Understanding Shame…

In a previous post I review a favorite self-help author of mine, Brene Brown (link above).  I first learned about her from a now-famous Ted Talk video (see link above).  Through her work, I was first introduced to the concept of shame:  “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of accepting and belonging” (Brown, 2006, p45).   In this post, I’d like to continue with this train of thought & share some insights on how to recognize shame.  While no real preventative cure to shame exists, if you are aware of what triggers feelings of shame, you’re empowered to grow beyond its confines. What follows are insights I’ve recorded in an old journal based on Brene Brown’s work on shame resilience….

FIRST:  Insights on the Nature of Personal Growth.

Before I begin discussing the subject of shame, I’d like to first make some comments on the nature of personal growth overall.  Despite the inherent growing pains, it is worth the effort.   Having wormed her way through the rabbit hole of personal growth, there are three insights are worth noting here….

#1 – With increased self-knowledge comes an awareness of the extent of any personal ignorance.

With heightened self-awareness comes an inability to deny and ignore any issues in your life.  We become aware the path that lies before us a perplexing ignorance builds in response to increased self knowledge.  We now know we don’t know, (which I guess is something), however we still have a ways left to go.

#2 – It often gets worse before it gets better.

file0002026387392I entered therapy back in 2008, because I was stuck.  I felt like a hamster on a wheel, running to nowhere. I was perplexed why the same things kept happening to me.  In a nutshell, I felt like a walking shit-magnet. In the five or so years of counseling that followed, I came to understand the complexity of all underlying issues in my life. You see, my perception of self in relation to others was based on unresolved feelings from childhood bullying and ostracism, as well as an abusive relationship in college. While these experiences are far behind me, their effects have remained.  As I pealed away layers of denial the old unresolved hurts re-emerged.  It got worse before it got better, but it did get better.

#3 – The only way out is through.

Working through unresolved hurt and processing it, is critical for healing. As I’ve discovered personally, you perpetuate what you deny.  What I’ve discovered personally, is that numbing and denying old hurts only causes them to live within the subconscious as annoying monkey wrenches.  It is only through a close examination of these  monkey wrenches that an endless cycle of bullshit can be revealed.

NOW WHAT!?!?!: Understanding the Concept…

Shame defined…

file0002047283122Brene Brown (2006) defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”, (p 45).  Participants in her research utilized the following adjectives to describe this emotion: “devastating, noxious, consuming, excruciating, filleted, small, rejected, diminished” (Brown, 2006, p. 45).  Human beings have a strong and instinctual need for love and belonging.  We are social creatures.  Shame is an emotional reflection of this instinctual drive.  It forces us to accept the fact that we are byproducts of the world in which we live. We create society as it in turn creates us…

Social & psychological components

Shame is a unique sociocultural emotion.  The psychological component of shame reflects an individual’s inner perception of self in relation to others (Brown, 2006).  Thoughts, beliefs and emotions, play a part of shame’s psychological component.  At the same time this emotion is a social construct that exists as a byproduct of interpersonal experiences and sociocultural perspectives.

A double bind situation…

In her research, Brown (2006) states that shame-inducing situations are double-bind in nature.  With few if any options for resolution, participants in her research felt stuck, with nothing to do but bathe in their own misery (Brown, 2006).  With this stuckness come feelings of powerlessness and isolated.  The following quote from Brene’s article resonates with my own ostracism as a bullied kid:

The Cause of Shame…

According to Brene Brown (2008), shame is a fear of disconnection from others, or not feeling good enough.  Events and circumstances that produce feelings of inadequacy or ostracism are shame-producing.   Shame is a result of the internalization of message from others about what is essential for love and belonging.   Here are a few blog post, that provide excellent examples of the internalization of “should-be” messages created the experience of shame.

***“A Shameful Parenting Story”

***My “Shit Job”

***The “It Years”…

The Solution: Shame Resilience…

measureBrene Brown asserts we are all vulnerable to shame.  Messages of who we “should be”, come from everywhere and pollute our thinking.   Until you’re aware of these “should be’s”, they tend to re-emerge in endless perpetuity throughout your life. Random life events can trigger old memories of shame-laden messages from one’s childhood.   Over time, these should be’s become incorporated in our sense of self as measuring sticks of self-worth.   Developing resiliency in shame happens when we take time to understand what triggers these feelings.  What event/interaction/individual/memory caused us to feel shame?  What should-be messages exist within these shame triggers?  Where did this “good-enough” measuring stick originate?  Who instilled this should-be idea in our minds of what we must aspire to become?

With this in mind, what follows is a list of steps to begin developing a resiliency to shame.

STEP #1 – Understanding Shame’s Physical Symptoms


As a former bullied child, shame triggers produce vivid reminders of ostracism as a kid.  For me, shame triggers are those things that remind me I’ve failed in living up to a pre-defined social standard of what good-enough should equate to.  Its for this reason that feelings of shame are associated with stress and anxiety.  In the presence of reminders of painful experiences, our body is sent into a fight-or-flight mode.  Breathing increases, your heart starts pounding, your hands shake, and you start to sweat.  .

A school textbook I have defines coping styles as “persistent, consistent, collections of physiological and behavioral responses to stressful stimuli”  (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011, p. 379).  Additionally, research on the brain shows two types of coping responses.  Reactive coping styles are  associated with higher parasympathetic activity while proactive coping styles are characterized by high sympathetic activity.  Finally, its interesting to note how each coping style influences our level of perceived stress.  According to Lambert & Kinsley (2011), proactive coping responses show low levels of activity in a part of the brain called the HPA-Axis.  In contrast, reactive coping styles show heightened levels of reactivity in the same region.

