UNDERSTANDING AND COMBATING SHAME


 

CHAPTER 3

UNDERSTANDING AND COMBATING SHAME

(AKA, GREMLIN NINJA WARRIOR TRAINING)

Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it. 

VULNERABILITY AND SHAME IN ONE BOOK!
ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?
OR
DEFENSE AGAINST THE DARK ARTS

Last year, after I had finished a talk on Wholehearted families, a man approached me on the stage. He stuck out his hand and said, “I just want to say thank you.” I shook his hand and offered a kind smile as he looked down at the floor. I could tell that he was fighting back tears.


He took a deep breath and said, “I have to tell you that I really didn’t want to come tonight. I tried to get out of it, but my wife made me.”


I chuckled. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”


“I couldn’t understand why she was so excited. I told her that I couldn’t think of a worse way to spend a Thursday night than listening to a shame researcher. She said that it was really important to her and I had to stop complaining, otherwise I’d ruin it for her.” He paused for a few seconds, then surprised me by asking, “Are you a Harry Potter fan?”


I stalled for a second while I tried to connect everything he was saying. When I finally gave up, I answered his question. “Yes, I am a huge fan. I’ve read all of the books several times, and I’ve watched and rewatched the movies. I’m hardcore. Why?”


He looked a little embarrassed before he explained, “Well, I didn’t know anything about you, and as my dread built up about coming tonight, I kept picturing you as Snape. I thought you’d be scary. I thought you’d be wearing all black and that you’d talk slowly and in a deep, haunting voice—like the world was ending.”


I laughed so hard that I almost spit out the water I was drinking. “I love Snape! I’m not sure that I want to look like him, but he’s my favorite character.” I immediately glanced over at my purse, which was still tucked under the bottom of the podium. In it my keys were (and are) attached to my beloved LEGO Snape keychain.


We shared a laugh about his Snape projection, then things got more serious. “What you said really made sense to me. Especially the part about us being so afraid of the dark stuff. What’s the quote that you shared with the picture of the twinkle lights?”


“Oh, the twinkle light quote. It’s one of my favorites: ‘Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.’”


He nodded. “Yes! That one! I’m sure that’s why I didn’t want to come. It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free. I was shamed a lot growing up and I don’t want to do that to my three kids. I want them to know they’re enough. I don’t want them to be afraid to talk about the hard shit with us. I want them to be shame resilient.”


At this point we were both teary-eyed. I reached up and did that awkward “are you a hugger?” gesture, then I gave him a big ol’ hug. After we let go of our this-stuff-is-hard-but-we-can-do-it embrace, he looked at me and said, “I’m pretty bad at vulnerability, but I’m really good at shame. Is getting past shame necessary for getting to vulnerability?”


“Yes. Shame resilience is key to embracing our vulnerability. We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we’re damn good at shame.”


As I stumbled for better language to explain how shame stops us from being vulnerable and connected, I remembered my very favorite exchange from Harry Potter. “Do you remember when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all of the time and had dark feelings?”


He enthusiastically answered, “Yes! Of course! The conversation with Sirius Black! That’s the moral of the entire story.”


“Exactly! Sirius told Harry to listen to him very carefully, then he said, ‘You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.’”


“I get it,” he sighed.


“We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us—that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough—and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.”


At this point, his wife was waiting by the stage stairs. He thanked me, gave me another quick hug, and walked away. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned back and said, “You may not be Snape, but you’re a damn good Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher!”


It was a conversation and a moment that I’ll never forget. On the way home that night, I thought about a line from one of the books where Harry Potter was detailing the fate of several unsuccessful Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers: “One sacked, one dead, one lost his memory, and one was locked in a trunk for nine months.” I remember thinking, “Sounds about right.”


I won’t go on with the Harry Potter metaphor because I’m sure there’s one or two of you out there who haven’t had the chance to read the books or see the films, but I have to say that J. K. Rowling’s incredible imagination has made teaching shame a lot easier and way more fun. The allegorical power of Harry Potter lends itself to talking about everything from the struggle between light and dark to the hero’s journey and why vulnerability and love are the truest marks of courage. Having spent so long trying to describe and define unnamed emotions and experiences, I find that Harry Potter has given me a treasure trove of characters, monsters, and images to use in my teaching. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.


I didn’t set out to become a wild-eyed shame evangelist or a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, but after spending the past decade studying the corrosive effect that shame has on how we live, love, parent, work, and lead, I’ve found myself practically screaming from the top of my lungs, “Yes, shame is tough to talk about. But the conversation isn’t nearly as dangerous as what we’re creating with our silence! We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it.”


We have to be vulnerable if we want more courage; if we want to dare greatly. But as I told my Harry Potter friend, how can we let ourselves be seen if shame has us terrified of what people might think?


Let me give you an example.


You’ve designed a product or written an article or created a piece of art that you want to share with a group of friends. Sharing something that you’ve created is a vulnerable but essential part of engaged and Wholehearted living. It’s the epitome of daring greatly. But because of how you were raised or how you approach the world, you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached your self-worth to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless.


One of two things happens at this point in the process:

 
  1. Once you realize that your self-worth is hitched to what you’ve produced or created, it’s unlikely that you’ll share it, or if you do, you’ll strip away a layer or two of the juiciest creativity and innovation to make the revealing less risky. There’s too much on the line to just put your wildest creations out there.
  2. If you do share it in its most creative form and the reception doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re crushed. Your offering is no good and you’re no good. The chances of soliciting feedback, reengaging, and going back to the drawing board are slim. You shut down. Shame tells you that you shouldn’t have even tried. Shame tells you that you’re not good enough and you should have known better.

If you’re wondering what happens if you attach your self-worth to your art or your product and people love it, let me answer that from personal and professional experience. You’re in even deeper trouble. Everything shame needs to hijack and control your life is in place. You’ve handed over your self-worth to what people think. It’s panned out a couple of times, but now it feels a lot like Hotel California: You can check in, but you can never leave. You’re officially a prisoner of “pleasing, performing, and perfecting.”


With an awareness of shame and strong shame resilience skills, this scenario is completely different. You still want folks to like, respect, and even admire what you’ve created, but your self-worth is not on the table. You know that you are far more than a painting, an innovative idea, an effective pitch, a good sermon, or a high Amazon.com ranking. Yes, it will be disappointing and difficult if your friends or colleagues don’t share your enthusiasm, or if things don’t go well, but this effort is about what you do, not who you are. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve already dared greatly, and that’s totally aligned with your values; with who you want to be.


When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts. From my research with families, schools, and organizations, it’s clear that shame-resilient cultures nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback. These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.


A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.


Peter Sheahan is an author, speaker, and CEO of ChangeLabs™, a global consultancy building and delivering large-scale behavioral change projects for clients such as Apple and IBM. Pete and I had the chance to work together last summer and I think his perspective on shame is spot on. Pete says,

The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.
If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be “in charge” and to “know all the answers” is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.

The bottom line is that daring greatly requires worthiness. Shame sends the gremlins to fill our heads with completely different messages of:

Dare not! You’re not good enough!
Don’t you dare get too big for your britches!

