How many times have you heard “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” OR, and more insidious, how many times have you thought, “I’m ashamed of myself.”? Does this resonate in you? These words damage us. While shame is not a feeling exclusive to women, it is women who are more inclined get caught up in shame-driven self-talk. Whether you are aware of the presence and power of shame in your life or not Brené Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame can be life changing.
I first heard Dr. Brown speak about her research and this book on CBC’s Tapestry. As I listened intently to the interview, I knew that somehow the universe had given me a gift. I immediately went to my local Chapters and ordered the book. I am so glad I did that. In this book, Brené Brown examines the idea of shame based on her personal experiences and her research into this as she has worked with women. Her book is filled with examples which connect with readers. Dr. Brown presents her readers with a way of understanding and recognizing shame and of moving beyond its potential to affect how we each live our lives.
One of the first things Dr. Brown deals with is the cultural confusion between shame and guilt. These are not interchangeable concepts. She makes clear what shame is and how it differs from guilt. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” (p. 5) As she reminds us, if we hear or tell ourselves “we are bad [you can substitute any other word i.e. unworthy, useless, no good, not good enough]” often enough, we begin to believe it and own it. The belief becomes part of our cells – our personal ethos. Once that happens, we will become afraid to try and to act and to speak what we truly believe.
Guilt, on the other hand, can be a force for change. When we feel guilt, we hold our actions up against our personal ethics and, if our actions are inconsistent with these, we can choose to act differently. Shame and guilt get confused because “Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation; however, that is where the similarities end. The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between ‘I am bad’ (shame) and ‘I did something bad’ (guilt). Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.” (p. 13). Shame is the emotional quick sand.
As is the case with anger and rage, shame, too, is linked with fear. Dr. Brown reminds us that humans are wired for connection, striving for that from birth as we need connection to survive. We are a social animal. One of our most basic fears is being rejected by the group – by our tribe. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected from others. Feeling shame puts up an obstacle or creates a wall which separates us from others. Thus shame disconnects us from our true selves and from each other. In feeling shame we can withdraw or lash out or, inevitably, become depressed. Feeling shame sets up a vicious cycle – we feel disconnected and, when we act out in response to the shame we feel, we feel even greater disconnection from others. And as this cycle continues to run, we begin to use shame against others. We attempt to shame people into action.
Through her interviews with hundreds of women, Dr. Brown has developed a conceptual framework for us to understand and deal with our shame issues. The first element is recognizing shame – the areas of our lives which trigger an unwanted identity which is not who we truly are but who we believe we are expected to be. In her work with women, Dr. Brown has identified 12 general areas in which women struggle most with feeling shame: body image and appearance, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped and labelled, speaking out, and surviving trauma. [As I worked through this, I knew that I had to add two more areas which have generated shame in me in the past.] We women then need to understand our ‘shame web’ which identifies sources of our shame from family, friends, and self-talk to society at large (magazines, TV, and advertising).
Once we women understand our ‘shame triggers’, we then need to develop our personal ‘connection network’ made up of those people with whom we can share our experiences of shame and know that we will not feel further shamed/judged. This ‘connection network’ provides us with a sense of affirmation, belonging, and acceptance. It is absolutely essential because, as Dr. Brown asserts, the antidote to shame is empathy, compassion, and sharing.
In order to counteract the power of shame in our lives, we women can use these concepts to develop what Dr. Brown calls ‘shame resilience’. This involves recognizing our shame triggers, practicing critical awareness so that we know their source, reaching out to our connection network who will not judge us, and speaking our shame out loud so that we can own it. We can then come to reframe our experiences and understand them in a different light. We can see our shame for the fallacy that it truly is and know that what we have felt ashamed for is not who we truly are. As Dr. Brown reminds us, shame only has power if we don’t speak our shame. Shame is something we hide. It cannot survive the light of day.
Brené Brown’s goal in this book is to help each of us eradicate shame from our lives through increasing our understanding of its potential power in our lives and providing each of us with a way to extinguish that power. To do this does feel good, but be warned that this book is not always easy to read. It is a journey to confront ourselves in every area of our life – in all the places which we have never spoken of and in all the ways which we have never fully owned. Dr. Brown, herself, admits that casual acquaintances don’t want to hear about her shame research because it brings up so many difficult emotions.
I Thought It Was Just Me is friendly and approachable. It is not doctrinaire or laden with jargon. That being said, the material of this book does have a feel of ‘social work’ which is Dr. Brown’s field of study. The book does not go beyond the bounds of this field. As well, Dr. Brown believes that shame is a ‘core emotion’, one that brings on fear and anger and other emotions. As I read the book and generated my own exercise to work through my own shame triggers and establish my own connection network, I was always aware that Dr. Brown had written this book grounded on that premise. While doing the work I did based on what I read, I was also aware that there is danger in the potential to see shame and its triggers everywhere.
And having noted that, I know that the approachability of I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame and the potential importance of its material to everyone’s life, men and women and children, make it an essential book for all.