Today I want to talk about building shame resilience.
If you follow Brene Brown’s work, you already know aaalllll about shame and the importance of building up shame resilience— but if not, let’s do a quick little recap of her work on the Shame Resilience Theory here.
First of all, what is shame?
In Brown’s words, shame is:
“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Shame is a super uncomfortable emotion that significantly impacts a person’s sense of self-regard, social safety, fulfillment, and ability to connect.
Shame can come up acutely—like that one moment in middle school when you humiliated yourself in front of the person you liked, and you wanted to just die or disappear into the floor.
It can also linger and settle, and turn into chronic shame—like the shame a person who is both gay and homophobic might experience for an entire lifetime.
Since shame is the painful feeling that something about us is wrong and bad and makes us unworthy of love and belonging, you can probably imagine how damaging and difficult it would be to carry a lot of it around a daily basis, right?
Research shows that shame plays a significant role in all kinds of issues, from low self-esteem to eating disorders, depression to anxiety, violence to self-harming to addiction.
And to be honest, if you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you experience a lot of shame. I say that because a lot of folks struggling with body image issues carry around a lot of chronic shame.
This is in part because of the myriad ways people who were socialized as girls have been taught to feel shame about ourselves and our bodies.
Our sexuality is dirty and shameful, and must be denied and repressed.
Our bodies are constantly being judged and evaluated as good or bad, based on whether or not other people want to fuck us.
Our appetites and desires are shameful, and must be controlled with discipline.
- Our emotions, sensitivities, and neediness are shameful and must be kept hidden.
In my coaching practice, body hatred, anxiety, obsession, and control are nearly always born out of some version of shame.
Imagine how the feeling that something is deeply and fundamentally wrong with us might mix with a genuine desire to feel better, all while set against a cultural background of fatphobia and diet culture. Is it any wonder people blame their bodies for the shame they’re feeling, and then attempt to get rid of it by changing the way they look?
This is why building shame resilience plays such an important role in healing body image issues.
It’s important to note that shame resilience isn’t about avoiding feelings of shame, but rather handling them in a healthy way when they show up. (Although admittedly, practicing shame resilience can reduce the frequency and intensity with which you feel shame.)
So what is shame resilience?
In Brown’s words shame resilience is:
“that ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain our authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
In short, shame resilience is our ability to notice shame, process it, and then let it go—all without letting it change how we view ourselves. I sometimes describe this to my clients as “learning to handle shame, instead of letting the shame handle us.”
Shame is a normal human emotion, so we’re all going to feel it sometimes. But we want to be able to feel, deal with, and bounce back from shame, instead of letting it completely derail or destroy us.
After all, think about how many times shame has gotten the best of us—
That party you decided not to go to because you felt fat.
That post you wanted to write but didn’t because it made you feel too vulnerable.
That promotion, job, partner, house, business, or other risk you wanted to go for but didn’t because you felt unworthy of it.
Shame keeps us from living our lives. Shame keeps us from showing up and sharing ourselves with the world. Shame keeps us from opening up to people, which makes authentic and nourishing connections extremely difficult. It keeps us playing small, reaching for smaller goals, and avoiding things that make us feel too vulnerable, unworthy, or like we might get hurt.
Which is… honestly… that’s all the best stuff in life.
Luckily, shame has the most power to cause harm when it’s going unacknowledged and unnamed, so even by just increasing your awareness of the concept of shame (and learning what it feels like for you), you’re actually already increasing your shame resilience.
Learning to name and understand shame is the first part of building shame resilience—including asking questions about both the personal vulnerabilities which led to the shame, and the external factors that led to it. (What about this situation made you feel vulnerable? What are the cultural norms, expectations, and ideals that inform this shame?).
The next part is connecting to and opening up others.
Sharing what caused you to feel shame, being met with empathy, and being given a space to unpack and dismantle the feelings of shame is a non-negotiable part of building shame resilience. After all, it’s very difficult for shame to survive when you tell a trusted friend about it, and they say “I’ve been there too.”
This is where our community and relationships have the power to make us or break us. People with the most shame resilience are often the ones with the strongest and most authentic relationships, and vice versa.
The more you open up to people and get met with empathy, the less shame you have. And the less shame you have, the easier it gets to open up to people. This is the upward spiral of shame resilience, and I see it in my body image clients all the time.
This is all because Brown describes the “opposite emotions of shame” as “empathy, connection, power, and freedom.”
Of course, the opposite can be true too. Meaning, if you open up to people and they shame you (or make you feel broken, wrong, or isolated), you’ll have even more shame and find it harder to open up to people in the future.
This is the downward spiral of shame.
So, how has shame affected you?
How have you been affected by feelings of being unworthy of love and belonging?
What risks have you avoided, and what projects have you quit due to shame?
What coping mechanisms have risen up to help you cope with shame?
What role does shame play in your self-concept and body image?
And more importantly, what’s your plan for building up shame resilience in those areas? How will you learn to identify and unpack your shame, and where will you practice opening up and dismantling it with other people who can provide connection and empathy?
For the record, if you want to learn more about this from Brene Brown, I highly recommend her TED talks on vulnerability and shame, as well as all of her books and her netflix special. Her work is imperfect of course, but it’s an amazing starting point to understand these concepts.