Resisting shame

There are three ways people attempt to overcome shame. We move away from the stimulus, by disappearing into our own lives; move towards it, by trying to prove ourselves, attain perfection, people-please; and move against it, by using anger and trying to shame others. All of these dig us into the hole deeper, and move us farther from our present selves. They remove a little of the pain, only for it to come back later.

(What is the alternative to being present in the moment? Being stuck in the past, in failed past tactics for dealing with problems.)

These strategies do not work. They attempt to disconnect from the pain, but we must feel it, accept it and let it go. With a woman who tries to do her down, BrenĂ© Brown repeats her mantra: Don’t shrink and be small for people, don’t puff up and get arrogant and cocky, just stay on your sacred ground. Actually, that sounds quite perfectionist.  In shame, trying to respond rather than react after the woman pushes her buttons she says to herself do not talk, text or type. She has to bring matters to consciousness and soberly assess what the facts really are.

She says, face the shame and heal it with conversation; and with laughter, not as defence or deflection but recognition that I am not alone in this.

I am ashamed of my ways of dealing with shame. My mother taught me to people-please, to pretend to be the way I ought to be; to hide away; to be perfectionist. I am hiding away in my reclusive state, and ashamed of it, because I should not need to.

Much of this has been unconscious. It is all what I do, or what I ought to do, just the way the world is and reality is. I need to bring it into consciousness because otherwise I do not see what a burden it is. In order to go out to work, to face the world again, I need to turn my life around, and like a supertanker with a relatively small rudder I see what a big deal that is. Suddenly that expression is particularly meaningful. It’s huge.

Shame at my effeminate self made me attempt to make a man of myself, joining the territorial army (just about the place I least fitted) and then a woman, by having my testicles removed. It would have been a small price to pay to be normal, to have nothing to feel shame about, if it had worked.

Shame keeps me hiding away.

From Dr Brown’s assessment, self-esteem, considering my gifts and qualities, will not ameliorate shame by itself. Now, it seems that I am ashamed of everything, of all that I am and that I do, and even that I should be so shamed and so incapacitated by it. I fear being shamed if I go out, and then ashamed of not going out. These are powerful buttons for others to push. I am ashamed of what I do to resist feelings of shame. I am ashamed of my life, of the little I have made of it.

I deserve better.


You’re one of the most impressive people I’ve ever encountered. Ooh, tell me more!

I am wise and loving. I know this. This is my nature. I am highly intelligent, by which I mean I make connections; sometimes I am tired or have a blind spot and make them more slowly, sometimes I am practised and on a good day, and make them quickly.

On the phone to the Samaritans, I recounted some of my tales of rejection, difficulty, and trouble at work. I have had a difficult time, and it has broken me. While some people are more resilient, many would be badly hurt by my experiences. And I feel more withdrawn and less able to go out and engage than I was five years ago, when I last worked. It feels as if I am trying to put together a jigsaw, and the pieces and patterns on them do not fit.

In adulthood and in childhood. My mother was controlling, and she communicated her fear to me. We must present a face to the world which is nothing like the organismic self underneath; and we hide away whenever possible, taking refuge in prescribed roles where unavoidable, and in privacy at other times. Her shame and terror made these things into absolute rules for survival in my own mind. While other people don’t care about my eccentricities, particularly, hiding them was paramount for me.

BrenĂ© Brown’s free to watch video is for counsellors rather than clients, but I found it useful. How do you protect yourself from the pain of shame? It is the experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging, she says, and we respond to that pain as we respond to trauma. The only people without shame are also without empathy and the capacity for compassion. There is no significant correlation between shame and self-esteem, because shame is an emotion and self-esteem is a cognitive construct. So repeating my gifts as above is positive, but does not reduce my shame.