The term gremlin—as we are most familiar with it—comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1984 horror comedy Gremlins. Gremlins are those evil little green tricksters who wreak havoc everywhere they go. They’re manipulative monsters that derive pleasure from destruction. In many circles, including my own, the word gremlin has become synonymous with “shame tape.”


For example, I was recently struggling to finish an article. I called a good friend to tell her about my writer’s block, and she immediately responded by asking, “What are the gremlins saying?”


This is a very effective way of asking about the shame tapes—the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we carry around in our heads. My answer was “There are a few of them. One’s saying that my writing sucks and that no one cares about these topics. Another one’s telling me that I’m going to get criticized and I’ll deserve it. And the big one keeps saying, ‘Real writers don’t struggle like this. Real writers don’t dangle their modifiers.’”


Understanding our shame tapes or gremlins is critical to overcoming shame because we can’t always point to a certain moment or a specific put-down at the hands of another person. Sometimes shame is the result of us playing the old recordings that were programmed when we were children or simply absorbed from the culture. My good friend and colleague Robert Hilliker says, “Shame started as a two-person experience, but as I got older I learned how to do shame all by myself.” Sometimes when we dare to walk into the arena the greatest critic we face is ourselves.


Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.


Just like Roosevelt advised, when we dare greatly we will err and we will come up short again and again. There will be failures and mistakes and criticism. If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging, and joy. If we do, we’ll never show up and try again. Shame hangs out in the parking lot of the arena, waiting for us to come out defeated and determined to never take risks. It laughs and says, “I told you this was a mistake. I knew you weren’t _________ enough.” Shame resilience is the ability to say, “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.”

So, I’m not trying to kill you. I’m just saying, “We can’t embrace vulnerability if shame is suffocating our sense of worthiness and connection.” Strap yourself in, and let’s get our heads and hearts around this experience called shame, so we can get about the business of truly living.

WHAT IS SHAME AND WHY IS IT SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT IT?

(If you’re pretty sure that shame doesn’t apply to you, keep reading; I’ll clear that up in the next couple of pages.)


I start every talk, article, and chapter on shame with the Shame 1-2-3s, or the first three things that you need to know about shame, so you’ll keep listening:

 
  1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
  3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

There are a couple of very helpful ways to think about shame. First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:


Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.


People often want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And while it feels as if shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places. Twelve “shame categories” have emerged from my research:

 
  • Appearance and body image
  • Money and work
  • Motherhood/fatherhood
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Mental and physical health
  • Addiction
  • Sex
  • Aging
  • Religion
  • Surviving trauma
  • Being stereotyped or labeled

Here are some of the responses we received when we asked people for an example of shame:

 
  • Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
  • Shame is having someone ask me, “When are you due?” when I’m not pregnant.
  • Shame is hiding the fact that I’m in recovery.
  • Shame is raging at my kids.
  • Shame is bankruptcy.
  • Shame is my boss calling me an idiot in front of the client.
  • Shame is not making partner.
  • Shame is my husband leaving me for my next-door neighbor.
  • Shame is my wife asking me for a divorce and telling me that she wants children, but not with me.
  • Shame is my DUI.
  • Shame is infertility.
  • Shame is telling my fiancé that my dad lives in France when in fact he’s in prison.
  • Shame is Internet porn.
  • Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
  • Shame is hearing my parents fight through the walls and wondering if I’m the only one who feels this afraid.

Shame is real pain. The importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry, and the pain that results from social rejection and disconnection is real pain. In a 2011 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, researchers found that, as far as the brain is concerned, physical pain and intense experiences of social rejection hurt in the same way. So when I define shame as an intensely “painful” experience, I’m not kidding. Neuroscience advances confirm what we’ve known all along: Emotions can hurt and cause pain. And just as we often struggle to define physical pain, describing emotional pain is difficult. Shame is particularly hard because it hates having words wrapped around it. It hates being spoken.

UNTANGLING SHAME, GUILT, HUMILIATION,
AND EMBARRASSMENT

In fact, as we work to understand shame, one of the simpler reasons that shame is so difficult to talk about is vocabulary. We often use the terms embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame interchangeably. It might seem overly picky to stress the importance of using the appropriate term to describe an experience or emotion; however, it is much more than semantics.


How we experience these different emotions comes down to self-talk. How do we talk to ourselves about what’s happening? The best place to start examining self-talk and untangling these four distinct emotions is with shame and guilt. The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.”


Guilt = I did something bad.

Shame = I am bad.

For example, let’s say that you forgot that you made plans to meet a friend at noon for lunch. At 12:15 P.M., your friend calls from the restaurant to make sure you’re okay. If your self-talk is “I’m such an idiot. I’m a terrible friend and a total loser”—that’s shame. If, on the other hand, your self-talk is “I can’t believe I did that. What a crappy thing to do”—that’s guilt.


Here’s what’s interesting—especially for those who automatically think, You should feel like a terrible friend! or A little shame will help you keep your act together next time. When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out. Rather than apologizing, we blame our friend and rationalize forgetting: “I told you I was really busy. This wasn’t a good day for me.” Or we apologize halfheartedly and think to ourselves, Whatever. If she knew how busy I am, she’d be apologizing. Or we see who is calling and don’t answer the phone at all, and then when we finally can’t stop dodging our friend, we lie: “Didn’t you get my e-mail? I canceled in the morning. You should check your spam folder.”


When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn’t align with our values, guilt—not shame—is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do against our values and find they don’t match up. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but one that’s helpful. The psychological discomfort, something similar to cognitive dissonance, is what motivates meaningful change. Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. In fact, in my research I found that shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better.


We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.


Again, it is human nature to want to feel worthy of love and belonging. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. When we’re hurting, either full of shame or even just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. In the chapters on parenting, leadership, and education, we’ll explore how shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement, and what we can do to cultivate cultures of worthiness, vulnerability, and shame resilience.


Humiliation is another word that we often confuse with shame. Donald Klein captures the difference between shame and humiliation when he writes, “People believe they deserve their shame; they do not believe they deserve their humiliation.” If John is in a meeting with his colleagues and his boss, and his boss calls him a loser because of his inability to close a sale, John will probably experience that as either shame or humiliation.


If John’s self-talk is “God, I am a loser. I’m a failure”—that’s shame. If his self-talk is “Man, my boss is so out of control. This is ridiculous. I don’t deserve this”—that’s humiliation. Humiliation feels terrible and makes for a miserable work or home environment—and if it’s ongoing, it can certainly become shame if we start to buy into the messaging. It is, however, still better than shame. Rather than internalizing the “loser” comment, John’s saying to himself, “This isn’t about me.” When we do that, it’s less likely that we’ll shut down, act out, or fight back. We stay aligned with our values while trying to solve the problem.


Embarrassment is the least serious of the four emotions. It’s normally fleeting and it can eventually be funny. The hallmark of embarrassment is that when we do something embarrassing, we don’t feel alone. We know other folks have done the same thing and, like a blush, it will pass rather than define us.

Getting familiar with the language is an important start to understanding shame. It is part of the first element of what I call shame resilience.

