The airplane was loud. There were crying children, attendants politely making demands, and the engines of the plane roaring, all seemed to be in a secret competition for who could be the loudest. Conversations were passed back and forth over the noise of the plane, some more smoothly than others—
“What is your job?”
“I study women and shame.”
“You study women in chains. That’s interesting.”
“No, I study women and shame and its long-term implications.”
“Oh, that sure is something.”
Brene Brown, professor, lector, author, and podcast host, is no stranger to the topic of shame. In fact, she spent her entire career researching it, but not everyone is as open to learn more, evaluate, and take action against the consequences of shame in their own lives. At the beginning of her research, before her life-giving TED talks, Brene was confronted, through the awkward plane interaction described above, with the harsh reality that the topic she has devoted years of research to is, quite simply, not sexy. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and longing.” When talking or confronting shame, individuals feel it in their entire body. It has been described as a pit in your stomach; it stabs at your heart; it’s being rejected; it’s a prison; it hurts your entire being, which is clearly not the easiest or most fun subject to digest.
Shame is painful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s the raw truth. It is what Brown calls the silent epidemic. Because shame is a universal emotion, no one is immune, not doctors, nurses, therapists, and the people who seem to have the most control over their life. To talk about shame is to know shame, and that is why it is so difficult to find language, compassion, and empathy around the emotion because in trying to help others navigate the trenches of shame, we are forced to confront our own. As a culture, it has become too easy to ignore the consequences of shame(body image, feeling of worthlessness, hate, etc.) in favor of using it as a mechanism for a change of behavior. Still, shame cannot and should not be used to change people and behavior.
Guilt and shame are two separate entities. Brene Brown describes the difference, “guilt can often be a positive motivator of change, while shame typically leads to worse behavior. Guilt is holding an action up against our ethics…shame is focusing on who we are rather than what we have done.” In essence, guilt attacks the action, and shame attacks the person. Instead of thinking, “I did something bad,” we think, “I am bad.” Therefore, we are locked into a cycle of self-loathing that is perpetrated by ourselves and society.
Of course, there is no linear solution to “eradicating” shame, but there ways to sit with it, shake its hand, cope with it, and build shame resilience. Shame resilience, as defined by Brene is, “recognizing shame and understanding triggers, practicing critical awareness(knowing why something exists, how it works and how society is impacted), reaching out and telling our story, and finally, speaking shame,” so that it cannot grow and hide, but instead be confronted. Brown stresses the importance of finding a shared language around shame and how that leads to connection, which is critical. Brene notes that having compassion and empathy towards others is important because in doing so, it shows not only that we are willing to hear someone’s pain but that we can also understand it. Of course, shame is complex, but by building connection, having the courage to share one’s heart, and not ignoring its ramifications, we can get closer to shame resilience.