We suffer in absence of connection, and after lack of motivation stopped me seeing people on Sunday and bad weather stopped me seeing one person on Tuesday I was feeling this badly. I have not seen another human since Thursday. I joked to Poppy, the Samaritan, that if I were an orangutan that would be OK but for any other great ape, and most primates, it’s bad. Yet I feel weak and needy because I need connection. I should be self-sufficient. I beat myself up about that, as about many things.

I need connection, and I have a drive to hide away, driven by shame.

Shame is not guilt. You feel guilty about behaviour, shame about self. I did something bad, not I am bad. Humiliation has the same physiological response as shame, but we recover because we do not believe we deserve it. Feeling embarrassed is less traumatic, because as you feel it you know you are not alone.

Shame correlates with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, bullying, aggression and violence. So trying to shame someone out of addictive behaviour does not work.

Shame is reinforcing- there is something wrong with me; individualising- it’s only me; pathologizing- I’m broken. If we can bring these things into conscious awareness we can counteract them.

I do that. I must change in order to get out and use my gifts for the community, benefiting others and fulfilling myself. How must I change, I ask. The jobcentre client adviser wants to put me on a new scheme, but did not say what it would do for me. I feel if she thought I would desire what it might do, she would tell me more. She said “You want to go back to work, don’t you? Because some people don’t.” And I thought it is more complex than that. I fear I do not have the resilience or motivation. I don’t feel motivated or resilient. I grope for understanding of this wherever I might find it, such as a documentary on anorexia- the woman knows she has the condition, yet eating anything terrifies her as it will make her fat. They are not being manipulative, getting their parents to look after them again, and they cannot snap out of it. They die of it- or exist, in suspended animation beneath the waves. As for me, I cannot just conjure up resilience and motivation with a few mantras. I can tell myself of my gifts to build self-esteem, and try to notice emotions making me hide away as my mother taught me.

Resilience is critical awareness: Demystifying- I understand how shame works; contextualising- it’s bigger than just me; and normalising- we all struggle.

Vulnerability and-

Many times I have seen BrenĂ© Brown’s first TED video circulated, on Facebook and email lists, and I am endebted to the ever-wonderful Judy “Twoblogs” Wall for her second. I also recommend Dr. Brown’s blog. Vulnerability is a good thing. Vulnerability is the bravery which speaks to people, which elicits the Yes, the Yay, the true connection. What other words apply?

Strangeness. I get the feeling of being more alive, more real, and this is a strange, heightened experience. A good one, I want more of it, I want to play in it, get to know it, get to trust it, and that needs time. (Not necessarily effort. Let go the effort. Let the experience bed in in its own way, I tell myself.) And “strange” may be a better word than “good”, because I still name some emotions unpleasant, or difficult, and I can find those there too. This does not make it “wrong” or “difficult”.

Authenticity. I link these experiences to my first sense of the Real Me. This is a word Dr Brown uses at least once in her videos, and I prefer it to “vulnerability”- because how vulnerable are we? We are not being Defensive when we are being Authentic, but how many people want to attack us anyway? And if someone does, perhaps it is easier to block an attack in a state of relaxed aware authenticity than of fearful, clenched defensiveness. Or the block may be proportionate to the attack, whereas an attack out of the defensiveness may be too violent.

Bravery. Dr Brown also says this is brave. Trans women habitually deny bravery- I transitioned, we say, as a matter of survival, not because of great courage. I feel like that here. My masks are just too constricting. I cannot live like that any more. And yet, OK. Why should I deny a good quality in myself? Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is brave. Moving forward in unknowing, where I may feel even illusory fear, is brave.

Openness. This vulnerability makes us open to others and to experience, which looks beautiful and inspiring, and invites connection.

Receptivity. Not monitoring so much in myself in order to hide it, I am more able to see what is around me: opportunity and beauty, and human beings more as they really are.

The word “vulnerability” is scary. It may be a way in to the state I crave. The rewards I may get from it encourage me to seek that state out.

I love this photograph, public domain via Wikipedia, because I do not see foundation or other makeup on it. If there is, it is subtle. That is a vulnerability many women find testing.