"Shame on you!" These three words can be very damaging, and they often need not be said to women, who are prone to think, "Shame on me!" Does this surprise you? Ring true to you? Whether you are aware of shame or have never given it much thought, Dr. Brené Brown's I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame can be an eye opener. This thorough examination of shame is not only filled with examples but also presents a framework for recognizing and moving beyond shame.
What is shame and how does it differ from guilt? "Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging" (p. 5). Shame results in paralysis and prevents clear thinking due to the flood of emotion. Guilt, on the other hand, can be a motivator for change. The two get confused because "Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation; however, that is where the similarities end. The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between 'I am bad' (shame) and 'I did something bad' (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about behaviors" (p. 13).
Shame is inextricably linked with fear -- fear of being rejected by the group. Human beings are wired for connection, and strive for it from birth, when we require connection to survive. When people experience shame, it places a wedge between them an others which can manifest in several ways, such as withdrawal or lashing out. In other words, the disconnection of shame results in greater disconnection. It also promotes the use of shame against others, further reinforcing the cycle.
Through her research interviews with hundreds of women, Dr. Brown has developed a conceptual schema for shame. The first element is the "shame web," which identifies sources of shame starting with those closest to the person (e.g., family, friends, oneself) and radiating out to society at large (e.g., magazines, TV, advertising). The second element is the "connection network," which consists of those people with whom we can share our experiences of shame and not be further shamed. The connection network promotes affirmation, belonging, and acceptance, which are crucial because the antidote to shame is empathy, compassion, and sharing.
We can use these concepts to develop what Dr. Brown calls "shame resilience." Shame resilience has four elements: recognizing shame triggers, practicing critical awareness, reaching out, and speaking shame. We can use the shame web to recognize sources of shame and what topics we are particularly sensitive to. (Dr. Brown recounts some of her own experiences of "mother shame" because motherhood is a shame trigger for her.) We can learn test the reality of our beliefs and challenge unrealistic expectations. We can then use the connection network to reach out to those who will not judge us and tell them about our experiences. Thus we may reframe our experiences, coming to understand them in a different light that makes us more understanding and empathetic towards ourselves and others.
Although its goal is increased connection, which feels good, be forewarned that this book is not always easy to read. As Dr. Brown herself recounts, casual acquaintances don't want to hear about her shame research because it brings up so many difficult emotions. The book is friendly and approachable, but it shares this problem. It also never steps beyond the point of view of social work, Dr. Brown's field of study. She considers shame to be a "core emotion," one that brings on fear and anger and other emotions, but I am sure there are researchers who would disagree with that assessment. The danger here is overgeneralizing shame and seeing it everywhere.
The research Dr. Brown reports on in I Thought It Was Just Me is about adult women, but at the end of the book she reports on her current research on men and children. She really is trying to be inclusive and thinks we can make the world into a more compassionate place if we all pay attention to shame. It sounds like a long shot to me, but any way of looking at people that results in practical advice that will make us more compassionate is welcome.
Cross-posted to Blogcritics.