The Importance of Shame

Where Writers get it Right and Pop Psychologists Get it Wrong

Brene Brown is one of my favorite public figures. When she speaks or writes about leadership, about women’s empowerment, about reclaiming one’s own life and voice, I find her to be an incredible and inspiring presence.
So it is painful for me to have to disagree with her on one vital point. When she describes shame as toxic, as self-defeating, as the worst or most destructive of all human emotions, I have to disagree.
Perhaps this comes from our fundamentally different orientation towards the work of self-awareness. You see, my work is grounded in an orientation towards community. I am not merely concerned about my own well-being, my own capacity to work or build a family or earn a salary. Rather, I am concerned about all the other people out there in this world, all trying to do the same thing. I am concerned about the many, many people who are not in Brown’s audience, the people who will never have the time to pick up her book or the access to listen to her TedTalk. I am concerned about the power of human emotions to connect me with the rest of humanity. I am concerned with what happens to those connections when we insist that emotions are not created equally.
I believe that every emotion has its purpose. Mindfulness, spirituality, religion, all have taught me to respect every emotion as a necessary component of the human experience. So when shame creeps up, I listen. I don’t push it away. I don’t assume that someone in my vicinity is “shaming” me out of a deliberate and malicious attempt to manipulate me. I don’t tell myself that my feelings of shame are incorrect, silly, or not real.
Rather, I assume that I have in fact done something completely awful, out of alignment with my values and with my image of myself as a person. Now here is shame to tell me so.
Shame, like every emotion, offers us an opportunity. I can pay attention to my experience of shame and try to figure out what that shame is telling me. When shame encourages me to take time out for self-reflection, I can do so. When shame tells me that I am spending far too much time around other people I don’t respect, I can back away. When my shame reoccurs in my life and will not leave me alone, I can consult a therapist, buy a workbook on working with shame or understanding PTSD, or otherwise engage in some personal growth and development. My shame motivates me to do this necessary inner work.
When I work with shame directly, I almost always discover that my inner ‘story’ about the reasons for my shame is wrong. Maybe I feel shame when I speak in a particularly working-class way, and I tell myself I feel ashamed to be working-class. When I explore my shame further, however, I discover that in fact I feel ashamed to have left my working-class community behind to enter an elite college and now I am not using my spare time to give back in the way I believe I ought to do. Maybe I believe I feel ashamed of being fat, but in fact, I feel ashamed for not advocating for myself and other fat people in this discriminatory world. Maybe, just maybe, there is a part of myself I need to reclaim, a topic I need to speak on, an essay I need to write. Maybe shame is there to tell me where I am going wrong, so I will right my life before I get horribly off track. Maybe shame is like that best friend so many of us want, the one who will tell us straight out when we’re messing up.
If we push shame away, if we call shame ‘toxic’ and repress it and run away from it, we are running away from that friend.
She is the best friend that we are ever going to have. She is the friend who will tell us the truth when no one else will.
We should learn to listen.
We believe shame makes us feel disconnected from those around us, because that is what we have been told. In fact, shame reminds us of differences that already exist. Shame tells us when our individuality is being trampled on in the name of fitting in. Shame tells us that we can either come to terms with those parts of ourselves we hold the most hostility towards, or else we can remain a half-finished person, forever.
Shame teaches us how to be that version of ourselves who is completely loyal to our own values. Shame is our own way of reminding ourselves when we have betrayed those values. Shame rewards us by transforming into delight when we return to the person we most want to be.
The stories we tell about our shame are usually wrong, and they are usually self-flagellating. Our shame itself is not the story we have been telling. Our shame is not inevitable, it’s not the universe’ way of punishing us, and it’s not a reflection of who we are as a person. Yet shame is also not meaningless, or without useful contribution to our lives.
Follow Rumi’s advice. Shame is a visitor. When shame knocks, open the door. Let shame in. Have a conversation. Hear what shame has to say. Thank shame for its arrival. Then, when shame is ready to go, send it on its way with your blessing.
Shame is not here to tell you who to become. Shame is here to teach you how to become the person you most long to be.
I believe that person is somebody who cares. Somebody who will rise to the challenges of being a member of a global human community. I believe in you.
Heed your shame. Believe in yourself, too.

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