Shaming Shame

by Karin Imhoff, MA LPC - Thalia House Primary & Family Therapist

In our culture today we are bombarded with messages telling us that we need to change, not just what we are doing, but who we are. We are fed this information in millions of tiny ways, so minute and discreet that we do not even notice it happening. The messages creep in at a constant pace until we feel they have always been there. We begin noticing all the ways we have messed up – all the stupid things we have said, the foolish ways we interacted with others, the futile attempts we made to fit in. Then we keep a running list of all of our mistakes in our heads to back up the belief that we are not good enough.

Brene Brown, a renowned shame researcher, says the path to love and belonging begins with the belief that we are worthy of love and belonging. This makes sense, because when we feel we actually belong, we are more likely to be authentic and show our true selves – the recommendation Brown gives for living a wholehearted life. However, it seems the only ones sharing their struggles are the ones who have “made it through” or “only struggle a little here and there.” Rarely do we hear about the deep pain of those who are still struggling. It seems so much easier to share the authentic parts of ourselves when we feel that we will still be accepted - that we may have made some mistakes, but we are still essentially lovable.

So, what happens when we belong to the group of people who do not feel we are worthy of love and belonging? The ones who feel that we are struggling every day to just fit in. We strain to keep others from finding out who we really are – our true authentic selves – because we fear that if they do, we will no longer be accepted. We are afraid someone will find out and we will be cast out, lost, and alone. Or we often hide our true selves from others to keep them from hurting us first. Is there any hope of finding a way to come out of this kind of darkness? How do we begin to believe that we are lovable when the opposite is so deeply rooted?

It begins with knowing this small truth – shame begets more shame, while empathy and compassion douse shame.  In our Shame Resilience group at Thalia House, we work on retraining our brains to believe that we are good enough. An exercise our residents find empowering is one where we practice empathy. We ask each group attendee to anonymously share a shameful thought about themselves that they have been carrying around. These thoughts often lead us to believe that we are unworthy, disgusting, weak, shellfish, alone, etc. They are deeply rooted in the shameful stories we tell ourselves. Because we usually keep them in, we only hear our own minds reinforcing our negative thoughts. However, when these thoughts are written down and read aloud, every single one is met with empathy and compassion. Each shameful comment is met with understanding and kindness (and often with “Thank you for being courageous enough to share that because I carry a similar thought and now I feel less alone.”)

In these groups we are more vulnerable and authentic. We show our raw selves and find that we actually do belong – not despite our flaws, but because of them. We have found that the more authentic and vulnerable we can be, the more resilient to shame we can become. As we become more resilient, we notice that we can understand and accept who we are, find more meaning in our values, and work toward living a more wholehearted, meaningful life.