Shame and the Burden of Suffering Alone

Shame is a commonly used word in our society that is often confused with feelings of embarrassment or guilt.  The differences between these experiences are great however, as shame differs in intensity, isolating effects, and degradation of one’s mental health.  Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher on the topic of shame, says that, “To feel shame is to say that I am a mistake, whereas to feel guilt is to say I have made a mistake.”  Guilt is our healthy response to a wrong we have committed and can be helpful in providing that boost we need for seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.  Shame on the other hand debilitates us in that process by causing us to isolate ourselves and to feel alone in our pain and suffering.  Shame is that invisible yet powerful force that causes us to work feverishly to maintain a poised and calm exterior, while on the inside we are fraught with anxiety and the fear of rejection.

In her book, “I Thought It Was Just Me,” Dr. Brene Brown writes extensively on this topic and provides helpful guidance for how to avoid walking down the lonely path of shame.  The catalysts that insight our shame may vary, but the lies we tell ourselves to get to that point are all the same.  We tend to individualize our experience by saying, “I’m the only one with this kind of problem.”  Next we pathologize ourselves by saying, “Something must be wrong with me.” Lastly, we lie by saying to ourselves that, “I should be ashamed of myself.”  The effects of these lies again, serve to cultivate more shame as they lack empathy and are heavy laden in secrecy; the two ingredients according to  Dr. Brown that serve as nourishment for a robust shame.

The healthy alternative to the shame-fueling lies we tell ourselves come through our critical awareness of the next three concepts.  Instead of individualizing our pain we must place it in context in order to see the big picture and how it is just a small part of our larger story.  Next we normalize our feelings as opposed to pathologizing them, in order to recognize that we are not the only ones experiencing this pain; we are not alone.  Lastly we are to demystify our pain by sharing it with others instead of heaping blame upon ourselves and making the case for our “deserved” shame.   If secrecy and judgment, or a lack of empathy, feed our shame, then speaking out about our experience and confiding in those who will lend a nonjudgmental ear are the keys to starving it.

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