Shame Triggers

While the felt experience of shame is the same for men and women (Brene Brown calls it the “warm wash of shame”), what triggers shame is different for men and women. Let’s break it down:


The number one trigger is around our appearance and body image: we’re not thin enough, young enough, beautiful enough. It doesn’t matter that I’ve given birth to three children, I should still be able to get rid of that bulge around my tummy. Why should I care? Because I’ll look “better” and right now I don’t look quite good “enough”. It’s crazy and I’m as susceptible to it as any other woman.

Coming in at a close 2nd is motherhood. And it isn’t just mothers who get hammered on this one. How many times has a single woman been asked when she’s going to get married and for the married woman, “when are you going to start having children”? So much of our identity as women is wrapped up in this. And it sucks. How many times have I compared myself to other mothers and felt I didn’t measure up? How many times have I felt like a crappy mother because of what my children did? And in the midst of those crappy feelings I’ve snapped at my children instead of offering understanding and empathy, which is what they really needed.

According to Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, there are 12 shame categories: appearance & body image, money & work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental & physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled. But undergirding them all for women is the expectation to be perfect and on top of that, it should be effortless. Our culture has handed us a list of conflicting, competing expectations of who / what / how we “should” be. And we can’t possibly meet all those expectations so we’re inundated with messages of shame.


For men, there is only one trigger: do not be perceived as weak. It happens in all the shame categories but the message is still the same – don’t be weak. I think this is a tragedy. It puts men in a straight-jacket and makes it extremely difficult for them to work their way out from under shame. Because most of the time, being vulnerable and showing empathy are considered “weak” in our culture. These are the very things that help people process their shame and develop resiliency to it.

I’m only scratching the surface on this topic. Brene Brown talks about it in her TED Talk: “Listening to Shame”. She also writes about it in chapter 3 of her book Daring Greatly (Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.)

Emma Watson gave a speech to the United Nations launching the “HeForShe” campaign in September 2014. In it she highlights the ways in which our gender stereotypes harm men as well as women. I believe it does a good job illustrating what I’ve been talking about in this post. It’s well worth taking the 12 minutes to watch.

Shame & Pride – Two Sides of the Same Coin

There’s another comment I’ve heard as I’ve been talking about shame with others – pride is the opposite of shame. And along with that comment comes the argument that we should use shame to deal with pride in people.

In my opinion, pride is born of shame. It is shame, the feeling of not being good enough, that drives many people to pride and arrogance. According to, pride is “a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.” People who are proud feel the need to prove that they are better than others. They consider themselves superior to others and treat people (or certain types of people) as inferior.

To me, this reeks of shame. Why do they have to be better than everyone else? Because they don’t accept themselves. They have something to prove, whether it is to others, to the people closest to them, or to themselves. Deep down inside, they don’t feel good enough, so they need to bolster themselves to a place where they can feel a sense of worthiness but this is at the expense of others. If they truly believed they are “enough” there would be no need to try to grab that worth from other people. They would find that worth within themselves.

Unfortunately, in my experience, the people who are most proud are the ones who would say they don’t experience shame at all. I believe it is incredibly difficult for them to admit their shame because that very act begins to dismantle what they have spent so much energy propping up – they are better than others. But if they admit to feeling unworthy that would mean they aren’t actually “better”. And their whole worldview could come crashing down. There’s too much at stake to go to that place so they stoically proclaim they have no shame and any attempts to uncover that Truth are often met with a harsh response.

I wish I knew how to help these people. Dumping shame on a prideful person certainly won’t help. Chances are they will dig in their heels and feel completely justified in their arrogant behaviour due to the attempt to “shame” them. Because “they don’t experience shame”. The shame tactics will only serve to reinforce their pride.

I believe that in order to be set free from the chains of pride, a person needs to face their own internal sense of unworthiness. But how do they come to that place? My guess is coming to an understanding of grace and being able to actually receive it would certainly help in this process. But I think there are a lot of people out there who “think” they understand what grace is and yet haven’t really been able to embrace it. Because embracing it acknowledges our need for grace and thus, our own brokenness. I’m sure doses of love, gentleness, and empathy can help to break down the armour of the proud person. But I don’t have any easy answers for this one.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about shame triggers and how they are different for men and women.


