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"Daring Greatly" - Chapter 3 (First Half) - "Understanding And Combating Shame"

Charlottesville, Virginia

March 27, 2020

Back to my summary of the book Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.

Q. Damn, Lucian, why are you doing this? Nobody cares about shame.

A. It may be that no one reading this blog has ever experienced shame. Probably more likely than not because I know so many well-adjusted people. I am not trying to advertise that I dealt with shame (that part is probably obvious!😛 My goal is to share what I have learned about shame in the hope that may be it might help someone else.

Shame (“the intensely 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”) derives its power from being unspeakable. [Shame is something we believe is fundamentally flawed about ourselves that is part of who we are that we cannot change.].

That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.

Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free.

“I was shamed a lot growing up and I don’t want to do that to my three kids. I want them to know they’re enough. I don’t want them to be afraid to talk about the hard shit with us. I want them to be shame resilient.”

Shame resilience is key to embracing our vulnerability. We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we’re damn good at shame.

We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.

We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us -- that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough -- and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.

Vulnerability and love are the truest marks of courage.

Shame has a corrosive effect on how we live, love, parent, work, and lead.

Shame is tough to talk about. But the conversation isn’t nearly as dangerous as what we’re creating with our silence! We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it.

We have to be vulnerable if we want more courage, if we want to dare greatly.

How can we let ourselves be seen if shame has us terrified of what people might think of us?

Sharing something that you’ve created is a vulnerable but essential part of engaged and Wholehearted living. It’s the epitome of daring greatly.

But because of how you were raised or how you approach the world, you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached your self-worth to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless.

If they don’t love it, you shut down. Shame tells you that you shouldn’t have even tried.

Shame tells you that you’re not good enough, and you should have known better.

What happens if you attach your self-worth to your art or your product and people love it, let me answer that from personal and professional experience. You’re in even deeper trouble. Everything shame needs to hijack and control your life is in place. You’ve handed over your self-worth to what people think. It’s panned out a couple of times, but now it feels a lot like Hotel California: You can check in, but you can never leave. You’re officially a prisoner of “pleasing, performing, and perfecting.”

With an awareness of shame and strong shame resilience skills, you can flip the script. You still want folks to like, respect, and even admire what you’ve created, but your self-worth is not on the table.

You are far more than a painting, an innovative idea, an effective pitch, a good sermon, or a high ranking. Yes, it will be disappointing and difficult if your friends or colleagues don’t share enthusiasm, or if things don’t go well, but this effort is about what you do, not who you are. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve already dared greatly, and that’s totally aligned with your values; with who you want to be.

When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts.

A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

The bottom line is that daring greatly requires worthiness. Shame sends the gremlins to fill our heads with completely different messages of: Dare not! You’re not good enough! Don’t you dare get too big for your britches!

Sometimes shame is the result of us playing the old recordings that were programmed when we were children or simply absorbed from the culture. “Shame started as a two-person experience, but as I got older I learned how to do shame all by myself.” Sometimes when we dare to walk into the arena the greatest critic we face is ourselves.

Just like Roosevelt advised, when we dare greatly we will err and we will come up short again and again. There will be failures and mistakes and criticism. If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging, and joy. If we do, we’ll never show up and try again. Shame hangs out in the parking lot of the arena, waiting for us to come out defeated and determined to never take risks. It laughs and says, “I told you this was a mistake. I knew you weren’t _________ enough.”

Shame resilience is the ability to say, “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.”

What is Shame and Why Is It So Hard To Talk About It?

The first three things that you need to know about shame,

1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.

2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.

3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

Shame is the fear of disconnection.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Twelve “shame categories” have emerged from my research:

1. Appearance and body image

2. Money and work

3. Motherhood/fatherhood

4. Family

5. Parenting

6. Mental and physical health

7. Addiction

8. Sex

9. Aging

10. Religion

11. Surviving trauma

12. Being stereotyped or labeled

The importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry.

Shame is real pain.

Physical pain and intense experiences of social rejection hurt in the same way.

Emotions can hurt and cause pain. And just as we often struggle to define physical pain, describing emotional pain is difficult. Shame is particularly hard because it hates having words wrapped around it. It hates being spoken.

Untangling Shame, Guilt, Humiliation and Embarrassment

One of the simpler reasons that shame is so difficult to talk about is vocabulary. We often use the terms embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame interchangeably. We need to be more precise with our language.

How we experience these different emotions comes down to self-talk.

The difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Guilt = I did something bad. Shame = I am bad.

When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding.

When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt -- not shame -- is most often the driving force.

Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful.

Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.

Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.

Humiliation is another word that we often confuse with shame. People believe they deserve their shame; they do not believe they deserve their humiliation.

Humiliation feels terrible and makes for a miserable work or home environment -- and if it’s ongoing, it can certainly become shame if we start to buy into the messaging. It is, however, still better than shame. Rather than internalizing a “loser” comment, think, “This isn’t about me.” When we do that, it’s less likely that we’ll shut down, act out, or fight back. We stay aligned with our values while trying to solve the problem.

Embarrassment is the least serious of the four emotions. It’s normally fleeting and it can eventually be funny.

Shame Is Bad. So What Do We Do About It?

Shame resilience. The ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy—the real antidote to shame.

A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.

To get to empathy and healing, we need to know the four elements of shame resilience (they may not occur in this order):

1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers. Shame is biology and biography. Can you physically recognize when you’re in the grips of shame, feel your way through it, and figure out what messages and expectations triggered it?

2. Practicing Critical Awareness. Can you reality-check the messages and expectations that are driving your shame? Are they realistic? Attainable? Are they what you want to be or what you think others need/want from you?

3. Reaching Out. Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.

4. Speaking Shame. Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame?

Shame resilience is a strategy for protecting connection -- our connection with ourselves and our connections with the people we care about. But resilience requires cognition, or thinking, and that’s where shame has a huge advantage. When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all of our thinking and analyzing and strategizing, gives way to that primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.

The brain is a team of rivals -- the two-party system of reason and emotion: The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.

Because both parties are battling to control one output – behavior -- emotions can tip the balance of decision

In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending really mean e-mails). Most of us use all of these -- at different times with different folks for different reasons. Yet all of these strategies move us away from connection -- they are strategies for disconnecting from the pain of shame.

My commitment to setting boundaries comes from the twelve years I’ve spent studying Wholeheartedness and what it takes to make the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” The most connected and compassionate people of those I’ve interviewed set and respect boundaries.

The most effective path to shame resilience:

1. Practice courage and reach out! Yes, I want to hide, but the way to fight shame and to honor who we are is by sharing our experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.

2. Talk to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back. Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.

3. Own the story! Don’t bury it and let it fester or define me. I often say this aloud: “If you own this story you get to write the ending. If you own this story you get to write the ending.” When we bury the story we forever stay the subject of the story. If we own the story we get to narrate the ending. “I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”

Empathy, the best reminder that we’re not alone. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone.”

Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame hole.

Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us.

Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance. Shame dissipated the minute I realized that I wasn’t alone—that my experience was human.

Shame thrives on secret keeping, and when it comes to secrets, there’s some serious science behind the twelve-step program saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others.”

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