A woman looking down with sunglasses on

Shame infiltrates every aspect of our identities, from our sense of worth to our sense of safety. To many people, it is the most insidious of all emotions. Shame often hides behind our hardwired desire to belong and be seen.

Shame is a double-edged sword, hurting both the recipient and the person using it as a weapon. Unfortunately, this emotion is often still used to manipulate and bring about a desired action. Its impact on our individual and collective psyches take a big toll. Shame wreaks havoc on your sense of worthiness and your ability to trust yourself and others.

Researcher Brené Brown, PhD, LCSW has brought a clear understanding of shame to our collective consciousness through her life’s work. She has extensively researched shame, courage, vulnerability and authenticity. Her findings inform us that it is essential to do the bold work of understanding shame in our lives. It is also important to do the work to heal shame in ourselves and in the communities in which we live and work.

Healing the wounds caused by shame is no easy task. It requires a commitment to deepening our capacity to feel difficult emotions and connect with difficult life experiences that are at the root of this emotion. As an early adopter of Dr. Brown’s work and a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator + Consultant, I regularly see a pattern of people intellectually understanding shame yet resistant to doing the necessary and deeper work to build resilience to it.

Healing the wounds caused by shame… requires a commitment to deepening our capacity to feel difficult emotions.

It takes courage to dig into an emotion and the memories that are connected to it. Yet, when we shed light on our stories of shame and beliefs surrounding them, they begin to lose their power.

Defining Shame

In her book, Daring Greatly: How The Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Dr. Brown defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or fear of not being worthy of love and belonging. Let that sink in. The sheer motion and magnitude of shame is a full-contact threat to connecting, belonging and loving, which are essential to our human experience.

This requires a clear understanding of what it is, what it is not and how to identify and respond to it when it shows up in our lives. This is hard work. Shame hates being witnessed and talked about. It loves staying in the shadows because that is where it can thrive and wreak havoc on your sense of worthiness.

[Shame] loves staying in the shadows because that is where it can thrive and wreak havoc on your sense of worthiness.

Also in Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown differentiates shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment from each other through the following:

  • Shame
    Shame says, “I am bad.” Shame dictates that who you are, what you do and what happened to you are all wrapped together into your worthiness and identity.
  • Guilt
    Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Guilt separates what we do with who we are and is a space where we are moved to change and grow.
  • Humiliation
    Humiliation says, “I did not deserve that!” Humiliation is a righteous anger that we often voice but can turn into shame if repeated often.
  • Embarrassment
    Embarrassment says, “I am not alone and this will pass.” Embarrassment holds a common humanity knowing that we are not alone in this experience and that it is fleeting.

The Impact of Shame

In Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, she noted how she was hyper-focused on, “how not to get shamed for something on any given day.” Shame keeps us on hyper-alert of potential threats to our worthiness and safety. Many can relate to how the desire to avoid feeling shame impacts how we live our lives and how see ourselves and others.

Shame keeps us on hyper-alert of potential threats to our worthiness and safety.

Numbing the pain and impact of shame through drugs, alcohol, sex, work, food or the need for perfectionism are common and wide-spread responses. Yet, the numbing is like a Band-Aid that never really sticks. It only cultivates a vicious cycle.

The emotion of shame and its close cousins of fear, disconnection and blame result in dehumanization of self, crushing our sense of common humanity, community, hope and courage. It is the emotion of choice used to divide, gain power over and crush creativity and innovation.

Shame is a form of trauma and embeds itself in our bodies and nervous system. We can cognitively and intellectually decipher shame. However, unless we deal with the the residual effects of shame, it can still impact our ability to show up fully and authentically in our day-to-day lives.

The Alternative to Shame

According to Dr. Brown, shame cannot exist in the presence of empathy. Empathy means to feel what another person is feeling. Empathy is a courageous act because connecting with another person’s difficult emotions means connecting with those same emotions in ourselves.

When partnered with compassion towards self and others, empathy is sustained and shame can be kept from over-running our lives. This is a full body and life-long practice that is essential to combat shame’s impact.

Responding to Shame

Developing shame resilience is essential for anyone who wants to have more courage and confidence in their life. While you can never eliminate shame because it is a fixed part of the human spectrum of emotions, a personalized shame resilience practice is crucial to being able to live a life of meaning and purpose instead of one wrapped up in fear, disconnection and blame.

We all feel shame but we each have our own unique triggers. Getting clear on those triggers is essential in building awareness of shame in your life.

  • Learn where you feel shame in your body.
    We usually feel emotions in our body before we can label them. Learning how to detect shame in its early stages can help us.
  • Remove yourself from situations and technology when shame hijacks you.
    When shame is running things, our brains are in fight, fight, freeze or numb-it-out mode. This is not a time for big conversations, texting, emailing or scrolling on social media.
  • Share your story of shame with someone who you trust.
    The witnessing of our shame can help change it into a story of hope.

Often acknowledging and processing shame means doing the work to uproot the traumas and difficult experiences in our lives. Investing in this process truly means investing in yourself.

When was the last time you felt ashamed of something you did or said? How have you learned to handle the emotion?

Image via Ben Cope, Darling Issue No. 15

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