Today we’re going to talk about one of the most pervasive and insidious of the negative emotions; shame.
Powerful word, right? You may be thinking, “Huh? My issue is stress/anxiety/ perfectionism. What does this big ole topic have to do with me?” Like many of you, it’s an emotion I didn’t own when I first heard about this research. I’m not “ashamed” of my life, I thought. But as I read more of the work, I realized how much shame was actually at the root of so many of the negative voices in my head, that it is the source of power of my inner critic.
Shame is simply the fear that I’m not good enough (or smart enough, successful enough, beautiful enough, etc). Shame asks, “Is there something about me that if others see it, they won’t find me worthy of acceptance and connection?” We all have shame and the research shows that the less we talk about it and the less we admit we’re feeling these things, the more power it has over us. Shame grows bigger and stronger in the dark.
So many of us are sure that if we show our true selves, that if we’re authentic about all of who we are, that we won’t be loved. And we waste so much energy trying to be the person we think we are supposed to be that we lose who we really are.
Brené Brown is a shame researcher with an amazing TED Talk (over 12 million views) and book. For her research, she conducts in-depth interviews with people about their lives — the good stuff, the bad stuff, everything. Over the years she’s collected thousands of stories that have helped uncover some very important aspects of human nature. For most people, shame runs a good part of their lives with a constant refrain of “Am I good enough?” This gets in the way of their ability to be who they are and to connect with others.
But there was “also story after story of men and women who were living these amazing and inspiring lives.” And she found just one thing that differentiated these two groups. The inspiring group believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. A simple mindset change is all that keeps the majority of us from feeling worthy.
How to do it
Brené goes into a lot of detail on how to cultivate this feeling of worthiness in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. If this idea intrigues you I highly recommend it. One of the most important components is self-compassion which I explained in significant detail in my last post and which at its heart is really about being kind to yourself.
Today I want to highlight the other most essential piece:
Authenticity – Be real. I know this is easy to say and so hard to do. It’s literally about taking those fears you have about yourself and sharing them with others. It’s about putting your greatest vulnerabilities into words and actually speaking them. To another person.
Now before you go trumpeting all those fears on Facebook or in the conversation you just started on the bus, let me get a little more specific. You want to share these things with someone who’s earned the right to hear them from you, someone you trust and who’s a part of your life. And it’s good to preface such a conversation with specific requests that they don’t try to fix the problem and — at least for this first conversation — you aren’t looking for advice or ways to make it better. Instead you simply want them to listen and love and accept you for both your strengths and your struggles.
Think through the people in your life who might fit this bill. Do you already have some confidants that you could lean on to do a little more here? If not, who are some people in your life that seem grounded, trustworthy and may be willing to spend some time listening? And if you are new to being vulnerable, you don’t have to jump right into your most sensitive fears. Start small and see how this person reacts. See whether you feel heard and held with respect. The key is to get started.
Authenticity and self-compassion when practiced together can help you:
“Wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
— Brené Brown, from the Gifts of Imperfection
[Once again in this blog, I find myself hearing reflections of Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live (remember him? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me!”) in the words I write, which Brené, as a former if-you-can’t-measure-it-it-doesn’t-exist kind of researcher, fully acknowledges. The difference is the scientific thoroughness of her work, so set aside any concerns about the cheesiness of this approach and try it out.]
My Shame Story
In the fall of 2012, I started taking SSRIs (the class of anti-anxiety/anti-depression drugs that includes Prozac, Paxil, etc.) to help tamp down the intense anxiety I had been experiencing for the past several years. And I was embarrassed about it. As the happiness coach, wasn’t I supposed to be so knowledgeable about emotions and so strong in my happiness that I shouldn’t NEED to go on these meds? And I went through some intense rumination cycles as I put so much importance on how others were going to view this decision. At first I didn’t tell anyone except my wife and even then I couched it in the language of ‘experimenting so I can give better advice to my clients’. But the truth was my anxiety was interfering with my ability to live. All the self-work I’d been doing just wasn’t enough.
And as I cycled alone in deeper rounds of not being good enough, of not being strong enough to do this on my own, I fell deeper and deeper into the shame trap. And then I saw a copy of Brené’s book on my shelf and was reminded that this was exactly the stuff I should share with others. So I opened up to several friends about the challenges I was facing and my decision to start taking SSRIs. And it was hard to share this vulnerability, this weakness with others who I wanted to think I was strong. And as I shared, I was looking for those signs of disappointment or judgment from them that I felt I deserved. But for most of those conversations, that didn’t come. Instead I got love and understanding and awareness that even my most put together, grounded friends have struggles. And of course the challenge didn’t end with those disclosures. While I’m off of the meds now, by the end of that year I could count on two hands the number of people that knew I was taking them.. I guess posting about it here is the next step on my journey. 😉
Your Challenge This Week
Make a short list of those people you could confide in. Then set up a conversation over a meal or coffee in the next few weeks. Talk about this research if you want to set the stage. Then share something that’s embarrassing or shameful to you. Share something that you hide from others. Give it a try. It’s a path to sharing and showing and ultimately coming to terms with the real you.
The Happiness Coach
P.S. Want these posts by email? Sign up on the right.
P.P.S. Want to share the post? Click on any of the links below: