The Power of Shame Resilience: Brené Brown’s on Shame, Connection, and Empathy

It’s been a couple of months since my therapist introduced me to Brené Brown. Her book The Gifts of Imperfection changed my life; it helped me understand how to sit with my vulnerability and discover my authentic self. After finishing that book, I scoured bookstores and online websites for more of Brown’s work. I found her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It’s Not) and I knew I needed to get my hands on this book.

Brené Brown is a shame researcher based out of Houston, Texas. In this book, she said she started down the road of shame research when a clinical director at a children’s treatment facility she was working at stated: “You cannot change or belittle people into changing their behavior.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? After reading this book and reflecting on my own life, I couldn’t agree more.

Starting this book, I couldn’t think of how shame applied to me. I learned why that could be…shame and guilt are often thought of as the same thing. Brown explains how they’re different and why that difference matters. She defines shame as “believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She says shame and guilt are similar only in that they are ways we evaluate ourselves. However, shame focuses on who you are (“I am bad”) while guilt focuses on your behavior (“I did something bad”). So if shame is about who you are,, then using shame as a means of change won’t work.

What I like about this book the most is not only does Brown inform you of aspects of shame, such as your shame web and support/connection network, but she helps you become shame resilient. It’s worth the time to sit down and read. If you get anything like I did out of it, you’ll learn a lot. Of course, and she even says this in the beginning of her book, it’s not an immediate fix for problems. It’s a great start, but it’s not magic.

Something that’s important, and I think this goes with all areas of mental health, is being critically aware of what triggers negative (and positive) emotions, such as shame. This includes people/communities that are a part of your shame web.

The shame web goes beyond just people to also include the media, television, doctors, teachers, etc. The list could go on. The shame web is a web filled with expectations of who, how, and what we should be. I’m sure you’ve seen the advertisements showing how the ideal woman is thin, curvy, attractive, and young. The advertisements are a part of the shame web. Their ideal of perfection isn’t realistic. It’s often photoshopped. The shame web causes fear, blame, and disconnection.

I took some time out and listed out my shame web: my family, one specific friend, a professor, and myself (because I’m great at being my own enemy). I could easily add two of my supervisors at work, a psychiatrist I stopped going to, television, media, advertisements, and social media.

My shame web reminds me that I can’t reach the expectations they place on me. My family want me to be straight, nearby, and they often put me down because of the decisions I make. My friend I stopped going to because her tough love caused problems. I don’t need to hear “what you think I should hear,” and I don’t need non-compassion. My doctor should be sensitive. I could go on, but the thing to pull from this is it creates shame because I’m not who they want me to be. Shame throws me down the stairs into depression. Then, I’m just drowning until someone pulls me out of it or something bad happens.

Where we can easily find the bad in our lives, our connection/support network can be the good that balances out the bad. If you’ve read any of my blogs you know how much my support group means to me and how detrimental it is for my mental health. They are the people who support you, offer compassion and empathy, and who won’t judge you. They are people you can trust to reach out to. Reaching out for support takes practice and courage. It means having the courage to reach out to someone in your most vulnerable moments. When you’re dealing with shame, reading out for empathy is helpful in moving past shame to something healthier. I want to share an example of reaching out during shame I recently experienced…

A couple of weeks ago I had an extremely tough evening. I was sitting with another woman and we were talking. I had a hard time looking at her while we talked because of embarrassing reasons. As a bisexual woman, I’m always conscious of how I behave around other women, and this was someone I highly respected and admired. After I got home, I reached out to someone who has come to be a really close and trustworthy friend. I shared with her this shaming moment that I couldn’t stop replaying over and over in my head. I was certain the friend I was meeting noticed, and I dreaded if that were true. Instead of replying negatively or judging me, my friend understood the situation. She didn’t talk down about my experience. She understood and empathized with the situation I had been in. Without her support, I would have beat myself up over it enough to never see that friend I met with again.

It’s important to know, trust, and rely on the people in your support network. I’ve recently learned how important empathy is in this process of reaching out. When we are seeking empathy from others, we’re looking to know we’re not alone and others have experienced that too. Empathy makes for meaningful connections that lead to stronger relationships. My friend empathized with my situation and it brought us closer together.

