel ashamed and there will be no walking away from, there will be no way to get out of it." It’s like, "I’m gonna be nauseous and there will be no throwing up. There’s gonna be no passing of this." And here’s where we said, like what’s really critical is to say like, "I’m not afraid just about my business failing. I’m not afraid about this relationship fail," it’s, "I’m afraid that in the end, I am gonna be alone."

Jessica: Yup, that is my fear.

Dr. Thompson: "I’m gonna be alone in my shame." And so what do we do about that? Well, the way we respond to that it’s like, we build relationships in advance. We make sure that people know in advance, "This is what I’m afraid is gonna happen. I’m not afraid you’re gonna want nothing more to do with me. I’m afraid that I’m gonna be left alone in my shame." And we then build relationships with people who are willing to say to us, "You can’t make me leave." Like, "There is no amount of shame that can keep me out of your life. If you lose your business, like, you’re gonna be in my living room for as long as it takes." Like, "I’m gonna be in your living room." And this is this crucial element where we say, "Look, if you couldn’t be ashamed, if relationships couldn’t be lost, what risks would you take? What hard conversations would you have? What new ideas would even begin to emerge?" So much of our creative energy is buried. We don’t even know that we are thinking about certain things that we wanna make because we’ve been so good at putting them in the basement for such a long time. "What would be the new things that would start to emerge for you if you couldn’t be ashamed and if relationships were always gonna be available to you and committed to you?"

And so again, I would say to our listeners, from a concrete standpoint, when we’re in that place where we want, you know, where we’re leading, the question would be: What represents the things for you where shame really wants to tackle you, or shame really wants to be the defining quality? And once that’s identified, who were the relationships that are gonna stand with you who will be able to tell you the truth about your life and the truth about your life with them on a regular basis, such that you can take the risks that God is calling you to take.

Jessica: Such a good conversation. One of the things that really sat with me over the last couple of weeks since we had this conversation was this idea about redeeming our physical spaces. So, think about what something you can do this week to turn a space that may represent stress, or anger, or fear, or rejection into a space of compassion for yourself. To keep up with Curt, go check out his website, beingknown.com, and be sure to go grab his books. They have been transformative for me. And as a reminder, we added new book tour stops. So I am currently out on the road. I love meeting my podcast listeners. Head on over to jessicahonegger.com to check out all the new book tour dates and book tour stops. I’m actually going to be in Grand Rapids tomorrow if you’re hearing this on the day it comes out. And then I’m gonna be in Denver, D.C. and Waco in the coming week. So I would love to meet you. Seriously, go, grab yourself a ticket.

And last thing, if you haven’t yet purchased your copy of Imperfect Courage, go do it. It’s the first great step if you’re really wanting to live this Going Scared sort of life. We hit number 24 in hardcopy, non-fiction recently and that’s in thanks to this incredible community. So go grab a copy, send one to a friend and let’s go scared together. Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend, Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.