Learning About Shame from Brené Brown

It’s one of those days when I’ve just heard some of the most profound knowledge, and I feel like I’m jumping to share it because it’s that damn good. Back in October, I downloaded a bunch of audiobooks and podcast episodes to keep myself preoccupied during the long flights and bus rides throughout our vacation (note: if you haven’t already read my October goals post, it highlights the two audiobooks I finished and HIGHLY recommend you read/listen to!).

Y’all know I have an hour commute to get to work each way, right? Yeahhh. In the past, I kind of zoned out while listening to Spotify. Lately, I’ve been listening to podcasts to try to better utilize my commute time in a more fulfilling way. I get a lot of insight and inspiration from the podcasts that I listen to. Recently, I listened to two of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday Conversations podcast episodes where she interviewed Brené Brown, a professor and New York Times bestseller, who has studied vulnerability and shame for the past 13+ years. I must admit that these podcast episodes literally moved me to my core. Naturally, I went on YouTube and did a quick search for her and was met with many options of uploaded Brené Brown talks (to say that I went on a video watching binger is an understatement). 

The following podcast episodes were recorded after Brené’s Talk on Listening to Shame (shown above):

Listen to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversation podcast with Brené Brown on Daring Greatly

Listen to Oprah’s Super Soul Conversation podcast with Brené Brown on Living with a Whole Heart

I sincerely think that I learned more about my psyche through these three Brené Brown videos than months in therapy got me.

What is shame?

Brown notes that shame is easily understood as the fear of disconnection. “Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” She declares,  “Everyone has shame, it’s universal. No one wants to talk about it, and the more you don’t talk about it, the more you have it, and the worse it gets.”

A few of the most impactful quotes I heard from Brené…

Shame has two driving forces: 1) “you’re never good enough”, and if you can mentally get over that stumbling block, 2) “who do you think you are?!” — your ego pushing back.

The thing to know about shame is that it is NOT guilt. Shame is a focus on self, while guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad,” and guilt is, “I did something bad.”

Question: who hear talks negatively to themselves every day? I can think of COUNTLESS times when I have told myself that I’m weak, unworthy, unqualified, not good enough, not creative enough, too naive, not _ ____ enough…the list goes on and on. Sadly, these negative thoughts are so frequent that they’re normalized to me now. If a day goes by without having a bad thought about myself, then mentally I claim victory. How did this happen? All of these years, I’ve been internally repeating these terribly negative thoughts about myself, over and over and over again. Why in the hell am I talking so much shit to myself?

My struggle with shame

While absorbing Brené’s thoughts, it felt like she had been studying me quite literally in a petri dish. Everything she brought up about shame and vulnerability resonated with me. Although shame feels the same way for both men and women, the way it manifests differs by gender. For example, Brené mentions that for women, shame is “do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat…Shame, for women, is this unattainable web of conflicting, competing expectations about who we are supposed to be, and it’s a straight jacket.” In contrast, shame for men is having people think that you’re weak.

It’s terribly hard for me to talk about the root cause of all the shame I’ve felt and continue to feel throughout my life. For me, some of the earliest memories that I have are painted with shame. Cutting a long story very short, my parents separated when I was only 2 years old. It was such a traumatic experience for me that I swear to you all, my first memories are from when I still lived with both of my parents – when I was two years old! I’ve held onto those memories my entire life, and they’re pretty vivid for being a two-year-old’s memories.

Growing up, my sister and I were very close to my dad’s family, but we didn’t have a close relationship with him, which is what I of course craved and wanted more than anything. It made me feel like I wasn’t worthy or good enough for his love, and that’s a really terrible state of mind to have from age 2 and up. So I tried really fucking hard to be perfect. I earned straight As, tried to be a poster child, created great relationships with all my other family members, contributed positively to the community – I did all of those things. Now, would I have behaved similarly if I felt worthy and good enough? I think so because I like doing all of those things, but the catalyst of ALL of that came out of a deep sense of shame and feeling like I had to constantly prove my worth.

Over time, shame started to deeply manifest itself inside of my life. I become too afraid to take risks that I wanted to take because I felt so unworthy. Try out for the competitive gymnastics team at my gymnastics gym? Oh, I couldn’t possibly be good at that (after winning nearly a dozen first-place trophies at competitions). Running for high school student council president? No one would vote for me, I mocked myself.

Seeing a therapist

I would be lying to you if I said that I grew up and figured all this out. To be honest, last year was the first time that I ever talked to anyone about my thoughts and feelings about how I grew up. I started seeing a therapist, and the first time I went to her, I sat down on the couch and literally burst into tears. I didn’t know where or how to even begin to describe what I needed help with. What I can tell you is this: talking about it with a stranger was easier than I ever imagined, and it literally felt like 20 pounds of weight was lifted off of me once I started sharing my story with the therapist.

For those who don’t know, therapy isn’t cheap – it was a necessary investment in my well being. If you can’t afford to see a therapist in person, other online options are available at https://www.talkspace.com/ or https://www.betterhelp.com/.  I had to change some of my spending habits in order to prioritize getting this help for myself, and while the process takes some time – it is a process – I truly believe that therapy can change a person’s life by helping them change their mindsets, perspectives, and behaviors.

“Shame is an epidemic in our culture,” Brené points out. “and to get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other…if we’re going to find our way back to one another, we have to know and understand empathy. Empathy is the antidote to shame…If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” Brown continues, “The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle is “me, too.” 

If you can’t afford any kind of therapy listed above, then talking to a trusted friend or loved one can be a great option. I’d lead the conversation by letting them know that you don’t expect them to fully understand everything you tell them, but you’d greatly appreciate them having an open mind throughout as your vulnerability is at a high.

I got so much out of watching these videos and listening to the podcast episodes. Realizing that I’ve been carrying so.much.shame. with me was pretty astounding. Mental health impacts your thoughts, personality, and social interactions. Having poor mental health can lead to increased anxiety levels, depression, and mental illnesses (see more here).

I know this post might have been a lot…if you take anything at all from it, I hope that you will be kinder to yourself today, and moving forward, work towards speaking out about the shame that you hold. Doing so will truly start to set you free.