My first book of 2016 was “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” by Brene Brown, a fascinating introduction to her work on shame resilience. It has triggered a lot of productive thinking for me over the last few weeks – I have found the “shame” paradigm a really useful one through which to analyse many aspects of my personal life, and even my political thinking has been affected. It has been amazing. I now feel I have a “way in” to tackling some of my most long-standing issues.
Shame is a sense of being flawed in such a way as to make us unworthy of love, acceptance, or belonging. It is different from guilt: guilt is a sense that we have done something bad, and it can be useful. Shame is a sense that we are bad. Brene Brown’s message is that shame is an unavoidable part of the human social world; that it serves no particularly useful purpose; and that we can learn to improve how we deal with it – develop shame resilience.
One of the main ways in which shame arises is through failing to meet the expectations of others or of society in general. Many of our culturally-absorbed expectations are contradictory and therefore simply impossible to meet. This is particularly true around certain roles such as mothering. The expectations, and the people whose comments and views perpetuate them (which is probably all of us at some time), constitute a “shame web”.
One of the effects of shame, if it takes hold unconsciously, is to make us judgemental towards others who show the very weaknesses that we feel shame about – weaknesses we are trying hard to hide, deny, or overcome. These weaknesses relate to an “unwanted identity”: a type of person we cannot bear to be seen as; we distance ourselves from that identity by judging and criticising anyone who seems to behave in that way. And thus we become part of the shame web that has trapped us in the first place. Feeling judgemental or critical can often tell us far more about ourselves than anything else, and examining these feelings is a really good way to uncover our own shame triggers.
Brene Brown identifies three types of “shame screen” – behaviours that we typically use to mitigate our sense of unworthiness in a shame-triggering situation, but that don’t really deal with the shame effectively. These are: moving away (withdrawing or hiding oneself), moving towards (appeasing, looking desperately for signs of approval and acceptance), or moving against (being confrontational and defensive). We might use all of these at different times but we probably have a preference for one of them. (For me it’s definitely moving away! Hello, shyness!)
Having discovered that we are experiencing shame, how can we break out of the web? Critical examination of the expectations is key. If we can recognise that the expectations are unrealistic and / or not as important as we have taken them to be, it is easier to accept ourselves as we are. Empathy is also key. Shame is about disconnection, and so the antidote to shame is genuine connection with another person. Telling someone about an experience that triggered shame, and receiving empathy (and perhaps a similar story in return), is very powerful as it immediately dispels the idea that we are alone in our struggles and undeserving of acceptance. Expectations can be radically challenged just by connecting and learning that despite outward appearances, others struggle just as much to meet those expectations.
Of course, it matters who you reach out to for empathy. Opening up to someone who has internalised shame around the same issue and is not yet able to recognise it, would be likely to lead to an exchange that leaves you feeling worse, not better. The best you could probably hope for is sympathy. And one really interesting insight was that sympathy is sort of the opposite of empathy: empathy connects, whereas sympathy keeps you at arm’s length – sympathy is basically a nice way of saying, “from where I am sitting, things look pretty bad, and I wouldn’t want to be over there with you”. I had always wondered why sympathy was such an unpleasant thing! It seemed like it should be comforting or touching and I felt bad for not experiencing it that way. Now I know why. 🙂
All of this has been plenty of food for thought in itself. But one of the most fascinating discoveries for me in the book was the link between pain (or painful experiences) and shame. I will write about that in my next post.