I GET IT. SHAME IS BAD. SO WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT?

The answer is shame resilience. Note that shame resistance is not possible. As long as we care about connection, the fear of disconnection will always be a powerful force in our lives, and the pain caused by shame will always be real. But here’s the great news. In all my studies, I’ve found that men and women with high levels of shame resilience have four things in common—I call them the elements of shame resilience. Learning to put these elements into action is what I call “Gremlin Ninja Warrior training.”


We’ll go through each of the four elements, but first I want to explain what I mean by shame resilience. I mean the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy—the real antidote to shame.


If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept—it happens between people—it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.


To get to empathy, we have to first know what we’re dealing with. Here are the four elements of shame resilience—the steps don’t always happen in this order, but they always ultimately lead us to empathy and healing:

 
  1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers. Shame is biology and biography. Can you physically recognize when you’re in the grips of shame, feel your way through it, and figure out what messages and expectations triggered it?
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness. Can you reality-check the messages and expectations that are driving your shame? Are they realistic? Attainable? Are they what you want to be or what you think others need/want from you?
  3. Reaching Out. Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.
  4. Speaking Shame. Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame?

Shame resilience is a strategy for protecting connection—our connection with ourselves and our connections with the people we care about. But resilience requires cognition, or thinking, and that’s where shame has a huge advantage. When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all of our thinking and analyzing and strategizing, gives way to that primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.


In his book Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain as a “team of rivals.” He writes, “There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior.” He lays out the dominant two-party system of reason and emotion: “The rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.” Eagleman makes the case that because both parties are battling to control one output—behavior—emotions can tip the balance of decision making. I would say that’s definitely true when the emotion is shame.


Our fight or flight strategies are effective for survival, not for reasoning or connection. And the pain of shame is enough to trigger that survival part of our brain that runs, hides, or comes out swinging. In fact, when I asked the research participants how they normally responded to shame before they started working on shame resilience, I heard many comments like these:

 
  • “When I feel shame, I’m like a crazy person. I do stuff and say stuff I would normally never do or say.”
  • “Sometimes I just wish I could make other people feel as bad as I do. I just want to lash out and scream at everyone.”
  • “I get desperate when I feel shame. Like I have nowhere to turn—no one to talk to.”
  • “When I feel ashamed, I check out mentally and emotionally. Even with my family.”
  • “Shame makes you feel estranged from the world. I hide.”
  • “One time I stopped to get gas and my credit card was declined. The guy gave me a really hard time. As I pulled out of the station, my three-year-old son started crying. I just started screaming, ‘Shut up…shut up…shut up!’ I was so ashamed about my card. I went nuts. Then I was ashamed that I yelled at my son.”

When it comes to understanding how we defend ourselves against shame, I turn to the wonderful research from the Stone Center at Wellesley. Dr. Linda Hartling, a former relational-cultural theorist at the Stone Center and now the director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, uses the late Karen Horney’s work on “moving toward, moving against, and moving away” to outline the strategies of disconnection we use to deal with shame.


According to Dr. Hartling, in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending really mean e-mails). Most of us use all of these—at different times with different folks for different reasons. Yet all of these strategies move us away from connection—they are strategies for disconnecting from the pain of shame.


Here’s a story about one of my own shame experiences that brings life to all of these concepts. It’s not one of my best moments, but it’s a good example of why it’s important to cultivate and practice shame resilience if we don’t want to heap even more shame on top of a painful situation.


First, let me start with a little backstory. Turning down speaking invitations is a vulnerable process for me. Years of pleasing and perfecting have left me feeling less than comfortable with disappointing people—the “good girl” in me hates letting people down. The gremlins whisper, “They’ll think you’re ungrateful” and “Don’t be selfish.” I also struggle with the fear that if I say no everyone is going to stop asking. This is when the gremlins say, “You want more time to rest? Be careful what you wish for—this work that you love could all go away.”


My new commitment to setting boundaries comes from the twelve years I’ve spent studying Wholeheartedness and what it takes to make the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” The most connected and compassionate people of those I’ve interviewed set and respect boundaries. I don’t just want to research and travel all of the time talking about being Wholehearted; I want to live it. That means that I turn down about 80 percent of the speaking requests that I receive. I say yes when it works with my family calendar, my research commitments, and my life.


Well, last year I received an e-mail from a man who was really angry with me because I wasn’t able to speak at an event that he was hosting. I turned down the invitation because it conflicted with a family birthday. The e-mail was mean-spirited and jam-packed with personal attacks. My gremlins were having a field day!


Rather than replying, I decided to forward it to my husband along with a little note telling him exactly what I thought about this guy and his e-mail. I needed to discharge my shame and anger. Trust me, it was not “good girl” e-mail. I can neither confirm nor deny using the word horseshit. Twice.


I hit Reply instead of Forward.


The second my Mac laptop made the airplane swooshing sound that it makes when you hit the Send button, I screamed, “Come back! Please come back!” I was still staring at the screen, totally immobilized by shame layered on shame, when the man fired back a response along the lines of “Aha! I knew it! You are a horrible person. You’re not Wholehearted. You suck.”


The shame attack was already in full swing. My mouth was dry, time was slowing down, and I was seeing tunnel vision. I struggled to swallow as the gremlins started whispering: “You do suck!” “How could you be so stupid?” They always know exactly what to say. As soon as I could catch my breath, I started murmuring, “Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain…”


This strategy is the brainchild of Caroline, a woman whom I interviewed early in my research and then a couple of years later, after she had been practicing shame resilience. Caroline told me that whenever she felt shame, she’d immediately start repeating the word pain aloud. “Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain.” She told me, “I’m sure it sounds crazy, and I probably look like a nut, but for some reason it really works.”


Of course it works! It’s a brilliant way to get out of lizard-brain survival mode and pull that prefrontal cortex back online. After one or two minutes of “pain” chanting, I took a deep breath and tried to focus myself. I thought, “Okay. Shame attack. I’m okay. What’s next? I can do this.”


I recognized the physical symptoms which allowed me to reboot my thinking brain and remember the three ninja-warrior gremlin moves that are the most effective path to shame resilience for me. And fortunately I’ve been practicing these moves long enough to know that they are totally counterintuitive and I have to trust the process:

 
  1. Practice courage and reach out! Yes, I want to hide, but the way to fight shame and to honor who we are is by sharing our experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.
  2. Talk to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back. Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.
  3. Own the story! Don’t bury it and let it fester or define me. I often say this aloud: “If you own this story you get to write the ending. If you own this story you get to write the ending.” When we bury the story we forever stay the subject of the story. If we own the story we get to narrate the ending. As Carl Jung said, “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”

Even though I knew that the most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide or bury our story, I was afraid to make the call. But I did.


I called both my husband, Steve, and my good friend Karen. They gave me what I needed the most: empathy, the best reminder that we’re not alone. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone.”


Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame hole. Not only did Steve and Karen help me climb out by listening and loving me, but they made themselves vulnerable by sharing that they, too, had spent some time in the same hole. Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us. Neither Karen nor Steve had sent an e-mail like that, but they were both intimately familiar with the imposter gremlins and the “getting caught” feeling and the “Oh, shit!” experience. Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance. Shame dissipated the minute I realized that I wasn’t alone—that my experience was human.


