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.

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