What is it that makes some of us fear having a hair out of place, a dish unwashed, or an email left unanswered for a day?
Could it be that we might open ourselves up for criticism or judgment from others, from ourselves?
Brene Brown, author and research expert on the topic of shame, argues that we strive for perfection in the misguided belief that we can avoid criticism, thus avoid feelings of shame.
Unfortunately, as we can all attest, no matter how hard we try and despite our best efforts, someone is always going to find a reason to be unhappy with us.
Some of us are far more sensitive to the criticism of others and far more sensitive to feelings of shame.
Shame, unlike guilt, which is simply about behaviour and says, “I’ve done something wrong,” is far more pervasive and damaging.
Brene Brown describes shame as “The fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection, belonging, or love.”
Guilt says, “I’ve done something bad”.
Shame says, “I am bad”.
At the core of shame, is the belief that there is something about me that if others knew it, I wouldn’t be worthy of love and connection. Brown found the only thing that separated those who took risks and lived confident, love-filled lives (people she refers to as living wholehearted lives), and those who didn’t, was the fear of not being worthy of love and belonging.
People who live wholehearted lives have the courage to say who they are with their whole heart. They have learned to let go of who they think they “should” be and embrace who they are.
They embrace vulnerability, seeing vulnerability, not as a weakness, but as something they have learned to do because they have courage—the courage to be the first one to call after a fight, or the courage to ask why they didn’t get the job.
They willingly put themselves in vulnerable situations and they welcome the opportunity to learn and grow from these situations, no matter how difficult. When they have an experience which is painful or shaming, they share it with someone they trust so that they can rid themselves of the negative experience.
They allow themselves to be comforted with empathy and compassion so they can heal. They use positive self-talk to comfort themselves and to rid themselves of shameful feelings.
Brown found that their low-risk counterparts too often let shame govern their lives, holding them back from taking risks in their relationships and in their work.
Fearing criticism and failure, low-risk people are afraid to speak their minds, put forward their creative ideas, or take risks in being vulnerable in love and other relationships. One of the reasons low-risk people care so much what others think is that others’ judgment of them may trigger their own harsh judgment of themselves.
So how do we learn to let go of shame and take risks in order to gain more connection with others?
The antidote to shame is compassion, not only for others, but for ourselves. When we learn selfcompassion and compassion for others, shame no longer has a place to flourish.
In her book “Daring Greatly,” Brene Brown recommends strategies for developing shame resiliency.
The first is to recognize shame when you experience it and to understand what triggers shame in you.
Next is to reach out when you experience shame and share your story with someone you trust. Connecting with another and sharing your story is the quickest way to break the hold the shame has on you.
People who are shame-sensitive are prone to numbing their shame with alcohol, drugs, video games, gambling, or simply learning to tune out negative emotions.
However, you can’t selectively numb out emotions. If you successfully learn to numb negative emotions, you will also numb positive emotions like joy and happiness, peace and contentment as well.
You will then spend your life on a quest to find meaning in life because life feels empty. Learning to be courageous and to take emotional risks, means learning to embrace imperfection in yourself and in others.
Letting go of the need to be perfect in the misguided belief that it protects you from criticism is the first step.
If you would like to explore this topic with a counsellor, contact your EFAP provider.
Jenny DeReis, MC Psych, CCC
Brown, Brene (2012), Daring Greatly, Penguin Random House, New York, New York, pg. 69.