Combating Shame

Everyone experiences shame and there is no way we can eliminate it from our lives. As Brown puts it, “As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real.” (Daring Greatly, p.74)

The answer is shame resilience. This is “the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we have going into it.” (Daring Greatly, p.74).

The four elements of shame resilience (as listed in Daring Greatly) are:

  1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding its Triggers
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness
  3. Reaching Out
  4. Speaking Shame

It takes a certain amount of emotional intelligence to work through this process. Can we recognize when we are experiencing shame and are we able to learn what triggers it? This takes practice and a degree of curiosity. There are times when I have reacted (in shame) to something and I think to myself afterwards, “What was that about? Why did I react like that?” If I ask the questions long enough, I can begin to see patterns (in some areas of my life, at least) and learn to recognize the shame triggers. This also involves critical awareness, asking ourselves what messages we’re telling ourselves when we’re in shame and testing those messages. Are they true? Realistic? Would I talk like this to others?

Reaching Out is so very important in developing shame resilience. It is by sharing our stories with those we trust, with those who care for us, that we can experience empathy (the antidote to shame); it’s how we can experience connection and healing. Just as shame happens between people, it also heals best between people (Daring Greatly, p.75).

Speaking Shame can be very, very difficult to do, but it’s amazing what happens when you can actually do it. Shame wants to stay hidden so when I can actually say (out loud), “I feel shame” it actually cuts shame off at the knees. It loses its power over me.

I know this from personal experience. My husband and I were having a group of friends over for potluck supper one evening. In our home, we have the housecleaning duties down to a science: my husband has one area of the house, I have another area…we can get the house cleaned within an hour. But on this particular day, I had been out for the afternoon and got home late. Company was arriving in less than 45 minutes. My husband had already finished his part of the housecleaning and I was frantically trying to get my part done.

The more the clocked ticked, the more shame I felt – “why did I stay out so late? This is all my fault. I’m a terrible person. What are people going to think of me?”. But even then, I couldn’t actually say out loud, “I feel shame.” My husband sensed my growing tension and asked me, “Are you feeling shame?” Even to get the word “Yes” out of my mouth was difficult. But I took a deep breath and said, “Yes…I feel shame.” It was amazing. Just saying those words seemed to deflate the balloon of tension within me. I started feeling calmer and things didn’t feel like “the end of the world” anymore.

I wouldn’t have believed speaking shame could have that kind of effect until I experienced it myself. The problem is shame is not something we talk about in our society, so speaking it is countercultural. It’s not impossible; it just requires a different way of thinking about it.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about empathy – the antidote to shame.

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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