Shame is an emotion that I had never heard of it until after becoming a Therapist. I remember the first time I heard about shame and then quickly learned that I was experiencing shame about not knowing what shame was. It was not that I had never felt shame before in my life until that moment, it was just that I had never had a word for the experience. So since that moment and learning so much more about shame, what it is, and how to help both myself and others through the difficult moments of shame, it feels so important to me to talk about it.
Brené Brown, a researcher and author of shame, vulnerability, and courage, found that shame is a universal experience for us humans. She defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” It is like a warm washing of smallness and inadequacy that floods our body and mind the moment it overcomes us. Brené also found that shame tends to have 2 main voices: 1. “I am not _________ enough” and 2. “Who do you think you are?” So as you can imagine and have probably experienced, this voice of inadequacy can easily attach itself to the things we care about most deeply about such as relationships, parenting, our work, and our personal being, pretty much all aspects of our life can be touched by shame.
When we listen to shame as fact instead of an emotion, we can feel trapped, powerless, and isolated. An action tendency associated with shame is for us to run away and hide or seek to appease and please others. Or if we are too overwhelmed with shame, we may engage in fight and push to gain power over the situation by being aggressive and using shame to fight shame. Brené calls these our “shame shields” and they can feel like they protect us from feeling shame but often time they have us fall more into believing shame as truth instead of a feeling.
Since shame is a universal experience, we are all going to find times when we find ourselves fallen into a shame spiral so what are we to do about it? Brené found in her research that building resilience, the capacity to recover from difficulties and spring back into shape, was an essential skill for us to be able to move through shame instead of getting stuck in it. Therefore, shame resiliency is being able to recognize shame when we are experiencing it and then move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain our authenticity and grow from our experiences.
The following are steps Brené established as apart of the process of building shame resilience:
1. Learn what it is, when you are in it, and what triggers it
Before we can overcome shame we must first build awareness to it and be able to recognize when we are feeling shame. We must first arrive to the understanding of shame before we can leave it. As mentioned above, shame has the 2 voices related to inadequacy but it also is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, shaking, heat to the face and neck, eye/vision zooming in just to name a few. Take some time to reflect and identify your specific shame thoughts and the physical sensations you experience so you can increase awareness related to your personal “markers” for when you are in shame. Also explore what kind of topics or experiences trigger this experience. These are often related to our personal insecurities. So for example if we feel uncertain about our ability to preform a task well, if we then make a mistake as we are learning to complete the task, we can feel shame of not being good enough because we have “failed” which can be accompanied by a red face and urge to run and hide.
2. Practicing Critical Awareness
The next skill Brené found on the journey of shame resiliency is critical awareness. Critical awareness is an active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or information related to grounds that support it or not. In other words, it is thinking about and exploring our internal experience to be able to understand it. It is putting context to our experience in a way that helps normalize the experience as part of being a human. Since shame makes us feel trapped, powerless, and isolated we can feel like we are the only one in the world struggling and therefore think something is wrong with us. But the reality is that everyone experiences shame from time to time so you are not alone in this experience and there is nothing wrong with you for feeling it. To build the skill of critical awareness, practice seeing the bigger picture of the current moment. Here are some questions that can help with this:
- How realistic are my expectations of myself in this moment?
- Can I or anyone be all these things all the time?
- Am I trying to be who I want to be or what others want me to be?
- Who benefits from these expectations?
- How do these expectations work for me?
- How do these expectations work against me?
- What makes these expectations of myself exist in the first place? Where did they come from? How have they been reinforced?
- What do I think will happen if I do not meet these expectations? Is this a realistic outcome?
3. Speaking shame and put a voice to it
Shame grows in secrecy, silence, and judgement so the importance of speaking shame and putting a voice to it with no judgement helps us bounce back from the experience of shame. With awareness that the painful experience we are experiencing is shame we can now put a name to the experience. Often times just the act of being able to name an experience we are having helps to add to understanding it which helps to reduce distress related to the experience. Also, being able to name our experience can help point us to what we need which with shame we need connection, empathy, and understanding. Since shame grows in secrecy, silence, and judgement, shame can not survive being spoken and being met with empathy. Speaking shame and owning our story while loving ourselves through the process makes it near impossible for shame to survive.
4. Reach out
Brené found that shame can not live or grow if empathy touches it. Reaching out and sharing our experience of shame with a trusted, close individual who has earned the place of being able to hear our stories of struggle describes someone we want to share our experience of shame with to help us bounce back up from shame. Have a connecting conversation with a friend, or if it feels like you are unsure if someone in your life can provide you with the empathy your shame resiliency journey would need, reach out to Wild Tree Psychotherapy and get connected with a therapist who can help provide empathy while you learn to build and strengthen your own source of empathy and compassion to help bounce back from shame. This journey is a difficult one that requires support and encouragement along the way.
For more information related to Brené Brown and shame resilience check out these links and books below:
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
Rising Strong by Brené Brown
I though it was just me (but it isn’t) by Brené Brown
Written by Malinda King, MA, LPCC
Photo credit: pexels.com