I am beyond excited about this post. When Jo emailed me about Brené Brown‘s Shame Resistance Theory, and how what ALL of y’all were doing on APW was actually providing a hugely valuable service to each other, I was hooked. I wanted to hear more. She told me, “Every time you speak up in the comments and shut down someone who is saying “you’ll see”, every time you emphasize that our choices are our choices and you don’t judge any of them (children/no children, work/stay-at-home, etc.) you make that space of empathy and connection even more powerful for each of us. Your blog is a shame-blaster.” So of course, I made her write a post. And it literally made interactions that happen every day on APW make sense to me. She made me even more grateful to each one of you (if that is possible) and made me understand my interactions with other women better. So with that, and a huge amount of gratitude, I bring you Jo:
When Meg emailed telling me that the homework I so kindly shared with her a while ago was interesting and could I write it into a post, my mind went blank and there was one teensy word written across my brain for at least a minute.
Then I was slammed with “butIcan’t!I’mjustafirstyearpart timegradstudentwhobarelyknowswhatI’mtalkingabout,someonewillreaditandcallmeoutonthatandI’ll feelsostupidinfrontofeveryo—oh, wait! [light bulb moment] I’m shaming myself!” So I’ll just (to quote Eminem) shut that sh*t down and tell you all about this awesome theory I read (it’s the impetus behind my new life motto “I make other people look good,” and my new superheroine name “Super Epic Girl”).
It’s called Shame Resilience Theory, and is fairly new, published by Brené Brown in 2004. What she came up with is that shame is a very painful feeling or belief that we are flawed and therefore undeserving of love, acceptance, or a place to belong. Some researchers think that shame is our biggest emotional motivator.
Women experience shame in complex and layered ways. We get a ton of societal messages (have kids, kids turn you into soccer moms, do it all, do nothing, marry young or you’ll never marry at all, if you marry you’re betraying women or sustaining anti-homosexual campaigns, you’re ugly, too fat, too thin, etc.) all at once, all at the same time. We get opposing messages for the same things. Expectations tell you—us– who, how, and what you should be in every aspect of your life. To top it off, from different sources these messages are different. Basically, as Fischerspooner says, you can never win.
Shame is an individual thing—what “triggers” each of us is different, and varies at different times. The usual suspects (parenting, appearance, sexuality, religion, speaking out, and more) are common enough to be almost universal.
What happens after we feel shame? We’re isolated. We feel trapped, powerless, cut off, and alone. We feel this way because each of the cultural expectations we encounter (economic, religious, familial, academic, romantic, professional) cut off another option for us. Shame may not feel like shame—it can present as anger, fear, confusion, judgment, or the need to hide. (This is why Meg said a few weeks ago that other people’s decisions can result in us wanting to – consciously or unconsciously – shame them).
We don’t ever become immune to shame, but we can learn and practice how to overcome it and lessen shame’s affect on us. The things that do that are empathy, connection, power, and freedom. Most people in the study by Brown said that experiencing empathy from another person was the opposite of experiencing shame. I practice this myself by engaging in positive self talk. Instead of saying mentally “I’m such a screw-up”, I say, “I screwed up.” And I take responsibility for that and move on.
Connection is very powerful, however, because when we connect, we receive support, and we work with others in our group of connection to ignore the socio-cultural messages and redefine what is important and valuable. One connection may not be the source of all shame-combating. People in your office might help with professional shame, but may make you feel worse about your parenting choices.
Speaking out about shame can be really hard, but is necessary. I’ve found that doing it online helps, because I’m a teensy bit more anonymous. I told Meg in my initial email that she provides a great space to connect with others, to speak about and explore topics there may not be a lot of (positive) dialogue on in offline life. Every time we find a way to speak our experience without saying that it’s the only way, without telling other people “you’ll seeeeee”, or invalidating choices other than ours, even if they are scary to us, we reduce shame.
And we all do that, we all provide that sense of connection when we comment on grad posts (or Reclaiming Wife), meet up for book clubs, and learn new ways to talk. So thanks, Meg, and the rest of Team Practical—you, I mean you, no shaming yourself or feeling inadequate, even if you’ve never commented—for being a great space of connection and empathy and empowering us all to leave behind and overcome that cultural shame. Down with the shame-web!
(Ha, now all of you want to be MSW students because things like this are awesome, right?! And if you’re smarter at this than I am and can say it better, please be gentle! And Dr. Brown, I really hope that I quoted you correctly because I think that you are incredible. I bought your books and I’m following you on Twitter!)