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shame

If a boss made you feel stupid or a clique excluded you, you know what shame feels like.   Shame is a very uncomfortable topic.  Brené Brown, PhD, and well-known shame researcher says nothing shuts down a conversation like her response to the question, “What do you do?”

Shame is Human

All of us have experienced shame because, as Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, it turns up in the most “familiar places, including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging, and religion. To feel shame is to be human.”  We humans are hard-wired for belonging because it was critical to the survival of our ancestors who couldn’t make it alone.

Cultivate Resilience

We feel shame when we believe that we don’t measure up to someone else’s standards for fitting in but we can win the shame game by cultivating resilience.  Here is how to do that:

  • Recognize the symptoms: you start down what Brown calls a shame spiral when you think, “I am a failure” instead of “I failed to deliver on my objectives this quarter.”
  • Share your story: since shame thrives in secret, talking with someone you trust takes away its power.  The #MeToo movement is a great example of this but you don’t have to go public.
  • Practice self-compassion: give yourself a break and treat yourself the way you treat other people you love and respect.

The author of A Wrinkle in Time  (the basis for a movie starring Oprah Winfrey) wrote, “People are more than just the way they look.”  How would you complete this sentence: “I am more than…”?

Are you the person everyone comes to see when they need to vent?  Do you spend a lot of time comforting colleagues, friends and family members and then find yourself depressed and exhausted?

Empathy Can Drain You

We are told that empathy is important in understanding how others feel, and yet it can drain us if we take on too many of someone else’s negative emotions.  Practicing compassion along with empathy enables us to relate to others who are suffering without becoming too distressed.

Take Action

Taking actions like these helps us feel that we can make a difference and gives us strength to resist the temptation to wallow in someone else’s misery:

  • Avoid blame
  • Encourage cooperation
  • Give to charitable causes

If you are a naturally empathetic person, I invite you to consider approaching the other person’s pain from your point of view rather than trying to mirror their feelings, and notice the impact on your mental health.