Shame doesn’t only reside in trauma. In fact, everyone experiences shame, according to researcher and author Brené Brown, Ph.D. You can feel shame about anything and everything.
“And, while it feels like shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging and religion,” Brown writes in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power.
Specifically, Brown defines shame as:
“an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.”
I get that. I’ve felt this intense feeling of unworthiness throughout my life. I’ve felt shame about not knowing certain authors, books and politicians that I should know. I’ve felt shame in school when I didn’t know an answer, when I didn’t get perfect grades or when I sang out of tune.
I’ve felt shame about my body and not being thin or pretty enough. I’ve felt shame about being anxious and having a panic attack or two. In elementary and middle school, I felt shame about my dad’s thick Russian accent. When I was around eight, I felt shame when my grandma started counting out her pennies, dimes and quarters to pay for my double brownie scoop at Baskin Robbins and barely had enough.
I still cringe to write these sentences (especially since both my dad and grandma are no longer here). But, as Brown writes, they show that shame is front and center in our lives.
Building “Shame Resilience”
Even though we can’t eliminate shame, we can become more resilient to it. Brown calls this shame resilience. And by resilience, she means “that ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain our authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
Over seven years, Brown conducted hundreds of interviews with women about shame. The women who had high levels of shame resilience had these four things in common.
1. Recognizing Shame and Its Triggers.
Before we can overcome shame, we must be able to recognize it. Brown says that we tend to first feel shame physically before our minds realize what it is. The women in her research described a variety of physical symptoms such as nausea, shaking and heat in their faces and chests.
Brown lists several statements to help readers recognize their own physical reactions.
I physically feel shame in/on my ________________
It feels like ______________________
I know I’m in shame when I feel _______________
If I could taste shame, it would taste like ________________
If I could smell shame, it would smell like ________________
If I could touch shame, it would feel like _________________
Brown also introduces a concept called “unwanted identities,” which produce shame. These are the traits that don’t match our vision of our ideal selves. To help you think through what traits you find undesirable (and thereby are ashamed when they’re associated with you), Brown suggests considering these statements:
I want to be perceived as ____________ and ____________
I do NOT want to be perceived as ______________
Our families and culture typically shape these unwanted identities. Sylvia, a woman Brown interviewed, struggled with being viewed as a loser. An athlete in her teens, she felt enormous pressure from her dad to continuously perform at her peak. When she didn’t, she was branded a loser. This feeling resurfaced years later at work. Her boss regularly delineated the losers from the winners by putting employees on either a winner list or loser list on a dry-erase board.
Sylvia used to judge and make fun of the losers—until she made the list. Sylvia realized how this shame around being a loser affected her and her life. With this knowledge, she was better able to recognize her shame and deal with it constructively. (And she quit that job.)
2. Practicing Critical Awareness.
When we feel shame, we think that we’re the only ones in the world struggling. And we think something is very wrong with us. But the reality is that, like Brown’s title notes, you’re not the only one. You’re not alone in your experiences.
To see this bigger picture, Brown suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- What are the social-community expectations?
- Why do these expectations exist?
- How do these expectations work?
- How is our society influenced by these expectations?
- Who benefits from those expectations?
To further give yourself a much-needed reality check, Brown suggests readers ask questions such as:
- How realistic are my expectations?
- Can I be all these things all the time?
- Am I describing who I want to be or what others want me to do?
3. Reaching Out.
According to Brown, “…reaching out is the single most powerful act of resilience.” She says that:
“Regardless of who we are, how we were raised or what we believe, all of us fight hidden, silent battles against not being good enough, not having enough and not belonging enough. When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding, and end the silence.”
Reaching out is as simple as telling someone that they’re not alone in their feelings and experiences. For instance, one woman Brown interviewed talked about the shame she felt about her family. Her dad’s wife is younger than she is and her mom’s boyfriend was married six times. When she’s around people who pretend to have perfect families, she finds this especially tough, because she’s judged for her family’s choices.
She uses her shame to empathize and reach out to others. If someone else reveals something weird about their family and others judge them, she chimes in and starts talking about her family. “If we all told the truth, no one would feel like they were the only one with a screwed-up family. I try to help people in that situation because I’ve been there — it’s really lonely,” she told Brown.
Reaching out also means creating change with the six Ps, as Brown calls them:
- Personal: your interactions with family, friends and co-workers.
- Pens: writing a letter to organizational leaders and legislators.
- Polls: getting educated about leaders and the issues, and voting.
- Participation: joining organizations that support your issues.
- Purchases: not buying from a company that doesn’t share your values.
- Protests: a few people standing up for what they believe in, such as attending a school board meeting.
Brown also discusses several barriers to reaching out. One of the obstacles is that we tend to view some people as “those other people.” We judge these people and think we’re so much better, and, in turn, we rarely reach out.
Brown’s mother was someone who always reached out to others, even when they were the center of gossip and rumors. Her words about reaching out to people in a crisis are especially powerful: “You do it because that’s the person you want to be. You do it because that could have been me and one day it could just as easily be you.”
4. Speaking Shame.
Trying to articulate when you feel shame is a difficult thing to do, especially when you’re too upset, frustrated, taken aback or angry to truly express how you feel. But “Speaking shame allows us to tell others how we feel and to ask for what we need,” Brown writes. She gives several examples of how to respond to others when we experience shame.
“Every time I go home to visit my mom, the first thing she says to me is, ‘My God, you’re still fat!” and the last thing she says when I walk out the door is ‘Hopefully you can lose some weight.’”
[You might respond with] “I feel so ashamed when you say hurtful things about my weight. It’s so painful for me. It’s like all you care about is how I look. If you’re trying to make me feel bad so I’ll change, that doesn’t work. It makes me feel worse about myself and our relationship. You really hurt me when you do that.”
Here’s another example:
“When I told my friends about my miscarriage, they completely invalidated my feelings. They said things like ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’ or ‘At least you weren’t too far along.’”
[You might respond with] “I feel really sad and lonely about my miscarriage. I know women experience that in different ways, but for me, it is a big deal. I need you to listen to how I’m feeling. It’s not helpful when you try to make it better. I just need to talk about it with people who care about me.”