Debunking the myth that a little shame is good

Some people may argue that a little shame is good for modifying behaviour. I’ve certainly run into that attitude before. And I felt plenty of it growing up. “How could you be so stupid?!” “Don’t be such an idiot!” Here’s the thing: shame did modify my behaviour. Or more like fear modified my behaviour – the fear of being berated (i.e., the fear of feeling shame). From the outside it looked like using shame worked. But what it did to me on the inside produced self-hatred and anxiety. It wasn’t a good thing.

I think this is why significant portions of our society still believe that using shame is perfectly acceptable. On the outside, it looks like we’re getting the results we desire, but at what cost? The research is abundantly clear: “there are no data [emphasis mine] to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior.” (Daring Greatly, p. 73). As I mentioned yesterday, “shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” (Daring Greatly, p. 73).

Remember that there is a difference between shame and guilt according to the research. I am not advocating to not hold people accountable to their actions. But it is just that: holding them to their actions. I know that for my own children, if I address the behaviour and affirm my child’s worth as being intact and not linked to their behaviour, I have much greater success in motivating positive lasting change.

Tomorrow: I’ll be talking about shame and pride – two sides of the same coin.

Source: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.


What is Shame?

I’m taking a lot of what I write in this post from Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I’ll list source information at the bottom of this post.

According to Brene Brown’s research, shame is:

“…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” (p.69, Daring Greatly) It is real, felt pain. I can attest to that. I know that sinking, gut-wrenching feeling at the pit of my stomach when I feel incredibly worthless.

Brown elaborates further:

“Shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, and connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.” (p. 68, Daring Greatly)

Everyone experiences shame. I’m sure there are some of you that are thinking that you don’t “do” shame. That’s actually not true…unless you’re a sociopath, because according to the research the only people who don’t feel shame are the ones who are unable to feel any empathy. But I can understand why you might think this. Let me give you an example. Years before I learned about shame through Brene Brown’s work, I would not have admitted I had shame. Yet I grew up immersed in an environment of shame. At a subconscious level, I felt incredibly unworthy and so there was no way I would talk about this because it would mean allowing someone else to reinforce what I already felt – utterly worthless. It’s bad enough to feel worthless yourself, but to run the risk that someone else is going to say, “you’re right, you are worthless”, is just too painful.

So it kept me hiding. This is the power of shame. “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” (p. 66, Daring Greatly). We’re all afraid to talk about it and the less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives. (p. 68, Daring Greatly). There have been people who have spoken things to me and about me that made me feel worthless and I believed those things. But because I felt so much shame, I was terrified to open myself up to someone else, for fear they would further feed my shame. But it is precisely through opening myself up to people who could speak Truth to me that I could begin to stop believing the lies and come out from under shame.

When we’re in shame, there are a couple of ways people tend to deal with it. “…in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame…” (p. 77, Daring Greatly). I fall into the “appease and please” camp. The way I dealt with shame was to try to make everyone happy, to try to be perfect so people would accept me, so I could have the connection I desperately longed for. Although I am more aware of the motivator behind my actions, I still very often find myself trying to appease and please. It takes time to unlearn these things and I will probably be in the process of unlearning this for the rest of my life.

Before I go any further, I want to define a few things. In terms of the research, there is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame is linked to identity – it says, “I AM bad.” Guilt is not. It says, “I did something bad.” There’s an important distinction here.

“We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful… [It] motivates meaningful change. Guilt[‘s] influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive… Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.” (p. 72, Daring Greatly)

This makes perfect sense to me. If I am living in shame, it is who I AM. You can’t change who you are so there is no way to change the things you do that you hate. If you can’t change the things you hate about yourself, what hope is there? It is not surprising to me that shame is correlated with so much destruction.

So there you have it: an explanation of shame. Tomorrow I’ll be taking on the argument that “a little shame is good”.

Source: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.


