Dr. Brene Brown spent over a decade studying shame and its effect on society. She explains that we often believe that shame is reserved for only the unfortunate few who have survived terrible traumas. But, this is not true. Shame is a universal emotion. It is something we all experience. She writes, “And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction…”
Brown asserts that the less we understand about shame and its effect on our feelings, thoughts and behaviors, the more power it can have on our lives. Once we understand the way shame works, we can figure out how to talk about it and overcome it to live better, happier lives.
What Is Shame?
According to Brown, shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is often confused with guilt and humiliation. While guilt focuses on what we’ve done (as opposed to what we would have liked to have done), shame focuses on who we are. You might feel guilty that you cheated on your diet, but you feel shame if you experience yourself as a cheater. Humiliation is another word that is often confused with shame. When you are publicly called out about an action you took, you feel humiliated if you believe that the person who rebuked you was inappropriate. Conversely, you feel ashamed if you believe that you deserved rebuke.
In other words, shame is an emotion that imprisons you – labels you as “bad,” “stupid,” “fat,” and traps you into believing that these are correct assessments of your worth.
Women have a particularly difficult time with shame because there are different (often stricter) societal expectations for women as mothers, fashion figures and careerists. Therefore, it’s really important to recognize the negative effects of shame on your life and to transform yourself in an effort to control it.
Courage. Shame is an emotion that tunnels inside of us – it cannot survive being shared. The most damaging thing we can do when we experience shame is to bury the story and hide it from everyone around us. Instead, it’s important to have courage and share the story with someone you trust. The root of the word courage actually comes from the Latin word for heart (cor). In that sense, courage can be about sharing your heart with someone else.
Compassion. While it is important to share the story, it is equally (if not more) essential to share the shame story with the right person. There are multiple ways that well-intentioned friends can react that will not help assuage the shame. Some of those responses could be: anger at the person who did this to you, feeling bad for you, or wanting to make it better without really listening. Look for a friend who will say, “Oh, that sounds terrible. I am so sorry. I’ve definitely been there. I can’t stand when I feel that way.”
Connection. Through your courage in sharing and your friend’s compassion, you have created a powerful connection to somebody outside of your shame. You can now feel loved and accepted – which are the true antidotes to shameful thoughts. Remember, the definition of shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Once you forge a connection, you feel you belong.
Vulnerability: The Flipside of Shame