Shame has toxic power. It can cause us to withdraw, aggressively defend, or viciously attack. Nothing has the power to get people stuck quite like shame. I have seen shame drive people to near total isolation, to almost complete denial, deep deception, and life-wrecking substance abuse.
I listened to a talk last week (link below) about vulnerability and shame. The speaker, Brene Brown, made a couple of brilliant points. First, she said that shame is highly correlated with anxiety, addictions, depression, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Interestingly, she followed up by saying that guilt is inversely correlated to those things. In other words, shame drives people into dysfunction and guilt drives people away from it. Are you surprised? Shame is about personhood. Guilt is about actions. With guilt, an apology or repentance might offer some relief. But what about shame?
Another of Brown‘s great points was that shame thrives on secrecy. The antidote to shame’s toxic power? Empathy. Empathy absolutely kills it. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced bringing a long-held secret to someone who responded with empathy. Perhaps it was a friend, a lover, or God. In the gospels, Jesus gives us a model for this by confounding shame several times by knowing peoples’ secrets and responding with empathy and kindness.
What does it take to receive empathy? A willingness to be vulnerable. If I could inject my clients with this willingness, I would be one successful shame-therapist. And honestly, for many people, the therapy relationship is the first place to test out vulnerability and see what happens. But the willingness to take the first step is, for some, like taking a swan dive into the Grand Canyon.
If this wisdom can touch our culture, what will be unlocked? What if women don’t have to look perfect and men don’t have to hold it all together? What if failure becomes acceptable and vulnerability is seen as strength? What would the world be like?
Take 20 minutes to listen to Brene Brown’s 20-minute TED talk, (CLICK HERE) or if you’re short on time, check out the last 7 minutes when she focuses on shame. It could be the most important click of your week.