My Story, Part 2 – How the research has helped me

So I watched Brene Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” and it blew my mind. I might have thought before her talk that “yeah, I’ve heard about shame…no big deal…” But she started to describe what it was: the fear of disconnection. She started talking about this idea of “not being good enough”. This grabbed me because I know all about feeling “not good enough.” She said there are people out there who seem to have a deep sense of worthiness (who are these people? I’m certainly not one of them!). And she talked about how vulnerability fit into all this.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was Brene Brown really saying? It seemed that what she was talking about was at the core of our humanity. It’s what drives our actions. As I processed her talk, I began to see how most of our unhealthy, hurtful actions to others and ourselves, all come from this place of shame, of “not enough”. Why was I yelling at my daughter for having a meltdown? Because deep down I believed I wasn’t a good enough parent and her meltdown was a reflection of my inadequacy.

For me, Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability has given me a new set of eyes to understand myself and others. I understand more than I ever did before the deep, deep feelings and beliefs of “not enough” that drive me to do things that hurt others and hurt myself. I’m not looking at the symptoms anymore; I’m looking at the actual cause. And by going there and unraveling that my whole worldview and belief system is shifting and my life is so much more “whole”. I have more peace, more love, more patience… (hmm, that looks a lot like the fruit of the Spirit). It’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.

And I have so much more compassion for others and even myself. Many times when I see or experience something hurtful, I see it as driven by shame. I know what it is to be driven by shame. It’s a horrible place to live from, so I feel pity and compassion more than anything else.

The research has given me language for what I experience. It is helping to unravel the belief system I held that told me over and over again that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t until I dove into Brene Brown’s research that I started to understand what that belief system really was. But I can assure you, that what she’s found in the research is absolutely true. I’m so grateful she’s shared it with the rest of us. Truth, knowledge, understanding has a way of bringing incredible freedom and life if we are willing to allow ourselves to be changed.

I’ll talk about what shame actually is tomorrow.IMG_9340

My Story, Part 1 – Why shame and vulnerability are such a big deal to me

So why do I want to talk about shame and vulnerability all the time? Because I know what it’s like to be ruled by shame. It is a terrible master. Learning about shame and what vulnerability means has brought new levels of freedom in my life. It has been transformational for me.

I grew up in a world where it seemed shame was the fuel we ran on. Of course, I didn’t realize that was what it was at the time. But feelings of never being good enough, no matter how hard I tried to be ‘perfect’, were my constant companion. Love always seemed to be offered on condition: if I behaved like a good little girl, then I would be loved; if I wasn’t ‘good’, I felt the sting of condemnation. I’m sure my parents never intended to communicate this message. But when messages of shame are passed down from generation to generation, that kind of stuff flows straight to the children.

This feeling and believing of “not good enough” resulted in a lot of fear. Constantly afraid of what people would think of me, wondering what I needed to do to feel accepted. I remember thinking to myself in high school that I could not imagine living one day without being afraid. I could not even imagine what that would be like, so ever-present was my fear.

I learned to hate myself and to hide my feelings. Actually, I learned to not feel at all. Although that’s not true: as much as I learned how to numb myself to emotion, those emotions went somewhere. They’ve been locked in a vault in my heart for decades.

I learned to become a chameleon. Just be who you think people are expecting you to be. Don’t dare be yourself…actually I had no idea who I was because “who I was” wasn’t good enough. I needed to be someone else. I believed that was the only way people would accept me. I wanted so desperately to feel accepted, to have connection, I would do anything to get even a small morsel of it.

Much of this belief system was running in the background; I wasn’t consciously aware this is what I believed but it definitely drove my actions. It wasn’t until I began learning about grace and experiencing it that I started crawling out from under my boulder of shame. Ironically, I didn’t start learning about grace when I became a Christian, or even when I was baptized. My life experience was my frame of reference for my Christian faith and because grace was foreign to my life, it was foreign to my Christian life as well.

Learning about grace has been a journey. There’s been a continuous process of unlearning the lies I believed. And as my beliefs shifted I became more open to hearing what grace actually is and I started to experience it through others who understand grace.

And then I saw Brene Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” and it blew my mind. More about that tomorrow.