Interestingly, Steve and Karen’s responses were totally different. Steve was more serious and more “Oh, man. I know that feeling!” Karen took an approach that had me laughing in about thirty seconds. What the responses shared in common was the power of “me too.” Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of “You’re not alone.”


My conversations with Steve and Karen allowed me to move through shame, get back on my emotional feet, and respond to the man’s “I knew it!” e-mail from a place of authenticity and self-worth. I owned my part in the angry exchange and apologized for my inappropriate language. I also set clear boundaries around future communications. I never heard from him again.


Shame thrives on secret keeping, and when it comes to secrets, there’s some serious science behind the twelve-step program saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” In a pioneering study, psychologist and University of Texas professor James Pennebaker and his colleagues studied what happened when trauma survivors—specifically rape and incest survivors—kept their experiences secret. The research team found that the act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event. Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.


Since his early work on the effects of secret keeping, Pennebaker has focused much of his research on the healing power of expressive writing. In his book Writing to Heal, Pennebaker writes, “Since the mid-1980s an increasing number of studies have focused on the value of expressive writing as a way to bring about healing. The evidence is mounting that the act of writing about traumatic experience for as little as fifteen or twenty minutes a day for three or four days can produce measurable changes in physical and mental health. Emotional writing can also affect people’s sleep habits, work efficiency, and how they connect with others.”


Shame resilience is a practice and like Pennebaker, I think writing about our shame experiences is an incredibly powerful component of the practice. It takes time to cultivate that practice and courage to reach out and talk about hard things. If you’re reading this and thinking, I’d like to be able to have these conversations with my partner or my friend or my child—do it! If you’re reading it and thinking, Shame has become a management style around here, and it’s no wonder that folks are disengaged—we should talk about this—do it! You don’t need to figure it out first or master the information before you engage in conversation. You just have to say, “I’ve been reading a book and there’s a chapter about shame. I’d love to talk about it with you. If I lend you my book, will you take a look?”

The next section is about men, women, shame, and worthiness. I think you’ll want to lend them this chapter as well. What I learned about men and shame changed my life.

WEBS AND BOXES: HOW MEN AND WOMEN
EXPERIENCE SHAME DIFFERENTLY

For the first four years of my study on shame, I focused solely on women. At that time many researchers believed, and some today still believe, that men and women’s experiences of shame are different. I was concerned that if I combined the data from men and women, I’d miss some of the important nuances of their experiences. That I opted to just interview women, I confess, was partially due to my mind-set that when it came to worthiness, women were the ones struggling. At some level, I also think my resistance was based on an intuitive sense that interviewing men would be like stumbling into a new and strange world.


As it turns out, it was definitely a strange new world—a world of unspoken hurt. I got a glimpse into that world in 2005 at the end of one of my lectures. A tall, thin man who I’d guess was in his early sixties followed his wife to the front of the room. He was wearing a yellow Izod golf sweater—an image I’ll never forget. I spoke with his wife for a few minutes as I signed a stack of books that she’d bought for herself and her daughters. As she started to walk away, her husband turned to her and said, “I’ll be right there—give me a minute.”


She clearly didn’t want him to stay and talk to me. She tried coaxing him with a couple of “C’mons,” but he didn’t budge. I, of course, was thinking, Go with her, dude. You’re scaring me. After a few unsuccessful attempts, she walked toward the back of the room, and he turned to face me at my book-signing table.


It started innocently enough. “I like what you have to say about shame,” he told me. “It’s interesting.”


I thanked him and waited—I could tell there was more coming.


He leaned in closer and asked, “I’m curious. What about men and shame? What have you learned about us?”


I felt instant relief. This wasn’t going to take long because I didn’t know much. I explained, “I haven’t done many interviews with men. I just study women.”


He nodded and said, “Well. That’s convenient.”


I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up in defense. I forced a smile and asked, “Why convenient?” in the very high voice that I use when I’m uncomfortable. He replied by asking me if I really wanted to know. I told him yes, which was a half-truth. I was on my guard.


Then his eyes welled up with tears. He said, “We have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us.” I struggled to maintain eye contact with him. His raw pain had touched me, but I was still trying to protect myself. Just as I was about to make a comment about how hard men are on each other, he said, “Before you say anything about those mean coaches, bosses, brothers, and fathers being the only ones…” He pointed toward the back of the room where his wife was standing and said, “My wife and daughters—the ones you signed all of those books for—they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.”


Holding my breath, I had this very visceral reaction to what he was saying. It hit me the way only truth can. He let out a long sigh, and as quickly as he had begun, he said, “That’s all I wanted to say. Thanks for listening.” Then he just walked away.


I had spent years researching women and hearing their stories of struggle. In that moment, I realized that men have their own stories and that if we’re going to find our way out of shame, it will be together. So, this section is about what I’ve learned about women, men, how we hurt each other, and how we need each other to heal.

What I’ve come to believe about men and women now that I’ve studied both is that men and women are equally affected by shame. The messages and expectations that fuel shame are most definitely organized by gender, but the experience of shame is universal and deeply human.

WOMEN AND THE SHAME WEB

When I asked women to share their definitions or experiences of shame, here’s what I heard:

 
  • Look perfect. Do perfect. Be perfect. Anything less than that is shaming.
  • Being judged by other mothers.
  • Being exposed—the flawed parts of yourself that you want to hide from everyone are revealed.
  • No matter what I achieve or how far I’ve come, where I come from and what I’ve survived will always keep me from feeling like I’m good enough.
  • Even though everyone knows that there’s no way to do it all, everyone still expects it. Shame is when you can’t pull off looking like it’s under control.
  • Never enough at home. Never enough at work. Never enough in bed. Never enough with my parents. Shame is never enough.
  • No seat at the cool table. The pretty girls are laughing.

If you recall the twelve shame categories (appearance and body image, money and work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled), the primary trigger for women, in terms of its power and universality, is the first one: how we look. Still. After all of the consciousness-raising and critical awareness, we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young, and beautiful enough.


Interestingly, in terms of shame triggers for women, motherhood is a close second. And (bonus!) you don’t have to be a mother to experience mother shame. Society views womanhood and motherhood as inextricably bound; therefore our value as women is often determined by where we are in relation to our roles as mothers or potential mothers. Women are constantly asked why they haven’t married or, if they’re married, why they haven’t had children. Even women who are married and have one child are often asked why they haven’t had a second child. You’ve had your kids too far apart? “What were you thinking?” Too close? “Why? That’s so unfair to the kids.” If you’re working outside the home, the first question is “What about the children?” If you’re not working, the first question is “What kind of example are you setting for your daughters?” Mother shame is ubiquitous—it’s a birthright for girls and women.


But the real struggle for women—what amplifies shame regardless of the category—is that we’re expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we’re not allowed to look as if we’re working for it. We want it to just materialize somehow. Everything should be effortless. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders, and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families. Think about how much money has been made selling products that promise “the natural look.” And when it comes to work, we love to hear, “She makes it look so easy,” or “She’s a natural.”


