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Breaking Free: What We Can Do About Shame and Inadequacy

A black woman gazes out of a window in dim light.

What is Shame?

In a more simple context, when a lot of us think of shame we think of actions that we regret. "I feel ashamed of myself" or "What he did was absolutely shameful". We tend to think of shame as synonymous with guilt, embarrassment, or humiliation.

But as a more complex and universal concept, feelings of shame are something that we have all experienced and collectively try to avoid like our lives depend on it. There is a clear difference between momentary regret or embarrassment versus the debilitating feeling of shame. According to author and professor Brené Brown, shame is "the painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection".

When I first read about this specific definition of shame, it felt like a punch to the gut. Specifically, the portion that highlights that we view shame as believing that something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. It made me trace back to every moment I experienced feelings of shame. It was the last thing I wanted people to see within me. I didn’t connect with someone hoping they could relate, I just sat back. I hid myself. I isolated myself. I avoided seeing people that I wanted to see because I didn’t want them to see my shame. In my mind, I thought they would be able to see these feelings I was so desperate to hide.

Shame is different from guilt. With guilt, we can associate these negative feelings with something that we did or said. With shame, however, we shift the narrative from being "I did something bad" to "I am bad"; it's not "I said something awful" but "I'm an awful person".

The Impact of Shame

When Brené Brown was conducting research for her aptly named book I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn't), she was encountering women of different races, social classes, age, etc. As you can imagine, she ran into several different examples of what types of life experiences can bring feelings of shame. Here are some examples of shame that I've seen in the lives of myself (or others around me):

  • Shame is when I compare my body from a few years ago to what it looks like now.

  • Shame is everyone judging you because of the decisions of your siblings or parents.

  • Shame is being a man with a low sex drive.

  • Shame is telling your parents about someone molesting you and being told to never speak of it ever again.

  • Shame is giving up my stable job for a business that ended up failing.

  • Shame is me viewing my ailing, aging parents as an emotional and financial burden.

  • Shame is being an infertile woman.

  • Shame is having envy towards a dear friend because they seem to have everything that you want...and I feel like I deserve it more.

There are many more, and I'm sure you readers may be pondering your own shame stories. What I noticed about a lot of the shame stories that were shared throughout Brown's book is that a lot of them didn't involve acts that were "classically" shameful. Rather, they are events, words, thoughts, etc. that cause us to feel shame usually because of external factors. I will go through the same list, but instead of listing the shame I will list the feelings that I believe are associated behind them:

  • I feel shame because people with my body type are considered "sloppy", "gluttonous", and "disgusting".

  • I feel shame because people think that if my family has distasteful qualities, then I must have them to. Or people feel like they have to pity me.

  • I feel shame because having a low sex drive "isn't manly"

  • I feel shame because my parents not talking about this issue with me is making me feel like I did something to deserve what happened.

  • I feel shame because I failed; I did something most would consider reckless and I'm suffering the consequences of my actions. Following dreams isn't responsible.

  • I feel shame because I love my parents and they've done so much for me. Good adult kids aren't supposed to feel this way about their parents.

  • I feel shame because society says that having children is "what I was made for". Not being able to have a child makes me feel like I'm defective.

  • I feel shame because good friends are supposed to applaud each other no matter what. I'm considered a terrible friend because I can't genuinely say I'm happy for them.

I obviously can't speak for everyone's experience, but it seems to me that when it comes to shame a lot of it traces back to "what will people think of me if they knew this is what happened/this is what I believe" In other words, Shame relies heavily on other people's perception of us (or what we believe of other people's perception).

Shame Webs

During her research, Brown came to the conclusion that--for women in particular--shame is experienced as a "web" of layered conflicting and competing social-community expectations. According to Brown, these expectations dictate who we should be, what we should be, and how we should be:

"The expectations that fuel shame for women are based on our culture's perception of what is acceptable for women. In my research on men, I'm learning that the expectations that fuel shame for men are based on our culture's perception of masculinity--what should a man be, look like and act like".

She goes on to say that these expectations can filter through various communities in different ways. For example, though all women deal with societal expectations when it comes to our appearance, White women like herself aren't subjected to judgement of their hair texture or skin color like Black women like myself would be.

A reference figure of a web that includes words categorized under what you should be, who you should be, and how you should be
The Shame Web, according to Shame Resilience Theory

As we all know, all of these expectations can differ greatly and are influenced by the different people and mediums in our lives. Once entangled in this web, it's no question that we'll experience fear, blame, and--ironically--disconnection. Suddenly it feels like we don't belong anywhere, even the groups we believe we should.

