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Nov 23 2015
Understanding & Combating Shame

Understanding and Combating Shame

by Jared Byas, Family Business Advisor

We encourage all our members to read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, a book about feeling worthy and the power of vulnerability. In this blog series we wanted to offer a summary of each chapter with a few items for reflection. Enjoy!

Chapter 3 | Understanding and Combating Shame

When we connect our self-worth to what we produce, shame controls us. You have no identity when you tie your worth to people’s opinions of what you can create or not create. But when we develop shame resilience skills, we can be more courageous as we willingly share our gifts and talents. “A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere” (64). Studies show that the secret killer of innovation is shame. Our deep fears of being wrong or belittled keep us from sharing our ideas or providing the feedback necessary to improve an idea. “If you want a culture of creativity and innovation . . . start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams” (65).

So then, what is shame exactly? It’s a fear of disconnection, the experience of believing that we are flawed and unworthy of connection. While guilt says “I did something bad,” shame says “I am bad.” And the anecdote to shame is resiliency. Shame resilience is 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” (74).  Importantly, shame resistance is impossible. We all experience shame; we all decide what to do with that shame, however. The basis for shame resilience is empathy. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive” (75).

So if shame resilience is about connecting through experiences of shame we have to understand how we naturally defend ourselves in ways that keep us from that connection. Some of us move away by withdrawing, some of us move toward by seeking to please, and some of us move against by trying to gain power over others.

For women, the defenses go up around two issues in particular: (1) how they look and (2) how they parent. Competing expectations amplify shame for women: be perfect but make it look easy, don’t upset anyone but speak your mind, be nurturing but don’t be emotional, etc. For men, the defenses go up around being perceived as weak. Men also experience competing expectations: “We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it” (95). As one person told Brown, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable” (96).

Ironically, or perhaps predictably, we judge others in exactly the areas we’re most likely to feel shame. “We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived shaming deficiency” (99). Fight against that tendency. Reach out courageously by wholeheartedly saying “You’re not alone”. Resist the precedent of saying “You’re worse than me.” “To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest act of daring greatly” (110).

For Reflection:

  • Describe a time recently when you tried to resist feelings of shame rather than go through them. Did you withdraw, try to please, or try to gain power?
  • What are your shame triggers?

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