As I found myself reading through the pages of definitions and examples provided by women I kept envisioning a web. What I saw was a sticky, complex spiderweb of layered, conflicting, and competing expectations that dictate exactly:

 
  • who we should be
  • what we should be
  • how we should be

When I think of my own efforts to be everything to everyone—something that women are socialized to do—I can see how every move I make just ensnares me even more. Every effort to twist my way out of the web just leads to becoming more stuck. That’s because every choice has consequences or leads to someone being disappointed.


The web is a metaphor for the classic double-bind situation. Writer Marilyn Frye describes a double bind as “a situation in which options are very limited and all of them expose us to penalty, censure, or deprivation.” If you take competing and conflicting expectations (which are often unattainable from the get-go) you have this:

 
  • Be perfect, but don’t make a fuss about it and don’t take time away from anything, like your family or your partner or your work, to achieve your perfection. If you’re really good, perfection should be easy.
  • Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but say what’s on your mind.
  • Dial the sexuality way up (after the kids are down, the dog is walked, and the house is clean), but dial it way down at the PTO meeting. And, geez, whatever you do, don’t confuse the two—you know how we talk about those PTO sexpots.
  • Just be yourself, but not if it means being shy or unsure. There’s nothing sexier than self-confidence (especially if you’re young and smokin’ hot).
  • Don’t make people feel uncomfortable, but be honest.
  • Don’t get too emotional, but don’t be too detached either. Too emotional and you’re hysterical. Too detached and you’re a coldhearted bitch.

In a US study on conformity to feminine norms, researchers recently listed the most important attributes associated with “being feminine” as being nice, pursuing a thin body ideal, showing modesty by not calling attention to one’s talents or abilities, being domestic, caring for children, investing in a romantic relationship, keeping sexual intimacy contained within one committed relationship, and using our resources to invest in our appearance.


Basically, we have to be willing to stay as small, sweet, and quiet as possible, and use our time and talent to look pretty. Our dreams, ambitions, and gifts are unimportant. God forbid that some young girl who has the cure for cancer tucked away in her abilities finds this list and decides to follow the rules. If she does, we’ll never know her genius—and I feel sure of that. Why? Because every successful woman whom I’ve interviewed has talked to me about the sometimes daily struggle to push past “the rules” so she can assert herself, advocate for her ideas, and feel comfortable with her power and gifts.


Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and use our voices. When the TEDxHouston video went viral, I wanted to hide. I begged my husband, Steve, to hack into the TED website and “bring the entire thing down!” I fantasized about breaking into the offices where they were keeping the video and stealing it. I was desperate. That was when I realized that I had unconsciously worked throughout my career to keep my work small. I loved writing for my community of readers, because preaching to the choir is easy and relatively safe. The quick and global spread of my work was exactly what I had always tried to avoid. I didn’t want the exposure, and I was terrified of the mean-spirited criticism that’s so rampant in Internet culture.


Well, the mean-spiritedness happened, and the vast majority of it was directed to reinforcing those norms that we’d love to believe are outdated. When a news outlet shared the video on their site, a heated debate erupted in the comments section of their website about (of course!) my weight. “How can she talk about worthiness when she clearly needs to lose fifteen pounds?” On another site, a debate grew about the appropriateness of mothers having breakdowns. “I feel sorry for her children. Good mothers don’t fall apart.” Another commenter wrote, “Less research. More Botox.”


Something similar happened when I wrote an article on imperfection for CNN.com. To accompany the article, the editor used a photo I had taken of a good friend who had “I am Enough” written across the top of her chest. It’s a beautiful photo that I have hanging in my study as a reminder. Well, that fueled comments like “She may believe that she’s enough, but by the look of that chest, she could use some more,” and “If I looked like Brené Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too.”


I know that these examples are symptomatic of the cruelty culture that we live in today and that everyone is fair game, but think about how and what they chose to attack. They went after my appearance and my mothering—two kill shots taken straight from the list of feminine norms. They didn’t go after my intellect or my arguments. That wouldn’t hurt enough.


So, no, those societal norms aren’t outdated, even if they’re reductionist and squeeze the life out of us, and shame is the route to enforcing them. Which is another reminder of why shame resilience is a prerequisite for vulnerability. I believe I dared greatly in my TEDxHouston talk. Talking about my struggles was a courageous thing for me to do, given my drive to self-protect and use research as armor. And the only reason I’m still standing (and sitting here writing this book) is because I’ve cultivated some pretty fierce shame resilience skills and I’m crystal clear that courage is an important value to me.

I clearly saw that these comments triggered shame in me and I could quickly reality-check the messages. Yes, they still hurt. Yes, I was pissed. Yes, I cried my eyes out. Yes, I wanted to disappear. But I gave myself permission to feel these things for a couple of hours or days, then I reached out, talked through my feelings with people I trust and love, and I moved on. I felt more courageous, more compassionate, more connected. (I also stopped reading anonymous comments. If you’re not in the arena with the rest of us, fighting and getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in your feedback.)

HOW MEN EXPERIENCE SHAME

When I asked men to define shame or give me an answer, here’s what I heard:

 
  • Shame is failure. At work. On the football field. In your marriage. In bed. With money. With your children. It doesn’t matter—shame is failure.
  • Shame is being wrong. Not doing it wrong, but being wrong.
  • Shame is a sense of being defective.
  • Shame happens when people think you’re soft. It’s degrading and shaming to be seen as anything but tough.
  • Revealing any weakness is shaming. Basically, shame is weakness.
  • Showing fear is shameful. You can’t show fear. You can’t be afraid—no matter what.
  • Shame is being seen as “the guy you can shove up against the lockers.”
  • Our worst fear is being criticized or ridiculed—either one of these is extremely shaming.

Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.


Whenever my graduate students were going to do interviews with men, I told them to prepare for three things: high school stories, sports metaphors, and the word pussy. If you’re thinking that you can’t believe I just wrote that, I get it. It’s one of my least favorite words. But as a researcher, I know it’s important to be honest about what emerged, and that word came up all of the time in the interviews. It didn’t matter if the man was eighteen or eighty, if I asked, “What’s the shame message?” the answer was “Don’t be a pussy.”


When I first started writing about my work with men, I used the image of a box—something that looked like a shipping crate—to explain how shame traps men. Like the demands on women to be naturally beautiful, thin, and perfect at everything, especially motherhood, the box has rules that tell men what they should and shouldn’t do, and who they’re allowed to be. But for men, every rule comes back to the same mandate: “Don’t be weak.”


I’ll never forget when a twenty-year-old man who was part of a small group of college students that I was interviewing said, “Let me show you the box.” I knew he was a tall guy, but when he stood up, it was clear that he was at least six foot four. He said, “Imagine living like this,” as he crouched down and pretended that he was stuffed inside a small box.


Still hunched over, he said, “You really only have three choices. You spend your life fighting to get out, throwing punches at the side of the box and hoping it will break. You always feel angry and you’re always swinging. Or you just give up. You don’t give a shit about anything.” At that point he slumped over on the ground. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.


