Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Shame on Us: Overcoming Shame's Grip on our Lives

I am an unapologetic fan of Dr. Brene Brown, writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. The first time I heard Brene speak was at the Willow Creek Association's 2013 Global Leadership Summit. I loved her talk so much I even shared about it here in Deep Waters.

Since then, I've heard Brene's popular TED Talks and read her book The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene is an expert on some interesting topics: vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. I want to camp out on this last topic today.

Even before hearing Brene speak or reading any of her books, I was well-acquainted with shame. I couldn't have defined the word (I'll let her do that in a bit), but I knew shame when it came knocking on my front door.

Shame is what I felt earlier this month when I was invited to open up a conference of almost 3000 orphan advocates with prayer. I was nervous and certainly second-guessed their choice to have me pray, but I felt like I got through it pretty well. When I began speaking, the Lord miraculously took my nerves away. I knew the Lord had used me. Afterwards I received positive feedback and encouragement from others.

But later on, the shame crept in like a shadow.

I worried that I'd said all the wrong things. That I'd prayed the wrong prayer. I even worried about my hair, how the humidity and rain had resulted in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad hair day.

Have you noticed all the "I's" in those statements?

All that to say, I unfortunately know shame. And I am determined to begin staring it in the face, and making it back down from me.

So how do we do this?

The first step to overcoming shame is understanding what it is and how it reveals itself in our lives. According to Brene's research, "shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." *

"Shame is all about fear," says Brene. "We're afraid that people won't like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we're struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it's just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles)."

Fear. Like money, it is the root of all kinds of evil. It's the root underneath our sins, our insecurities and our shame.

Shame is part of the human experience. We all have it, whether we admit it or not.

"While it feels as if shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging and religion," says Brene. "To feel shame is to be human."

So what does shame look like? Shame, when not dealt with in a healthy way, works it way out in our lives in one of three ways**:

  • Some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, being silent or secretive
  • Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please others
  • Some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive or by using shame to fight shame (like insulting another person)
No matter how shame rears its ugly head in our lives, it can be destructive to us and those we love.

So how do we overcome shame? My next post will deal with this question on a more spiritual level, but for now, I'll share the characteristics of people who Brene calls "men and women with high levels of shame resilience":

  • They understand shame and recognize what messages and expectations trigger shame for them.
  • They practice critical awareness by reality-checking the messages and expectations that tell us that being imperfect means being inadequate.
  • They reach out and share their stories with people they trust.
  • They speak shame - they use the word shame, they talk about how they're feeling, and they ask for what they need.
Basically, they are aware and they are authentic. They don't deny the power of shame in their lives. They admit to it. They address it. And they are real about it.

I'm tired of shame keeping its grip on my life.

I'm determined to admit it, address it and be authentic with others about it.

Will you do the same?

* Definition and quotes adapted from The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.

** From Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation by Linda M. Hartling, Wendy Rosen, Maureen Walker and Judith V. Jordan

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