When I meet with a new couple, family or individual coming for therapy, one of the things I try to learn about their comfort and understanding of their own emotions. The filter I listen through is based on an understanding that emotions determine the quality of our lives. They are part of every relationship we care about – in our workplace, in our friendships, within our families and in our most intimate relationships. Our emotions can keep us out of harm’s way and even save our lives. They can help us strengthen our relationships when shared sensitively, and they can lead us to say and do things that can be really destructive and we may regret later. Understanding our emotions can help us. This can help us when we become emotional so we know whether to speak and act or listen and reflect. When we are tuned in to our emotions and self-aware, we are better able to consider the impact on others of our emotions and become better able to read others emotions.
According to researchers, there are seven distinct emotions across all cultures that we experience. They are: fear, anger, happiness/joy, sadness, surprise, guilt and shame. The most complex and difficult emotion to understand is shame. Guilt is the feeling associated with ‘I did something bad’. Shame is the feeling associated with ‘I am bad’.
Shame researcher Brene Brown defines it this way: ‘Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we‘ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we have not lived up to, or a goal we have not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection.’ Brown goes on to say that while most people want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience.
Shame is very difficult to talk about because of the intense fear of rejection by others. Shame and secrecy often team up within us. The vicious circle of shame and fear means that the more we are afraid and avoid revealing what we are ashamed of, the more powerful a grip the feeling of shame can have on us. And the more shame has a grip on us, more we believe in our unworthiness and fear of disconnection. And the more we keep silent, out of fear of rejection, the less likely we are to discover that others value and love us, disproving our beliefs.
How to Combat Shame
Brene Brown has conceptualized three steps from her research to help us learn to combat shame. To loosen the debilitating grip of shame, we need to develop shame resilience. We do this by knowing when we are experiencing the emotion of shame, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, rather than pushing it away. It also calls upon us to practice and develop a greater sense of worthiness.
1. The first thing we need to do to combat shame is to be able to identify when we are experiencing it. Just as to calm fear (or any other upsetting emotion), we need to know when we are feeling shame. We must be able to distinguish shame from guilt. Shame is feeling bad or extremely self-critical – believing that we are flawed, unworthy, or unlovable. Feeling ashamed is very painful and we cannot stay long in the feeling experience. We tend to shut down, numb out, cut off, go into a shell, intellectualize, disconnect, stonewall or get angry if someone activates our shame.
2. Next we need to learn how to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is a willingness to engage, the courage to be ‘all in’ not sitting on the sidelines. With shame, it is not straight forward. We need to try and do the opposite of what we have learned to do as a child. As Brene Brown states: “As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. We put on armour; we used our thoughts, emotions and behaviours as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection – to be the person whom we long to be – we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armour, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.”
3. Engage in life from a place of worthiness. Brene Brown calls this “wholehearted living”, which means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection by saying something to yourself and believing, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am brave and worthy of love and belonging.’ This takes daily practice and possibly therapy for many people.
Practicing Shame Resilience
Think of a time in your childhood when you did something really embarrassing and you felt humiliated because an adult said or did something that made you feel more than just guilty, and ashamed. It could be a teacher who centred you out, a coach who made an example of you, a parent who told you, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” or being the last picked by your peers when choosing teams.
1. If you could speak to that hurt and upset little girl of boy that was you right now, today, what would you tell them?
2. Can you think of a more recent situation with your boss, friend or spouse where you felt shame? How was this experience similar to your childhood experience? How did you react?
If you could have found the courage to be vulnerable, how would you have dealt with that person differently?
3. What is something you could regularly say to yourself to help you develop a stronger sense of worthiness and sense of belonging, like in the example above?