Shame Holds Us Back

The more I read the text, the more I was starting to believe this: Shame is a direct hindrance of growth. We can't expect to move on and we can't expect to help others if we don't address and deal with our own shame. When we feel shame, we naturally lean towards disconnection. Whether it's keeping ourselves busy so that we don't have to face others or just becoming a shell of ourselves (i.e. becoming invisible and purposely drawing less attention to ourselves), Shame keeps us from being who we are called to be.

Shame also keeps us in situations in which we don't want to be. Shame is staying in a degree of study simply because you feel like all the money and time spent would have been a waste. Shame is finally getting the high-paying job you've been striving for only to realize that it makes you miserable; but you worked so hard and it pays so well.

A black man wearing a hat sits on the edge of a rail, looking tired and dejected

In the text, Brown mentions the story of a woman who decided to marry her abusive boyfriend despite the protests from family and friends. Young and hopeful, she believed him when he said that he would manage his temper, that things would be better when they got married. However, the abuse only got worse after marriage, and came to an all-time high after the couple had their first child. Eventually, her injuries became so bad that she could no longer hide it from her family and friends. She experienced the shame of being wrong, the shame of feeling naive, the shame of not making the right choice.

That example is more overt, but it points us to the fact that Shame--at its worst--will keep us in situations we don't like or even cause us harm. But another thing about Shame is that it heavily impacts how we interact with others. Specifically, it disrupts our ability to properly exercise empathy.

I won't dwell too much on the topic of empathy, because I've already talked about it on a previous post. But to keep it brief, empathy isn't necessarily about putting yourself in another's shoes or expressing pity. Shame diminishes our ability to practice empathy, but when empathy and compassion are done right we are essentially letting people know that we hear them, we understand that what is happening to them is hard, and that we can be in that space with them. How can we do that if we don't do it for ourselves?

What Can We Do About Shame?

Shame, as a whole, is a highly individualized experience. Not everyone experiences it in the same exact way. Knowing this, it is easy to feel as if we are trapped in this feeling. But what Shame Resilience Theory suggests is that people who have high levels of shame resilience not only recognize shame, but understand their own shame triggers. Understanding our triggers isn't something we automatically know how to do, but we can learn to do it.

A boy and girl sit together on a bench, smiling and laughing

I'll share one of mine as an example. As a child, I was always complimented for being smart, articulate, and well-read (always reading above grade-level). For someone like me, being seen as smart wasn't just a trait but became a huge part of my young identity. It didn't help that I found myself developing an inferiority complex comparing myself to my older sister and how much she was complimented on all of her good grades (especially math and science, my struggle areas). As a result, my shame trigger became anything that undermined my identity as an intelligent person. The shame appeared throughout my school years when I was struggling heavily with my math classes, it appeared when a subject I didn't know about came up in conversation, and it appears whenever I make a mistake at work. My biggest fear became being seen as incapable and incompetent. It took some time, but once I recognized this shame trigger of mine, I had the opportunity to work on it and keep it in the forefront of my mind. These days I even have a self-talk to oppose those negative feelings when I feel triggered:

Why didn't I know that? = No one knows everything there is to know

That was a dumb mistake = Everyone makes mistakes, it doesn't make me less intelligent

They must think I'm an idiot = I'm smart and resourceful; I can't control what others may or may not believe about me.

The next time you find yourself feeling intense shame, think about what just happened. What was the event that sent you into this feeling of shame? Has this happened before? What are some patterns you can identify about these events? Pondering these questions can bring us closer to identifying and understanding our shame triggers.

Another suggestion is to learn to reach out. What we learn about compassion, courage, and connection has to be put into practice. This is done by developing and nurturing a Connection Network. In summary, a Connection Network is made up of individuals and groups who reach out to us with empathy and support. I've seen a lot of talk on the internet about how people don't bother sharing anything good or anything bad with their peers. While I do believe that our thoughts and feelings aren't meant to be shared with everyone, it doesn't change the fact that we as human need to have connection and community.

In order to do that, we must identify the people in our lives that we can go to for that much needed support. Take some time to think about this. Do you have a Connection Network? Who could be part of that group for you? Are you a person who brings empathy and support rather than shame and judgement? Do you exhibit qualities of someone who could be in somebody else's Connection Network?

I feel like I have shared a lot already, but I highly recommend both I Thought It Was Just Me (But it Isn't) as well as Daring Greatly that delve deeper into these concepts surrounding shame, Shame Resilience Theory, connection, and vulnerability. On her website there are other resources, prompts, etc. that help with this very topic. This is in no way an instant process, but I believe that when we are willing to confront our shame, we make ourselves a lot more available to practice compassion and empathy for others.

Thanks for reading,



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