Then he stood up, shook his head, and said, “Or you stay high so you don’t really notice how unbearable it is. That’s the easiest way.” The students grabbed on to stay high like a life preserver and broke into nervous laughter. This happens a lot when you’re talking about shame or vulnerability—anything to cut the tension.


But this brave young man wasn’t laughing and neither was I. His demonstration was one of the most honest and courageous things I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing, and I know that the people in that room were deeply affected by it. After the group interview, he told me about his experiences growing up. He had been a passionate artist as a child, and he winced as he described how he was sure from an early age that he’d be happy if he could spend his life painting and drawing. He said that one day he was in the kitchen with his dad and uncle. His uncle pointed to a collection of his art that was plastered on the refrigerator and said jokingly to his father, “What? You’re raising a faggot artist now?”

After that, he said, his father, who had always been neutral about his art, forbade him from taking classes. Even his mother, who had always been so proud of his talent, agreed that it was “a little too girly.” He told me that he’d drawn a picture of his house the day before all of this happened, and to that day it was the last thing he’d ever drawn. That night I wept for him and for all of us who never got to see his work. I think about him all of the time and hope he has reconnected with his art. I know it’s a tremendous loss for him, and I’m equally positive that the world is missing out.

PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

As I’ve learned more about men and their experiences with shame, I still see that image of a shipping crate with a big stamp across it that reads, “CAUTION: Do Not Be Perceived as Weak.” I see how boys are issued a crate when they’re born. It’s not too crowded when they’re toddlers. They’re still small and can move around a bit. They can cry and hold on to mamma, but as they grow older, there’s less and less wiggle room. By the time they’re grown men, it’s suffocating.


But just as with women, men are caught in their own double bind. Over the past couple of years, especially since the economic downturn, what I have started to see is the box from The Wizard of Oz. I’m talking about the small, curtain-concealed box that the wizard stands in as he’s controlling his mechanical “great and powerful” Oz image. As scarcity has grabbed hold of our culture, it’s not just “Don’t be perceived as weak,” but also “You better be great and all powerful.” This image first came to mind when I interviewed a man who was in deep shame about getting “downsized.” He told me, “It’s funny. My father knows. My two closest friends know. But my wife doesn’t know. It’s been six months, and every morning I still get dressed and leave the house like I’m going to work. I drive across town, sit in coffee shops, and look for a job.”


I’m a skilled interviewer, but I can imagine that the look on my face conveyed something like “How on earth did you pull that off?” Without waiting for my next question, he answered, “She doesn’t want to know. If she already knows, she wants me to keep pretending. Trust me, if I find another job and tell her after I’m back at work, she’ll be grateful. Knowing would change the way she feels about me. She didn’t sign up for this.”


I was not prepared to hear over and over from men how the women—the mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives—in their lives are constantly criticizing them for not being open and vulnerable and intimate, all the while they are standing in front of that cramped wizard closet where their men are huddled inside, adjusting the curtain and making sure no one sees in and no one gets out. There was a moment when I was driving home from an interview with a small group of men and thought, Holy shit. I am the patriarchy.


Here’s the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it. In those moments when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we’re thinking, C’mon! Pull it together. Man up. As Joe Reynolds, one of my mentors and the dean at our church, once told me during a conversation about men, shame, and vulnerability, “Men know what women really want. They want us to pretend to be vulnerable. We get really good at pretending.”


Covert shame hurts just as much as overt shame. Take, for example, the man who told me that he was always feeling shame with his wife around money. He said the latest instance was when his wife came home and said, “I just saw Katie’s new house! It’s amazing. She’s so happy to finally get that dream house. On top of that, she’s going to quit working next year.”


He told me his immediate response was rage. So he picked a fight with his wife about her mother coming to visit, and then quickly disappeared to another part of the house. As we were talking about this conversation, he said, “It was shame. Why did she have to say that? I get it. Katie’s husband makes a lot of money. He takes better care of her. I can’t compete.”

When I asked him if he thought that it was her intention to hurt him or shame him, he responded, “I’m not sure. Who knows? I turned down a job that paid a lot more but required traveling three weeks out of the month. She said she was supportive, and that she and the kids would miss me too much, but now she makes little comments about money all of the time. I have no idea what to think.”

PISSED OFF OR SHUT DOWN

I don’t want to oversimplify something as complex as the response to shame, but I have to say that when it comes to men, there seem to be two primary responses: pissed off or shut down. Of course, like women, as men develop shame resilience, this changes, and men learn to respond to shame with awareness, self-compassion, and empathy. But without that awareness, when men feel that rush of inadequacy and smallness, they normally respond with anger and/or by completely turning off.


Once I had collected enough interviews to start seeing strong patterns and themes, I scheduled interviews with several male therapists who specialize in men’s issues. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t filtering what I heard from the men through my own experiences. When I asked one of these therapists about the concept of “pissed off or shut down,” he told me this story to illustrate the point.


When he was a freshman in high school, he tried out and made the football team. On the first day of practice, his coach told the boys to line up on the line of scrimmage. The therapist had grown up playing a lot of football in his neighborhood, but this was his first experience on a field, in full pads, across from boys whose goal was to flatten him. He said, “I was suddenly afraid. I was thinking about how much it was going to hurt, and I guess that fear showed up on my face.”


He said his coach yelled his last name and said, “Don’t be a pussy! Get on the line.” He said he immediately felt shame coursing through his body. “In that single moment, I became very clear about how the world works and what it means to be a man:

“I am not allowed to be afraid.
“I am not allowed to show fear.
“I am not allowed to be vulnerable.
“Shame is being afraid, showing fear, or being vulnerable.”

When I asked him what he did next, he looked me in the eye and said, “I turned my fear into rage and steamrolled over the guy in front of me. It worked so well that I spent the next twenty years turning my fear and vulnerability into rage and steamrolling anyone who was across from me. My wife. My children. My employees. There was no other way out from underneath the fear and shame.”


I heard such grief and clarity in his voice as he was saying this to me. It made total sense. Fear and vulnerability are powerful emotions. You can’t just wish them away. You have to do something with them. Many men, in fact, use very physiological descriptions when they talk to me about “pissed off or shut down.” It’s almost as if shame, criticism, and ridicule are physically intolerable.


The therapist concluded, “I got into therapy when my rage and my drinking were no longer manageable. When it started costing me my marriage and my relationships with my children. That’s why I do the work I do today.”

Shame resilience—the four elements we discussed in the previous chapter—is about finding a middle path, an option that allows us to stay engaged and to find the emotional courage we need to respond in a way that aligns with our values.

I’M ONLY AS HARD ON OTHERS AS I AM ON MYSELF

Just like the father coming down on his budding artist son or the coach giving his player a hard time, women can also be very hard on other women. We are hard on others because we’re hard on ourselves. That’s exactly how judgment works. Finding someone to put down, judge, or criticize becomes a way to get out of the web or call attention away from our box. If you’re doing worse than I am at something, I think, my chances of surviving are better.


