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Overcoming Shame

March 29, 2015 | by Rifka Schonfeld

Courage, compassion and connection can disempower shame.

The Talmud teaches us, “Three signs signify that a person has a Jewish essence: he is compassionate, ashamed of doing wrong, and seeks to do acts of kindness” (Yevamot 79a). The sages knew that key components to happiness and productivity are an ability to feel shame, and compassion and kindness to combat the aftereffects of shame.

Dr. Brene Brown spent over a decade studying shame and its effect on society. She explained that we often believe that shame is reserved for only the unfortunate few who have survived terrible traumas. But this is not true. Shame is a universal emotion.

The less we understand about shame and its effect on our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, the more power it can have on our lives. Once we understand the way shame works, then we can figure out how to talk about it and overcome it to live better, happier lives.

What is Shame?

According to Brown, shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is often confused with guilt and humiliation. While guilt focuses on what we’ve done (as opposed to what we would have liked to have done), shame focuses on who we are.

You might feel guilty that you cheated on your diet, but you feel shame if you experience yourself as a cheater. Humiliation is another word that is often confused with shame. When you are publicly called out about an action that you took, you feel humiliated if you believe that the person who rebuked you was inappropriate. Conversely, you feel ashamed if you believe that that you deserve that rebuke.

Shame is an emotion that imprisons you – labels you as “bad,” “stupid,” “fat,” and traps you into believing that these are correct assessments of your worth.

Combating Shame

  • Courage. Shame is an emotion that tunnels inside of us – it cannot survive being shared. The most damaging thing we can do when we experience shame is to bury the story and hide it from everyone around us. Instead, it’s important to have courage and share the story with someone you trust.

  • Compassion. While it is important to share the story, it is equally (if not more) essential to share the shame story with the right person. There are multiple ways that well-intentioned friends can react that will not help assuage the shame. Some of those responses could be: anger at the person who did this to you, feeling bad for you, or only wants to make it better without really listening. Instead, you need to look for a friend who will demonstrate compassion – someone who will answer, “Oh, man, that sounds terrible. I am so sorry. I’ve definitely been there. I can’t stand when I feel that way.”

  • Connection. Through your courage in sharing and your friend’s compassion, you have created a powerful connection to somebody outside of your shame. You can feel exposed to your shame, but also completely loved and accepted – which are the true antidotes to shameful thoughts. Once you forge a connection, you feel you belong.

Vulnerability: The Flipside of Shame

Brown also studied the “flipside” of shame. As she investigated people who lived wholehearted lives, she discovered that the common denominator among all of those who had overcome shame was vulnerability.

According to Brown, vulnerability is “the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.” She references Theodore Roosevelt’s speech in order to explain what she means, President Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs.... [And] if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

How does this connect to vulnerability and happiness? She posits that through her research she has seen time and again that those who live happy lives allow themselves to be vulnerable. It is about being courageous and showing up and being seen. Vulnerability is about showing up in the arena, getting dusty and sweaty, and not about winning or losing.

Vulnerability and Parenting

Brown asserts that we can be better parents when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. She tells her children (and herself), "Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions.... You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.”

Through an embrace of our vulnerability, we can help our children feel a sense of love and belonging – perhaps the most important elements of leading a happy life.

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