What is SHAME?

In this Ted Talk, as in her books, Dr. Brene Brown (a social worker, researcher, professor and speaker) explains that SHAME often prevents us from telling our stories honestly and living our lives authentically, because it attacks our self-worth and tells us that we are not (good) enough!

According to Dr. Brown, shame is an emotion that is experienced by all human beings who have the “capacity for connection and empathy”.

She links shame to people’s experiences of addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and/or eating disorders.

Based on her research, Dr. Brown has found that shame festers and grows through (1) silence, (2) secrets, and (3) judgement (from ourselves and others).

She differentiates shame from guilt:  SHAME:  focuses on the self, with the message “I am bad / not good enough”;  GUILT:  focuses on behaviour, with the message “I did something bad”

Dr. Brown’s antidote to shame is VULNERABILITY:

                        Weakness  ≠  Vulnerability  Courage

She defines vulnerability as “the most accurate measurement of courage” AND “the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”!

In her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” (2010), Dr. Brown explains that shame can be prevented and overcome by “living wholeheartedly” through:  (1) the courage to speak and live truthfully and authentically,  (2) compassion for ourselves and others, and  (3) connection with people we trust.

In order to be courageous enough to live wholeheartedly, we must be willing to be vulnerable and allow others to see who we truly are!

Dr. Brene Brown’s research has profoundly inspired me, both personally and professionally!

In fact, it inspired me to write this blog…even though, it has taken me over 6 months (or rather 3 years) of soul searching to get here!

I have always placed a high value on living authentically! And, I’ve prided myself on being able to face my life challenges courageously, so that I may learn and grow from them!  I’ve never allowed myself to shy away from vulnerability for too long!

With that said, my experience of being vulnerable has rarely gone smoothly or looked graceful!

Usually, I comfort myself by hiding in a dark room under a cozy blanket, eating chocolate and watching heartwarming movies (often animations) for days (if not weeks), before dragging myself kicking and screaming towards a challenge!

I feel like a “deer in headlights”, paralyzed by fear of the unknown…fear of taking the next step and “jumping off the cliff” towards a new stage in my life!

I feel overwhelmed by anxiety as I worry about what my family, friends, colleagues, clients and future employers or partner(s) may think of me!

The familiar vicious voice inside my head grows louder and louder, as she reminds me that I haven’t researched enough, learned enough, worked hard enough or become perfect enough to permanently put my thoughts into the abyss of cyberspace, filled with its anonymous critics!

Then, she famously asks, “What makes you think anything you have to say is unique, important or interesting enough to warrant the need to write it down and share it with the world?”

My answer?  Each time I’ve shared my story, my experiences and my life lessons (and refused to live in silence and secrecy), I have shed a layer of my own shame and helped someone else feel (unjudged and) safe enough to shed a layer of theirs!

I agree with Dr. Brown statement that an “epidemic of shame (exists) in our society”!

In fact, in the five years I’ve worked with and learned from people in the helping profession, I have not seen any topic more deeply entrenched and laced with shame and stigma than that of sex, sexuality, sexual health and relationships!

But, what is shame rooted in?  Where does it come from?

In my opinion, shame is the emotion we experience when we believe that we are not living up to the expectations of our family, peers, community, culture, religion, society, and even ourselves!

For every part of our identity (e.g., our gender, age group, profession, ethnicity, etc.), there exists a list of expectations to instruct us on how to behave.

We are taught that, in order to be accepted by others and experience love and belonging, we must meet these expectations.

Hence, we learn very early on that love, belonging and acceptance are NOT unconditional!

Perfection is always the standard!

As imperfect human beings, every single one of us falls short of that standard, which means we all experience shame!

While shame may appear as a personal and internal emotional experience, the attached social stigmas create real-life barriers and practical consequences in our lives (e.g., losing job opportunities, housing prospects, membership in a specific group or institution, etc.)!

Recently, psychiatrist, Linda Gask, courageously broke her silence by blogging about the professional paradox of living with mental illness:

“(In) the health professions, the last thing we usually want anyone to know, particularly our colleagues, is that we too are vulnerable to exactly the same stresses and problems as our patients. We like to see ourselves as strong; indeed maintaining our position on the career ladder often seems to depend on that. There is stigma related to having depression…I’ve managed to live with depression and found ways of coping with it…I refuse to be ashamed of it.”  (Patching the Soul – September 6, 2015)

In fact, “self-disclosure” (sharing the details of your personal identity and life experiences with clients or colleagues) is a touchy subject in helping professions!

Maintaining objectivity is a professional expectation and seen as fundamental to providing effective services to clients!  It is believed that sharing “unnecessary” personal information with clients may blur the professional lines of communication and create an inappropriate sense of intimacy between professionals and their clients.  Professionals become concerned that this shift may interfere with their ability to attend to their clients’ therapeutic needs!

Therefore, self-disclosure is used sparingly and with the expectation that it solely benefit the client!

However, in my work with diverse groups of people, I’ve learned that taboo topics (especially sex, sexuality, sexual health and relationships) immediately trigger people’s experiences of shame!

Shame becomes palpable and easily observable in people’s body language: some sink into their chairs, while others sit up tensely with their arms crossed; most avoid making eye contact; and some begin to laugh nervously!

No one feels safe enough to share their perspectives or experiences, because everyone is afraid that they will be judged and shunned!

I’ve learned that when a professional is willing to make themselves vulnerable enough to start the conversation by disclosing something personal related to a taboo topic, people’s body language and energies instantly soften!  Suddenly, shame begins to dissolve!

By self-disclosing, the professional models vulnerability for their clients AND removes any perceived power differences between them!  They become imperfectly human…and, therefore, relatable!

A small piece of self-disclosure by a professional goes a long way in building a sense of trust and safety in their relationship with their clients!

By now, you must be wondering what I am willing to disclose about myself on these topics!!!

As a child, I was sexually abused for a long time!  I fell into a deep depression and was suicidal every day of my adolescent life!

My salvation?  Researching and learning about sex, sexuality, sexual health and healthy relationships!!!

As I learned more and more on these topics, I became stronger, more open-minded, empathic, compassionate and authentic!

I am no longer ashamed of any of my life experiences!

They have each shaped me into the person I am today, a person I’m proud of!

I have gained a deep understanding of the unrealistic social and cultural expectations and stigmas that permeate our world, as well as the debilitating effects that the resulting experience of shame can have on our lives.

Hence, I am dedicated to sharing my story and all that I’ve learned, as a way to break the silence and challenge the stigmatizing and unrealistic expectations that can make each of us feel small, insignificant and unworthy!

Dr. Brene Brown shares a daily affirmation in her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection” (2010), which now guides my daily life:

“I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also courageous and worthy of love and belonging!”

I hope, dear readers, that you stay connected to your self-worth and live your truth courageously!

Thank you kindly,

-Forouz Salari


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