Developing shame resilience is key to emotional health and wellbeing

Shame is often at the heart of many human struggles such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, bullying and suicide.

Many mental health professionals, educators and others are learning about the important role shame plays in people’s overall health and wellbeing. This is due in part to the work of Brené Brown, Ph.D., nationally-renowned author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work.

Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance, connection or belonging.” She stresses that shame is a universal, core human emotion and while we all experience it, nobody really wants to talk about it. Ironically, not talking about shame helps it flourish by allowing it to bury itself deep within our mind, hearts and bodies in ways that are not healthy for us—or for our relationships with others.

In her book, I Thought it Was Just Me (but it is isn’t), Brown stresses that while we all experience the emotion of shame, we are triggered by different things based on gender, race and other aspects of identity and life experiences. For example, her research revealed that women’s shame is triggered most often by a web of competing and conflicting expectations focused on what it means to be a “good” woman. These pervasive cultural messages are often grounded in perfectionism related to parenting, body image, appearance, aging, sexuality, money, work, speaking out and other factors. For men, the experience of shame is most often associated with limiting and narrow notions of masculinity. Shame is often triggered in men related to work, underemployment, unemployment and notions of success—as well as when they feel they are perceived as weak, criticized or ridiculed.

According to Michigan State University Health4U emotional wellness consultant, Lisa Laughman, there are strong connections between shame and issues related to bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, suicide and other challenges people struggle with. “Shame is an emotion that we experience in relationship to other people,” said Laughman. “If we are going to have relationships we are going to experience moments of shame. While we will never be free of shame, we can learn skills to help us become more shame resilient.”

Developing shame resilience is an important antidote to the ongoing ways that shame is used as a weapon in an attempt to keep people in their place by making them feel unworthy of connection, love and belonging. Brown’s research revealed four key elements of shame resilience:

  1. Being able to recognize, name and understand our shame triggers.
  2. Developing critical awareness about our own shame webs and triggers.
  3. Being willing to reach out to others (rather than hide and isolate ourselves).
  4. Having the ability to speak about our experiences of shame with those who have earned the right to hear them.

Developing shame resilience is important because shame often floods us with strong emotions like fear, blame, rage and despair. These strong feelings often make us lose perspective about ourselves and about our lives in ways that can be very destructive. Practicing shame resilience moves us toward connection, caring, compassion and empathy, which are essential to our overall physical and emotional health and well-being. According to Laughman, “These emotional wellness skills help us release shame we've been carrying over time, protect us from new attempts by culture to shame us, and allow us to hold ourselves lovingly accountable when we make a mistake. The bottom line is if we don’t learn how to do shame, shame does us.”

Michigan State University Extension integrates the work of Brené Brown into programs such as Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments—an initiative designed to engage youth and adults working in partnership to address issues of bullying, bias and harassment. 

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