Monday, May 30, 2011

By special request: Learning about shame

Shauna asked me if I could talk more about the online course I took based on Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Brené is a researcher who studies shame, mostly women's shame, and writes books that help both mental health professionals and ordinary people understand why coming to terms with shame is so important.  I think the best way to learn more about this work is to check out Brené's blog, or better yet watch the video of one of her TED talks, where she tells a great story about being asked to speak at a country club. When the woman who was organizing the event realized what the talk would be about, she ordered a change of topic.  She didn't want a discussion of how shame gets in the way of happiness, she wanted a talk on how to live a beautiful, happy life.   The talk is a disaster, Brené said, because the how-to is no good if you "don't talk about the stuff that gets in the way."

After listening to both of Brené's books as audiobooks, I was interested in learning more, so I subscribed to the blog and found out about a several-week online class through Hopeful World Publishing, with a portion of the proceeds to go to building schools in the developing world. I thought this was a good chance to go deeper with the material and to do some good in the world at the same time. There was also an online course community where people could talk about the material.

I ended up finding that the class community was too large to really be engaging. Everyone seemed to be trying hard to be heard. I posted a few times and then gave up, because I just couldn't keep up with all the activity there.

I did really enjoy the audios that went with the course, which went deeper into the material about shame and how dealing with shame is the key to a more authentic life.  Brené's definition of shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Shame, she says, is most often associated with the fear of being associated with an unwanted identity.  I have a great example from a recent blog post on "Now the plan is this..."  Our charming author with the completely unfathomable name was doing one of her long runs for a marathon when she encountered two other runners:

They were moving well faster than me of course, everyone does but I was feeling ok so there was a bit of "Hi!" "Hi!" and I thought nothing of it.About an hour later, near the end of the trail, the two women breezed past again. "Hi!" said I again. I'm known for my originality. Keep going! said the one I didn't know.There was a pause as I took this in.Keep going???Keep going??? I left home at 5.30am! GGGRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!
What's the unwanted identity here? Our heroine is not a newbie runner, but the "Keep going!" suggested that she was. Newbie runner (and the sense that she looked the part) was the unwanted identity that may have caused some shame and definitely caused anger.  She wanted instead to be recognized as the serious, experienced, four-time marathoner that she is.   I have been in this situation more times than I can count, and I didn't have as satisfying a resolution as she did.  I can't speak for her, but I don't like to be thought of as a newbie runner not because I think there's anything wrong with being new (I think it's awesome), but because I don't like the implication that I look unconditioned and out of shape.

The audios went into some interesting discussions on how to react to these situations (don't attack, don't shrink away, don't puff up, take some time to think before you do something you will regret), but also explain why these situations are so hard. Our brain deals with these shame-inducing situations the way it would if we were suddenly attacked by a stranger wielding a baseball bat -- fear, panic, fight-flight-freeze.  Our rational brain, we learn, is completely "offline" in these situations, because if we really were being attacked, intellectualizing about it would be disastrous. That's why we always come up with the right thing to say several minutes later, when our rational brain recovers. These reactions and feelings are common to everyone, at least everyone who has the capacity for human feelings. Interestingly, I just read The Psychopath Test, and one thing that distinguishes us from psychopaths is our ability to feel shame. So the key is not to wish it away, but to learn to handle it better and to recognize when we are feeling shame so we can avoid lashing out or otherwise reacting in a less-than-optimal way.

I would definitely recommend the class if it repeated. I enjoyed listening to the audios on my walks around the neighborhood. I didn't keep up with all the journaling exercises, but I did learn a lot.  If you want a less expensive option, you might consider signing up for the year of reflections course at Hopeful World.

I also recommend the books: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be  and Embrace Who You Are and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About  Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power as well as the video The Hustle for Worthiness. I learned a lot about myself from all of these.  You can also find a lot more videos and information if you Google Brené Brown.


  1. Wow thank you so much for writing this Jen! I appreciate your trademark thoughtfulness and reflection :)

    I watched Brene's TED talk last year and was really intrigued. I relate to a lot of what you say about shame and feel the same way at the moment (walking into a Zumba class and being asked every time if it's my first time coz I look so out bloody lumpy right now).

    Much to ponder here... thanks again :)

  2. This post explains my reactions to the jerk who asked if I knew the sidewalk was there when I was walking on the asphalt, and to the aerobics instructor who talked to me like I'd never done a step class before. It hurts. I knew it was shame, but I didn't understand the anger.

    Thanks for sharing. I will link to my blog when I blog next. I will read her stuff, too.

  3. this is fabulous!!!

  4. OMG I had no idea you read my blog! *feels faint with the honour* The more I run in public in my not-what-most-people-think-of-as-a-marathoner's body, the more I get to understand that once you get used to experiencing the "shame" for what it is - an habitual but currently unhelpful emotional response - you can pass through it. Not avoid it, but pass through it. These are thoughts I have and I don't let them keep me from my joys


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07