Building Your Resilience to Shame

This article originally appeared here on July 8, 2018

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?

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