Brushing off the blog…

Every time I decide to post something on my blog after completely ignoring it for months, I feel a pang of shame. Has it been THIS LONG since I posted something? If I post something now, will people wonder why I’m even bothering since it seems like I’ve abandoned the whole thing? It’s a little scary jumping back in and I always find myself making excuses so people won’t think poorly of me for being so inconsistent. I get distracted and busy and life seems to vie for my time and I forget about the blog until something inspires me to write again.

So here I am, dusting off the blog (it’s very dusty in here and I hate dusting). But I feel the spark of inspiration so I’m going for it again. This time my inspiration comes from something a friend posted on her blog ( There is something called “31 Days” that happens in October every year. You pick a topic and write about it every day for the entire month of October (31 days). I’ve written about shame and vulnerability on my blog before. It’s something I’m very passionate about and it’s something I’ve been chewing on and processing for over 5 years, ever since I saw Brene Brown’s TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability”. Lately I’ve been feeling constipated in a sense – there are so many thoughts and ideas and connections around this topic rolling around in my head. I need to get them out…onto the page to get some cohesion to them, to help me put it all together. I’ve been meaning to do this for a couple of months and it hasn’t really happened. When I heard about “31 Days” I thought this might be just the opportunity and motivation to get me doing what I’ve been wanting to do.

So starting October 1st, I’m going to be putting down my thoughts on shame and vulnerability, every day for the month of October. I hope you’ll join me and ultimately I hope that you will be encouraged by my journey and what I’ve learned. It has been life-changing for me and I believe it can be for all of us.

See you on the 1st!

Healing does not equal a cure

I was listening to a talk by Rachel Held Evans last week. Near the end of her talk she spoke about the difference between healing and a cure. It really struck me. Here’s a link to where she started speaking about this:

Rachel Held Evans – Keep the Church Weird

I agree with her. I think particularly in our Western society we are overly focused on “the cure”. Now, I’m not saying that the research and efforts put into finding cures for our ailments are bad. I’m talking more about the way we approach sickness in the evangelical church. We pray for healing…but sometimes for God that doesn’t mean a cure. I like how Rachel puts it: healing is “like a meandering river…it takes time”. And it’s relational. We would miss a whole lot of “relationships” if God always answered our prayers for healing with the cure. I don’t say this in any way to demean or belittle people’s suffering and their agonized pleas to be freed from their pain. I hate suffering. I hate watching people suffer.

I also recognize that God doesn’t always cure. And what does that mean? That’s where I get nervous. Because there have been times when it seemed implied that the reason the person was not cured was because they didn’t have enough faith or they had some hidden sin in their life. But what if it wasn’t that all? What if the sick person is not to blame? Maybe that’s it. We need someone to blame in order to explain the cure that didn’t come. These lines of reasoning can do serious damage to a sick person’s faith in God. He becomes a fickle slot machine that will only answer our prayers IF…

Where does that leave grace – if we have to be “good enough” to receive His cure? There is no room for grace here. And there is little room for hope. I find the perspective of healing presented in Rachel’s talk much more grace-filled. It resonates much more with my experience. My husband died suddenly at the age of 29. There were church leaders who prayed the night he died for his resurrection but I didn’t pray that prayer (as much as I wished he wasn’t dead). I had surrendered to God, to the One I had come to believe loved me no matter what, who was not punishing me by taking my husband away. I trusted Him to get me through this and believe me, it was terribly painful and lonely at times (and I wanted the pain to stop). I wanted to enter back into marriage months after my husband died – I wanted that horrible void to be filled. But I had also surrendered that to God saying I wanted a firm foundation entering into my next marriage and I was willing to wait until that foundation was set. It took a while, though not as long as for others I know (but it felt long enough for me). It took that time for God to work some healing in my heart. I can tell you my current marriage is in the beautiful place that it is because God had me wait. If He had provided the “cure” I would be in much worse shape.

So while I believe that God can and does cure people, I also believe He is just as interested in the slow, meandering process of healing, which often goes much deeper than our physical circumstances but in the long run produces much more in terms of our overall wholeness.

