The Dangers of Shame

“The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.” ~ Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace

“Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” ~ Salman Rushdie, Shame

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt


Since its inception, I’ve tried to keep this blog uplifting and positive – a balance of inspiration and practical tools that may help you the way they help me.  But sometimes, it’s necessary to talk about unpleasant topics and this week is one of them.  This week’s subject is shame.

It has taken me a long time to write the newsletter this week because of the subject – shame.  But it’s a necessary part of my growth, of cultivating a well-tended life, so I anticipate its part of yours too.

I recently found a poem I wrote in high school that’s reflective of how shame can feel.

I am sick

a horrible disease engulfs my very being

I feel nothing excluding pain, rejection, loneliness

I a leper am forced to exist outside these city walls

finding no comfort no consolation

I ask for little only love, understanding perhaps I request too much

That was twenty years ago.  I spent most of those years practicing perfectionism and avoiding vulnerability at all cost.  I was not going to feel that away again.  I successfully convinced most people that I had it together.  But I never convinced myself.  The more I focused on getting degrees, setting a perfect table, and making money, the more shame reared its head; bringing with it fear, guilt, self-judgment and unworthiness.

Recently I became aware of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston.  She has spent 20 years researching vulnerability and shame.  Her TED talks went viral on YouTube.  She has written three amazing books about her research and what it can teach us.

Shame says “you’re not good enough” and if you try anyway it hits you with “who do you think you are?”  I’ve had a healthy dose of both the past few weeks as I seek to make the Well-Tended Life my full-time profession.  Brown’s books and talks are helping me learn that shame is the killer of innovation and creativity.

Shame can’t survive exposure.  It’s like a childhood monster that only lives in the dark.  I’m trying to shine the light on mine.  It’s isn’t fun or pretty.  But my hope is that my confession will help you begin to do the same.  I’m getting in the arena.  I’m daring greatly.

Where does shame appear in your life?


Shame 101

Shame comes from being taught that we are worthless, unworthy, bad, or something similar.  It usually begins in childhood when we are most vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others.  Severe or repeated physical punishment reinforces the belief.  The problem is that we carry childish opinions of ourselves into adulthood without evaluating their validity or benefit.

People who are shamed have a deep-seeded conviction that they are worthless.  When they perform poorly they take it as validation of their belief.  When they do well, they don’t enjoy it but wait for the ‘shoe to drop’ instead – believing that their success is undeserved.  Deep shame can take a lifetime to recover from.

Shame is universal.  Most people believe that it is reserved for people who “deserve it” but we are all affected, and it rears its ugly head in some of the most familiar places according to brown:

  • 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

These five quotes from Brené Brown offer a good understanding and provide some insight into how to begin overcoming it.

  •  “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” ~ Brené Brown
  • “The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad’.” ~ Brené Brown
  • “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.” ~ Brené Brown
  • “Empathy is the antidote to shame… Shame cannot survive being spoken.  It cannot survive empathy.” ~ Brené Brown
  • “Share with people who have earned the right to hear your story.” ~ Brené Brown

Practical tips

To overcome shame, you have to believe that it is OK to be who you are.  Until you can become a source of your own self-validation, it’s vitally important to gain strength from the people who are closest to you and whom you trust.  Stop believing anyone who treats you as if you are not OK.  Their opinion is not valid or valuable.  Spend more time with people who know you are OK just the way you are.  Let them know more about you and your struggles.

When people treat you poorly:

  • Develop your internal strength and decide to protect yourself.  Defend yourself they was you would defend a child that you loved.  If you wouldn’t allow them to say (or do) it to that child, then it’s not OK to allow them to do it to you.
  • Tell them to stop it, but don’t beg.  Once is enough.  Then hold them responsible for their actions if they are tempted to repeat.  Remember, you teach people how to treat you and it may take some time for both of you to learn this new behavior.
  • When people imply that you aren’t valuable, know that they are wrong.  It is vital to throw away such comments immediately.
  • Trust your emotions.  If you feel angry when you are treated this way, then trust the anger.  Use it as a sign to immediately discredit their opinion and throw it away without question.

When people treat you well:

  • When people treat you well absorb it.  Give yourself permission to feel the good feelings of respect and appreciation.
  • Let that appreciation show.  Thank them and smile.  This reinforces the behavior for both of you.
  • Don’t say or do anything to dissolve a compliment.  A “thank you” will suffice.

How to treat yourself:

  • When you’ve been treated poorly, refuse to internalize it.
  • When you’ve been appreciated or complimented, internalize it.
  • Use positive visualization and affirmation techniques to validate your self-worth.
  • Keep it up.  Remember that it’s not easy to change habits.  You must repeat, repeat, and repeat.  Patience, persistence, and commitment pay off in the end.

Most importantly, talk about your shame with people you trust and love you.  Remember, shame requires silence, secrecy and judgment.  It may be a friend or spouse, but it can also be a therapist or coach.  Shame cannot survive exposure.


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