Steve and I met lifeguarding and coaching swimming. The big rule in lifeguarding is to utilize any means possible before you actually jump in and try to pull someone out of the water. Even though you’re a strong swimmer and the person you’re trying to help is half your size, a desperate person will do anything to save themselves—to grab a breath—including drowning you in their effort to survive. The same is true for women and the shame web. We’re so desperate to get out and stay out of shame that we’re constantly serving up the people around us as more deserving prey.


What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived shaming deficiency. It’s hurtful and ineffective, and if you look at the mean-girl culture in middle schools and high schools, it’s also contagious. We’ve handed this counterfeit survival mechanism down to our children.


In my interviews with teachers and school administrators, two patterns emerged that speak directly to this issue. The first pattern reported by faculty and principals was that often the children who are engaging in the bullying behaviors or vying for social ranking by putting down others have parents who engage in the same behaviors. When it came to girls, the phrase that kept emerging from the interviews was “The parents aren’t upset by their daughters’ behaviors; they’re proud of them for being popular.” One school administrator likened this behavior to the fathers who first ask, “Well, did he at least win the fight?”


The other pattern, which has only emerged in the last couple of years, is the age of the children when this starts happening. When I started this work, bullying wasn’t a hot topic, but as a shame researcher, I was aware that it was a growing trend. In fact, I wrote an op-ed on bullying and reality television for the Houston Chronicle over ten years ago. Back then my focus was teenagers because the data pointed to adolescence as the prime age range for these behaviors. In the past couple of years, I’m hearing about girls and boys as young as first grade engaging in these behaviors.


How do we break this insidious pattern? Maybe by deciding (and showing our children) that the solution to being stuck in shame is not to denigrate others stuck just like us, but to join hands and pull free together. For example, if we’re at the grocery store, and we push our cart past another mother whose child is screaming bloody murder and throwing Cheerios on the floor, we have a choice. If we choose to use the moment to confirm that we’re better than she is, and that she’s stuck in the web in ways we are not, we will roll our eyes in disapproval and walk by. Our other choice, though, is to flash that mother our best “you’re not alone—I’ve been there, sister” smile because we know what she’s feeling. Yes, empathy requires some vulnerability, and we risk getting back a “mind your own damn business” look, but it’s worth it. It doesn’t just loosen up the web for her. It loosens it up for us the next time it’s our child and our Cheerios—and you can bet it will be.


What gives me hope about our willingness to extend a hand back and support each other is the increasing number of men and women I encounter who are willing to risk vulnerability and share their stories of shame resilience. I see this in formal and informal mentoring programs. I see this from folks who are writing blogs and sharing their experiences with readers. I see it in schools and programs that not only are becoming increasingly less tolerant of student bullying but are holding teachers, administrators, and parents accountable for their behaviors. Adults are being asked to model the Wholeheartedness that they want to see in the children.

There is a quiet transformation happening that is moving us from “turning on each other” to “turning toward each other.” Without question, that transformation will require shame resilience. If we’re willing to dare greatly and risk vulnerability with each other, worthiness has the power to set us free.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BACK FAT:
MEN, WOMEN, SEX, AND BODY IMAGE

In 2006 I met with twenty-two community college students, male and female, to talk about shame. It was my first coed large group interview. At some point, a young man in his early twenties explained how he had recently divorced his wife after coming back from serving in the military and finding out that she was having an affair. He said he wasn’t surprised because he never felt “good enough for her.” He explained that he constantly asked her what she needed and wanted, and that every time he got close to meeting her needs, she “moved the goalpost another ten feet.”


A young woman in the class spoke up and said, “Guys are the same way. They’re never satisfied either. We’re never pretty, sexy, or skinny enough.” Within seconds a conversation broke out about body image and sex. The discussion was mostly about how it’s so scary to have sex with someone you care about when you’re worried about how your body looks. The young women who started the conversation said, “It’s not easy to have sex and keep your stomach sucked in. How can we get into it when we’re worried about our back fat?”


The young man who had shared the story of his divorce slammed his hand down on his desk and shouted, “It’s not about the back fat! You’re worried about it. We’re not. We don’t give a shit!” The class fell completely quiet. He took a couple of deep breaths and said, “Stop making up all of this stuff about what we’re thinking! What we’re really thinking is ‘Do you love me? Do you care about me? Do you want me? Am I important to you? Am I good enough?’ That’s what we’re thinking. When it comes to sex, it feels like our life is on the line, and you’re worried about that crap?”


At that point, half of the young men in the room were so emotional that they had their faces in their hands. A few girls were in tears, and I couldn’t breathe. The young woman who had brought up the body image issue said, “I don’t understand. My last boyfriend was always criticizing my body.”


The young vet who had just brought us all to our knees replied, “That’s because he’s an asshole. It’s not because he’s a guy. Some of us are just guys. Give us a break. Please.”


A middle-aged man in the group joined in, staring straight down at his desk. “It’s true. When you want to be with us…in that way…it makes us feel more worthy. We stand a little taller. Believe in ourselves more. I don’t know why, but it’s true. And I’ve been married since I was eighteen. It still feels that way with my wife.”


Never in my life before that moment did I think about men feeling vulnerable about sex. Never did I consider that their self-worth was in any way on the line. I didn’t understand. So I interviewed many more men about the topic of sexuality, shame, and worthiness, including mental health professionals. In one of my final interviews on the topic, I sat down with a therapist who had spent more than twenty-five years working with men. He explained that from the time boys are eight to ten years old, they learn that initiating sex is their responsibility and that sexual rejection soon becomes the hallmark of masculine shame.


He explained, “Even in my own life, when my wife isn’t interested, I still have to battle feelings of shame. It doesn’t matter if I intellectually understand why she’s not in the mood. I’m vulnerable and it’s very difficult.” When I asked him about his work around addiction and pornography, he gave me an answer that helped me understand that issue in an entirely new light. He said, “For five bucks and five minutes, you think you’re getting what you need, and you don’t have to risk rejection.”


The reason that response was so revelatory to me was because it was so utterly different from what women felt. After interviewing women for a decade, it was clear that women see the issue of men and pornography as having to do with their own inadequate appearance and/or their lack of sexual expertise. At the end of my interview with this wonderful and wise man, he said, “I guess the secret is that sex is terrifying for most men. That’s why you see everything from porn to the violent, desperate attempts to exercise power and control. Rejection is deeply painful.”

Cultivating intimacy—physical or emotional—is almost impossible when our shame triggers meet head-on and create the perfect shame storm. Sometimes these shame storms are directly about sex and intimacy, but often there are outlying gremlins wreaking havoc in our relationships. Common issues include body image, aging, appearance, money, parenting, motherhood, exhaustion, resentment, and fear. When I asked men, women, and couples how they practiced Wholeheartedness around these very sensitive and personal issues, one answer came up again and again: honest, loving conversations that require major vulnerability. We have to be able to talk about how we feel, what we need and desire, and we have to be able to listen with an open heart and an open mind. There is no intimacy without vulnerability. Yet another powerful example of vulnerability as courage.