Bearing witness and being seen


They did this experiment at the University of Guelph. What they found was that “These conversations weren’t just connecting people—they were changing people. What began as a pair of apprehensive strangers awkwardly lowering themselves into a ball pit in the middle of campus transformed into dozens of students forming conversation circles in and around the overflowing ball pit all afternoon, rich with fervent hand gestures, engaged body language, and vibrant facial expressions.” One of the conclusions they made was “It is only when we view our fellow students through a lens of understanding, regardless of our religious traditions, cultural heritage, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and beliefs, that we can truly see one another. When we can truly see one another, we seem to like what we see.”

I see the Ball Pit experiment as an intentional way of connecting people in meaningful ways. These people weren’t engaging in small talk, but rather in “smart talk” – speaking about things and in ways that foster connection.

It’s also about “being seen”. In her blog post this week, “Cool Ashes Can’t Burn Us”, Glennon Doyle Melton spoke to this very thing: “what strikes me is how desperately we all need to know that we are seen and heard. We don’t need our lives to be different, or easier, we just need someone to see the pain. To know what we’ve faced and overcome.  To say: Yes. I see this. This is real. We don’t need a magician to take it all away – we just need a witness.” “We see ourselves in [each other]. And that means that we are not alone. We might hurt, but we are not alone.”

To me, this is one of the most awesome things about being a part of the body of Christ: we are not alone. Bearing witness is one of the most powerful things we can do for another person. Oh, that we would learn better how to “see” each other (and allow ourselves to be “seen”).

How are we transformed?


I’ve been thinking about how we are changed. I am a very different person from who I was in high school. But how did I become that different person?

I think there are a number of things and not just one thing. Life experience and choices I’ve made have certainly shaped me. The hand that’s been dealt to me. What others have said about me and the way they’ve treated me. What I’ve believed about those things. Love extended to me. My actions of love toward others. Relationships have played a huge part. No man is an island. We cannot help but be changed by and through our relationships with others.

And although I can look back and see God guiding me down a path that would lead me to this place, it’s still the choices I made along the way that got me here. If I think about life on a continuum, have I been making choices towards gratitude and contentment or choices towards bitterness and anxiety? There are many different ways you can put it: light vs. darkness, life vs. death… I think you see where I’m going.

Under-girding all of this “change” is our belief system. What we believe about the world and ourselves significantly determines our course in life. I don’t bring this up as a point of condemnation: believe the ‘right’ things or you’re doomed! (there was a time where that is exactly how I’d be feeling at this point). I’m thinking more of what Jesus said: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) and when He was asked what work God wanted people to do, He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29).

I think there is a notion in the evangelical world that we need only pray ‘hard enough’ for God to change us and we’ll be changed. I certainly believe God wants us to be changed. But how much change can He effect if we continue to believe things that work against Him? Let me use an example:

As long as I believed God was more interested in punishing me for my sin than loving me unconditionally I wasn’t about to trust Him. I might try really hard to trust Him but subconsciously I believed He wasn’t ‘safe’ – I thought He was out to hurt me. My subconscious went the route of self-preservation and steered away from trust. When I came to accept (it’s an acceptance and a surrender) that God actually was more interested in loving me than punishing me, then I could begin learning to trust.

So how did my belief system change? I think it started with nigglings. A foreign idea would form in my mind, something different and counter to what I believed before. Perhaps someone would present a different point of view, perhaps it was something I read or heard. I would chew on that idea for awhile (I recognize this process is probably very specific to my personality type). And I would either come to the conclusion of rejecting the idea or (with trepidation) decide to ‘risk’ believing this new truth. What if I believed ‘wrong’? What would happen to me? Would I still be safe? The new truths that were the scariest for me to accept were the ones that disrupted my sense of safety. I understood the world to operate a specific way and I felt ‘safe’ in that worldview. Accepting an alteration to my worldview meant insecurity and unknown territory. Things weren’t as certain as before (although I recognize this is really an illusion). Eventually I became comfortable with the new belief and felt secure once again.

I realize this post is becoming lengthy so I’ll leave with one other comment and continue on in a day or two.

The thing I find most encouraging in this process is that I believe it is God who helps me to change my beliefs. He is gracious and compassionate and I don’t have to stress about not believing the ‘right’ things. My role is to believe that He is faithful and that He will help continue the process of believing the things that are true about Him and discarding the things which are not true. It requires my openness to new things and trusting God in the process.