“I could never let someone else raise my children. I don’t think I would have had kids if I had to work.”
“I would go crazy if I had to spend all day with my kids. I don’t know how you do it.”
“I wish I could eat like you, Mindy. But, I just can’t.”
“If you made more time for exercise, you’d be happier with yourself. I’m just trying to help.”
“I wish I didn’t care about what I wore all the time, just like you. I always feel like I have to put on make up.”
“If only I had your time in the morning to get dressed.”
Above are typical comments that women make to each other, either intentionally or unintentionally shaming them about their decisions in parenting, weight loss or appearance. Brene Brown, Ph.d. and LMSW, recently wrote a book entitled I Thought It Was Just Me, (But, It Isn’t). In the book (and a previous book entitled Women and Shame), Brown deals with the ways that shame pervades our culture.
Dr. Brown 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, then 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 in regards to 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 deserve that 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 them as mothers, fashion figures and careerists. In fact, women often experience layered and conflicting societal expectations of how they are “supposed” to be. Many of these expectations are impossible to meet – ideals that no woman could ever represent. 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 else. 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 it with the right person. There are multiple ways 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 only wants to make it better without really listening. Instead, you need to look for a friend who will demonstrate compassion – someone who will answer, “Oh, man, that sounds terrible. I am so sorry. I’ve definitely been there. I can’t stand when I feel that way.”