Brown’s book is so good at reminding yourself that you don’t have to do it all. She called it the superwoman syndrome. Society holds women up to impossible standards. She breaks down areas women have shame in, such as body image. I don’t know one person who is completely satisfied or content with their body. The media and television are quick to point out what is normal and ideal and what isn’t. It’s so bad young girls under 10 are going on diets to maintain that ideal body.

Personally, I struggle with the weight gain I experienced after my mother passed away. I gained a lot of weight and I have some problems with my teeth due to other things, and fixing both is difficult. Most of us, I’m sure, go through each year saying something to the degree of “I’ll lose ___ pounds by summertime.” I’m certain the most popular New Year wish is to lose weight. We set goals based on achieve or fail status. Doing that automatically set us up for failure. We want to achieve a perfection that simply isn’t possible. It’s not realistic. She discusses how that sets up for shame. I find myself often staring at myself in the mirror, degrading myself because I’m not that thin girl I’m supposed to be. I set myself for failure each time I say I’m going to lose weight before a specific date. Instead, I should be proud of the small steps I take to achieve that goal. Sure, I may not have lost so much weight by a certain date. However, I’ve cut down on some bad habits and I try to exercise more. By focusing on the small goals rather than the achieve/fail goal, then we skip the shame process by moving away from perfection.

One of the things she wrote about that I connected with the most is what she calls the vulnerability hangover. I’m sure we have all suffered from it. We want to connect with someone so badly that we spew out everything to them. It can happens with those you’re not close with yet or I’ve experienced it with people I already know. You share something with someone and regret it afterwards, feeling shame for sharing that part of yourself. There have been multiple times where I have shared something with someone, usually with people I’m close to, and instantly regret it. I’ve learned I tend to replay shameful moments over and over in my head, so I tend to make myself depression and sometimes physically ill from the shame.

I could really go on about her book. It’s an incredibly source of knowledge. She includes pieces of interviews from some of the women she interviewed for her shame research. And yes, it’s focused on women. There’s a section towards the end where she talks a little about how men suffer from high expectations, such as needing to be tough and strong. Men feel shame the way women do; there are simply different triggers for their shame.

Despite it being focused on women, I think men could gain some perspective as well. Being critically aware and in touch with yourself can help anyone become shame resilient. I mentioned to my therapist, when I first began reading this book, how depressed it made me. I didn’t realize I was feeling shame around my body image or other ways I experience it. I learned I react differently to shame depending on who it’s coming from. I can act aggressively if it’s my family, I isolate myself if it’s friends or strangers, and I used to try to please a friend I no longer consider part of my connection network. My therapist emailed me back and I laughed. She called it growing pains, and I agree with her diagnosis. Learning about myself in the ways this book opens allows me to made me realize a whole list of things about myself, the good and the bad. However, Brown gives you tools and advice on how to recognize shame and work to move past it.

The interviews in this book really, really helps readers understand they’re not alone. I lost count of the number of times I came across a woman saying something that I totally agreed with. I’ll admit I was even relieved because I felt I wasn’t alone in experiencing whatever it was. Connection seems to be the key to moving past shame. If you can connect with someone and share your experience, then you can move forward.

As with many things, shame resilience and empathy takes practice. It takes critical awareness of what you’re thinking and how you’re behaving. I was delighted by the exercises she provided in her book, most which are available on her website. It helped me put things in a new perspective for me. Sure, it depressed me for a few days while beginning this journey, but it was worth making it to the end. I’ll spend time exploring this with my therapist, but I’m confident I have the tools available to me to help me recognize shame and move past it.

Really, really check out her books. She recently published a new book, Braving the Wilderness. I haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet, but I’m certain it will be great.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Shame Resilience: Brené Brown’s on Shame, Connection, and Empathy”

  1. We have shame because we all have that feeling of telling people something near and dear to your heart then meeting the rejection. They either look at us like we’re weird or ridicule what we were vulnerable to discuss. And that’s when we shut down for good and never open up again. I started writing because I wanted to be more open with self because once it’s out there it’s out there for good. That type of writing to an audience helps you get things off your chest. And that transparency makes you feel good. Not just because you eliminate shame, but you know deep down inside that no one is using what makes you shame against you.

    • I absolutely agree with you! I absolutely relate. I find myself saying “I know this is stupid but…” and I get so hurt when I’m shot down. I’ve stopped talking to a lot of my support group because of it. Writing, especially blogging, is a great way to get it out there, find people who experience the same thing, and also have that transparency that protects you.

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