THE WORDS WE CAN NEVER TAKE BACK

Too close for missiles, I’m switching to guns.
—Top Gun

When I talk to couples, I can see how shame creates one of the dynamics most lethal to a relationship. Women, who feel shame when they don’t feel heard or validated, often resort to pushing and provoking with criticism (“Why don’t you ever do enough?” or “You never get it right”). Men, in turn, who feel shame when they feel criticized for being inadequate, either shut down (leading women to poke and provoke more) or come back with anger.


For the first few years of our marriage, Steve and I fell into this pattern. I remember one argument when we were both angry beyond belief. After ten minutes of endless chiding on my part, he turned to me and said, “Leave me alone for twenty minutes. I’m done. I won’t do this anymore.” When he shut and locked the door, I got so mad that I actually banged on the door and said, “Get back out here and fight with me.” In that moment, when I heard myself, I saw what was happening. He was on the verge of shutting down or raging, and I was feeling unheard and misunderstood. The result was mutual desperation.


Steve and I are heading into our eighteenth year of marriage, and this year we’ll celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our first date. He is, without question, the best thing that’s ever happened to me. When we got married, neither one of us had any idea what a good partnership looked like or what it took to make it work. If you asked us today what we believe is the key to our relationship, the answer would be vulnerability, love, humor, respect, shame-free fighting, and blame-free living. We learned some of that on our own through good ol’ trial and error, but we also learned from my work and the research participants who were brave enough to share their stories with me. I’m so grateful to them.


I think we can all agree that feeling shame is an incredibly painful experience. What we often don’t realize is that perpetrating shame is equally as painful, and no one does that with the precision of a partner or a parent. These are the people who know us the best and who bear witness to our vulnerabilities and fears. Thankfully, we can apologize for shaming someone we love, but the truth is that those shaming comments leave marks. And shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.


In The Gifts of Imperfection, I share the definition of love that I developed based on my data. Here it is:

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them—we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.

Developing this definition was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Professionally, it just seemed arrogant to try to define something as big and important as love. It felt like an endeavor best left to the poets and artists. My motivation was not to “nail it,” but to start a conversation about what we need and want from love. I don’t care if I’m wrong, but let’s talk about love. Let’s have some conversations about the experience that gives meaning to our lives.


Personally, I fought the data with everything I have. Over and over, I heard the idea of self-love as a prerequisite to loving others, and I hated it. Sometimes it’s so much easier to love Steve and the kids than it is to love myself. It’s so much easier to accept their quirks and eccentricities than it is to practice self-love around what I see as my deep flaws. But in practicing self-love over the past couple of years, I can say that it has immeasurably deepened my relationships with the people I love. It’s given me the courage to show up and be vulnerable in new ways, and that’s what love is all about.

As we think about shame and love, the most pressing question is this: Are we practicing love? Yes, most of us are really good at professing it—sometimes ten times a day. But are we walking the talk? Are we being our most vulnerable selves? Are we showing trust, kindness, affection, and respect to our partners? It’s not the lack of professing that gets us in trouble in our relationships; it’s failing to practice love that leads to hurt.

BECOMING REAL

Do you remember how I mentioned earlier in the chapter that researchers found that attributes such as nice, thin, and modest were qualities that our culture associates with femininity? Well, when looking at the attributes associated with masculinity in the US, the same researchers identified the following: winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and pursuit of status.


Understanding these lists and what they mean is critically important to understanding shame and cultivating resilience. As I explained in the beginning of the chapter, shame is universal, but the messages and expectations that drive shame are organized by gender. These feminine and masculine norms are the foundation of shame triggers, and here’s why: If women want to play by the rules, they need to be sweet, thin, and pretty, stay quiet, be perfect moms and wives, and not own their power. One move outside of these expectations and BAM! The shame web closes in. Men, on the other hand, need to stop feeling, start earning, put everyone in their place, and climb their way to the top or die trying. Push open the lid of your box to grab a breath of air, or slide that curtain back a bit to see what’s going on, and BAM! Shame cuts you down to size.


I think it’s important to add that for men there’s also a cultural message that promotes homophobic cruelty. If you want to be masculine in our culture, it’s not enough to be straight— you must also show an outward disgust toward the gay community. The idea of “do this or dislike these people if you want to be accepted into our group” emerged as a major shame setup in the research.


It doesn’t matter if the group is a church or a gang or a sewing circle or masculinity itself, asking members to dislike, disown, or distance themselves from another group of people as a condition of “belonging” is always about control and power. I think we have to question the intentions of any group that insists on disdain toward other people as a membership requirement. It may be disguised as belonging, but real belonging doesn’t necessitate disdain.


When I look at those eleven attributes of masculinity, that’s not the kind of man I want to spend my life with and that’s not how I want to raise my son. The word that comes to my mind when I think about a life built around those qualities is lonely. The picture in my mind goes back to the Wizard of Oz. He’s not a real person with human needs, but a “great and powerful” projection of what a man is supposed to be. Lonely, exhausting, and soul-sucking.


When I talk to men and women with high levels of shame resilience, they are keenly aware of these lists. They keep those strictures in mind so that when shame starts creeping up on them, or they find themselves fully in shame, they can reality-check these “norms,” thus practicing the second element of shame resilience—critical awareness. Basically, they can choose consciously not to play along.


The man in shame says, “I’m not supposed to get emotional when I have to lay off these people.”


The man practicing shame resilience responds, “I’m not buying into this message. I’ve worked with these guys for five years. I know their families. I’m allowed to care about them.”


Shame whispers in the ear of the woman who’s out of town on business, “You’re not a good mother because you’re going to miss your son’s class play.”


She replies, “I hear you, but I’m not playing that tape today. My mothering is way bigger than one class performance. You can leave now.”


One of the most powerful ways that our shame triggers get reinforced is when we enter into a social contract based on these gender straitjackets. Our relationships are defined by women and men saying, “I’ll play my role, and you play yours.” One of the patterns revealed in the research was how all that role playing becomes almost unbearable around midlife. Men feel increasingly disconnected, and the fear of failure becomes paralyzing. Women are exhausted, and for the first time they begin to clearly see that the expectations are impossible. The accomplishments, accolades, and acquisitions that are a seductive part of living by this contract start to feel like a Faustian bargain.


Remembering that shame is the fear of disconnection—the fear that we’re unlovable and don’t belong—makes it easy to see why so many people in midlife overfocus on their children’s lives, work sixty hours a week, or turn to affairs, addiction, and disengagement. We start to unravel. The expectations and messages that fuel shame keep us from fully realizing who we are as people.


Today, I look back and feel so grateful to women and men who have shared their stories with me. I’m thankful for the people who were brave enough to say, “These are my secrets and my fears, here’s how they brought me to my knees, and here’s how I learned to stand in my worthiness again.” I’m also indebted to the man in the yellow Izod sweater. His vulnerability and honesty set in motion work that has forever changed my career and, more importantly, my life.


As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.


I’ll leave you with this passage from the 1922 children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. My friend DeeDee Parker Wright sent it to me last year with a note that said, “This is what being Wholehearted is all about.” I agree. It’s a beautiful reminder of how much easier it is to become real when we know we’re loved:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

 

 

 



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