Shame is universal. We have all experienced it and likely caused it to arise in others. Unfortunately, shame is a topic nobody wants to discuss. What we fail to realize is that by avoiding the discussion of shame we give it power over our lives. Before we can meaningfully enter the shame discussion, we must first understand it.
According to the expert researcher in this field, Brene Brown, Shame is the voice that tells us we are unworthy of connection because of something we have experienced, done, or failed to do. Our culture sends shame messages daily. Women are told how they “should” look. Moms are accused of not doing what is best for their children. Men are accused of being weak emotionally, mentally, and physically. We all can fall into the trap of using shame to teach and/or control the behavior of others. When we are on the receiving end of shame based messages Brene says we are left feeling rejected, diminished, and ridiculed, and ultimately feeling alone. No one wins when shame is informing our behavior or used as a tool to manipulate those around us.
Shame vs. Guilt
Shame is often a deep source of motivation for us to move away from connection and move towards isolation. Guilt can be adaptive and helpful. and keeps us accountable when we have done something that is against our values. Guilt tells us we have done something wrong, where shame tells us we are wrong. Understanding the differences between shame and guilt is critical in identifying how we engage in romantic relationships, parent our children, and interact with others on a daily basis.
How to Heal Our Shame
Now that we have defined shame, the question becomes: how can we move from a place of living in shame and disconnection and into a place of meaningful connection? According to research conducted by Brown, three steps are critical to the healing of shame: (1) ordinary courage, (2) compassion, and (3) connection.
- Ordinary courage
Ordinary courage – the act of speaking your mind with your heart- telling your story. This step is particularly scary, because “not belonging” is one of our most common fears. Every time we have the courage to tell our story and find acceptance in spite our flaws, shames voice grows a little smaller. Finding safe people who can sit with you and your story in a non- judgmental and empathetic way not only gives depth and meaning to the relationship, but brings healing to the parts of you that feel shame about your story. A safe person is often a friend, relative, or therapist. They are identifiable by their ability to be trustworthy and vulnerable with themselves and you.
Compassion – the act of truly hearing someone else’s story. This sounds simple. Don’t we listen to others stories all the time? True compassion goes beyond the act of listening and provides us with the capacity to sit with people in their vulnerability without blame, judgement, or advice-giving. Resisting these tendencies can make us feel powerless, but it is one of the best gifts we can give when hearing someone’s story.
Connection– what occurs when we listen empathically as someone else communicates. Real connection with others gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Empathy looks like putting aside our own “stuff” to see the situation through someone else’s eyes.
So now that we have successfully identified shame and gained some tools to combat it, what’s next? Shame resiliency is a practice. We cannot always outrun our shame, but we can choose to identify it and fight it. Moving towards ordinary courage, compassion, and connection, allows us to have more rich, meaningful, and connected relationships. If you feel you need more support in the area of shame scheduling a session with a therapist or utilizing some of these resources are great next steps.