A couple of weeks ago my friend and coworker was scammed out of a large sum of money over the telephone. The tears in her eyes as she told me about it even days later demonstrated the depth of her emotion. Interestingly, the strongest feeling she expressed was not sadness over the loss, or anxiety over her financial situation, or even anger toward the person who had taken advantage of her.
It was shame. My friend was deeply ashamed.
Shame is, of course, a universal experience, part of the human condition. All of us feel ashamed sometimes. But some of us frequently experience shame in a way that is crippling and destructive.
The difference between shame and guilt has been described this way: Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame says, “I am something bad.” Guilt has the potential to lead to remorse, reparation, and change. We resolve to make amends and to do better next time. We grow. Shame more often leads to withdrawal and avoidance. We try to hide. Instead of growing, we shrivel. This is what led the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung to make the observation, “Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
In epidemic proportions, women in particular in our culture have attempted to adopt perfectionism as the antidote to the experience of shame. As bestselling writer, research professor and expert on shame and vulnerability Dr. Brene Brown says, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” Sadly, not only does this means of shame avoidance not work, but that it creates a whole new set of problems.
Feelings of shame and fear contribute significantly to depression and anxiety, especially in women, who experience depression at twice the rate of men. The high expectations that women often place on themselves–the sense of responsibility as caregivers, the desire to please and the fear of letting other people down (especially the people who depend on them, often perceived as an ever-expanding circle)–can amount to an overwhelming burden. Too many women feel crushed by the self-inflicted expectations of being the perfect parent, spouse, boss or employee, church member, friend, daughter, etc.
My kindhearted coworker, who exudes compassion, works tirelessly to do her job(s) with attention and precision, and then goes out of her way to make everyone else’s job easier, is a perfect example. She is conscientious, friendly, sensitive, welcoming and wise, and one of the last people I would identify as having reason to be ashamed of who she is. In fact, her wisdom is evidenced in her very description to me of her shaming experience. When I asked her how she was doing, she said, “My momma told me I’ve got to get past the embarrassment, past putting myself down, and the more I talk about it and people listen and understand and don’t judge me, the easier it gets.” The more people listen and don’t judge, my friend knew, the less ashamed—and the stronger–she felt. She understood how to help herself through the painful experience of shame, and she was willing to make herself vulnerable in order to do so.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”― Brené Brown,
Now my coworker was wise to talk about her experience, but also wise not to share her story freely with everyone. Because there are–and indeed were–those who would respond with the opposite of empathy: “What were you thinking?” or “Didn’t you know better?” Likewise, when we are attempting to disarm shame, we are wise to be choosy about those with whom we share our stories. One or two close friends who will listen and empathize are often all we need.
And disarming shame allows us to refocus on the positive attributes at the very core of our identities, so that we don’t forget who we are and were created to be. My wise friend demonstrated this when she poked her head in my office later in the day. She had been hard at work again, spreading kindness to the people scheduled to see the physician she assists. The tears in her eyes were different this time. “They may have taken my money,” she announced, “but no one can take my compassion.”
At COMPASSion Counseling, as part of our Women’s Wellness series, beginning on Thursday, March 31, we will offer a class on disarming shame, and disabling perfectionism. Class will meet from 6:30-8:00pm at CC for 6 weeks. Cost is $10 per session, and goes directly to support the center. In a safe and supportive environment, class participants will learn about the relationship between shame, perfectionism, fear of failure, and depression. Participants can expect to find courage and connection, and to identify and change counterproductive thought and behavior patterns that tend to increase rather than relieve stress and anxiety. This class will draw upon the work of Dr. Brene Brown and Dr. Lissa Rankin, among others. More information can be found on our Facebook page, by calling 724-2325, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Greta Smith is a licensed psychologist and board member for COMPASSion Counseling.