The Path Out of Shame

Shame and vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  Shame is probably among the most harmful of human emotions.  It has the power to convince us that that little voice in our head is right after all.  The voice that says “I knew you’d fail,” “You’ll never really belong,” and “Who would love you?”

Rich or poor, overweight or thin, successful or struggling, we all experience shame from time to time. Shame has been linked to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying.  It is critical that we learn ways to deal with it and to build healthy barriers against it.

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The next time shame comes your way, consider these ideas:

  • Bring shame out into the open:  We need to have conversations about our shame to take away its power over us.  It is very difficult to talk about something that is responsible for taking away our self-esteem, but it is crucial to break its chains that are confining us.   The more we talk about it with people we love and respect, the less power it has over us.
  • Shame is not guilt:  It is very important to distinguish between these two things.  Shame means “I am bad.” Guilt means “I did something bad.”  Being bad means you see yourself as incapable of changing or doing better. On the other hand, doing something bad can motivate us to change and grow.   
  • Shame is not humiliation or embarrassment:   Neither of those feelings is comfortable, but they don’t take aim at our self-worth in the way shame does. Humiliation and embarrassment can seem like shame, but they may come with the feeling that it was not deserved. If you are thinking, “I can’t believe my boss reprimanded me in front of my coworkers for missing that deadline,” that’s humiliation or embarrassment. If you are thinking, “I can’t believe I missed that deadline. I’m such a loser,” that’s shame.
  • Disconnect what you do from who you are:  Is our self-esteem linked to what we create or offer in a situation?  If so, then we may feel a sense of shame if our contribution is not appreciated.  When our coworkers, friends, or family do not accept our ideas, we may tend to think, “I’m a loser,” or “That’s the last time I offer a suggestion.” Don’t put the power of your happiness into the hands of others.  
  • Recognize your triggers:  Shame has the ability to strike us where we are most vulnerable.  A new mom who secretly feels incompetent is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A man who worries that he doesn’t measure up as a provider may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation.  Just remember, our insecurities prepare us to default to shame. By being aware of what our shame triggers are, we can help nip this process in the bud.
  • Make connections:  By reaching out to family, friends, our communities, or to our idea of a higher power, we can make connections that allow us to learn to accept ourselves and other people as well.  Connecting to other people deflates the power of shame.  It helps us to realize we are not the only person who feels/thinks this way.  We are all human and, therefore, we are imperfect.  
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Taking these steps will help us to handle our shame without resorting to measures such as masking the pain with drugs or alcohol, lashing out at those around us, or giving in to shame’s message that we are indeed bad. 

It is also important for us to be there for others when the need arises. Simply expressing, “I know how you feel” can help release those in shame’s painful hold.

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