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Address the elephant in the room with 4 elements of shame resilience

  • Published
  • By Capt. Diana D. Wong
  • 36th Wing Sexual Assault Response Coordinator
Shame is that humungous, unspeakable elephant in the room, the one that suppresses us from innovation, creativity, worthiness and even love. We have all felt it and it is a pain that cuts deeper than physical pain. You may have met it before. When acknowledged, it may have sounded like this:

"Shame is when I didn't make the promotion list."
"Shame is when my supervisor belittled me in front of a customer."
"Shame is not being able to afford to put food on the table."
"Shame is my depression."
"Shame is failing my PT test. Twice."
"Shame is losing patience with my child in public."
"Shame is revealing my weaknesses."

Did you notice a pattern? The common resounding theme is our fear of revealing this to others. The more we are afraid, the more power it has over us. In the book "Daring Greatly," researcher Brene Brown describes shame as " ... the fear of disconnection -- it's the fear that something we've done or failed to do, an ideal that we've not lived up to, or a goal that we've not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection." 

The 12 "shame categories" she researched that are the most familiar in the human experience include: appearance and body image,  money and work, motherhood and fatherhood,  family,  parenting,  mental and physical health,  addiction,  sex,  aging,  religion,  surviving trauma,  and being stereotyped and labeled.

When I first read "Daring Greatly," Brown's chapter on "Understanding and Combating Shame" resonated with me in my life and in my work as a sexual response coordinator. In my life, I have found shame to be as small as not speaking in language classes for fear of failure, or as big as not living in line with my deeply rooted values. In my work life, shame is what keeps people from picking up the phone; shame is what keeps people from intervening on an uncomfortable comment made; shame prevents people from asking for help. Shame stops the healing process. This is the very reason why it should be addressed and why we should learn what we know about it so we can overcome it. 

The way to overcome shame is through empathy, which is driven by connecting with others. Brown describes empathy as "the ladder out of the shame hole." What resonates with me is that anyone has the ability to do it -- you did not need to experience it in order to relate as it is, and "connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance."   

Now that we have an idea of the size of the elephant in the room and how it affects us, Brown suggests using the following strategies to address them:

1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers.
It's that internal painful feeling. Can you physically feel when you're in the grips of shame? Can you figure out what expectations (self or others) triggered it?

2. Practicing Critical Awareness
Mind your self-criticism. Can you reality-check the messages and expectations driving you to shame? Would you speak to someone you love that way if they were experiencing the same thing?

3. Reaching Out
Are you owning and sharing your story?  We can't experience empathy if we are not connecting with others. Another profound way that Brown thinks about it is, "If you own this story you get to write the ending." This statement alone makes me feel like I'm in the driver's seat again.

4. Speaking Shame
Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame? Shame finds its power in being unspoken, the better you can communicate your feelings and connect with others, the better you can dissipate the feeling of shame.

If someone is vulnerable and deems you as worthy to disclose their shame, trust that they came to you for a reason. They came to you to listen, understand how they are feeling and for connection to get out of shame. If they experienced a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault, help connect them with services they may need. In the end, the ability to be shame resilient is "the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it."

Who wouldn't want to live in an environment that is open -- where we are innovative, creative, and worthy of experiencing connection? Our environment is now more open now that we've decided to address the elephant and tell him to move on without us.

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