So what is an HPA Axis you ask??? Watch this video….

So why does this matter???

Basically, what this research says is that those with proactive coping styles allow some individuals to experience lower levels of stress when faced with a challenging situation (or in this case a shame trigger) (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  In contrast those with reactive (or passive) coping styles are experience higher levels of stress and less effective coping responses to challenging situations (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  Interestingly, this reflects research I described in a recent post on the intelligence of emotions here and here……

and for those who are disinterested in clicking the link’s above, here a cliff-notes summary of these two posts…

Emotions play a critical role in our moral judgments. These affective processes occur subconsciously, outside our awareness. They affect our information processing, thought processes, and behaviors (Cushman, et al 2010).
Two systems of moral reasoning exist in the brain.  A deliberate process utilizes cost-benefit analysis to maximize one’s overall, well-being.  The other is an evolutionary adaptation in the brain promoting survival.  It is rapid, automatic and guided by limbic-based moral absolutes (Cushman, et al, 2010).
When faced with a situation deemed by our minds as highly stressful (i.e. shame trigger),  rapid limbic responses to moral decisions are based on absolutes and reflect a deontological perspective  (Cushman, et al, 2010).  
In contrast, when encountering situations perceived as non-emergent and within our capability to handle effectively, a deliberate cost-benefit analysis occurs.  This sort of judgment process reflects a consequentialist perspective  (Cushman, et al, 2010).  

What sort picture does this research paint of how coping styles affect moral judgment?

Lambert & Kinsley (2011) indicate that proactive coping responses are associated with lower levels of activity in the HPA Axis an area of the brain responsible for the stress response.  Cushman, et al, (2010) indicate that in the presence of lower stress response, the brain reacts with a more deliberate system of moral judgment that reflects a cost-benefit approach.  In contrast, passive coping styles are associated with higher HPA Axis activity and a heightened stress response (Lambert & Kinsley, 2011).  Cushman, et al, (2010) indicate that in the present of a perceived stressful situation, the brain reacts with a rapid-fire limbic reaction that reflects an absolutist deontological perspective.

In light of all this information, it appears understanding our shame triggers is actually quite vital?

Those things that cause shame, send us into fight-or-flight mode.  Shameful experiences are perceived as a threat to our instinctual need for love, belonging, and acceptance.  What causes us to feel shame?  Triggers that remind us of should-be messages from other of what “good enough” is.  In a never-ending desire to prove oneself “worthy of belonging”, we can fall into a perpetual fight-or-flight mode.   As the above research indicates, shame triggers lead to stress, which hijacks our entire brain, hindering our ability to handle situations effectively.

STEP #2 – First an attitudinal adjustment…

Empathy – the opposite of shame…

In her research, Brene Brown (2006), notes that empathy sits at the opposite end of the continuum from shame.  In her article she describes empathy “as the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s perspective – to see, hear, and feel the unique world of the other” (Brown, 2006, p. 47).  She continues by noting that it comprises four key attributes:

The ability to see things as someone else does, remain judgmental, understand their feelings & communicate this effectively.

Finding sources of empathy, connection and support, are superb antidotes to shame.  It is also worth noting the part of the shame equation in your control.  The personal component of shame, pertains to how we incorporate others opinions into our own personal measuring stick.

Acknowledging the power of vulnerability…

imageBrown, (2006), also states that the degree to which we acknowledge our personal vulnerabilities influences a person’s degree of resilience to shame.  In fact, whether or not we’re willing to accept this fact, nobody has the right to tell us “who we are”.  We are ultimately responsible for how other people make us feel.  What opinions become incorporated into our self-perception is a matter of our own determining.

STEP #3 – Shame Triggers


I’ve always had this belief that the key to empowerment is self-responsibility.  Understanding our role in things is critical to identify the actionable solution. Knowing your shame triggers is so important for exactly this reason.  Since shame is a feeling which is based on messages of perceived worth, understanding where these messages come from is important.  Feeling the need to “measure up” is an inevitable byproduct of our own evolutionary social needs.  Shame triggers are simply those events, situations, and/or relationships that lead to feelings of shame.  Examining these shame-inducing situations and/or relationships requires closer examination….

What are your unwanted identities?

In her research, Brene states that shame is associated with situations that a person’s unwanted identity. Unwanted identities are simply personal characteristics that undermine who we wish to be in the eyes of others.  Has there ever been a time in your life when you said “I don’t want people to thin I am a…”?    Here are some of mine:


The thing to remember is we all have shame triggers.  There are unwanted aspects of ourselves we hope to avoid and can’t see with any clarity.  Shame-laden messages from others cloud our vision. The following questions have been helpful in allowing me to gain some perspective…

Where does this perception come from?

Why is this identity unwanted

What measuring-stick underlies it?

What if you were reduced to this unwanted identity?

STEP #3 – What are your Defense Mechanisms?


With an understanding of our shame triggers, it is next important to examine how we defend ourselves against this shitty feeling.  What unconscious defense mechanisms do we do to prevent other people and/or events from causing us to feel this way?  When overcome with shame, we are overcome by the effects of the brain’s HPA axis.  It sets of a series of events throughout the body that create an alarm-bell stress reaction.  Brene, (2010) describes two primary types of defense mechanisms that I understand as forms of conformity or rebellion.  When reading her descriptions I hear both my sisters story and my own.  Here are a few links to recent posts in which I reflect to my own preferred defense mechanisms:

***“The Nature of Belief Systems”

***“The Go-It-Alone Mentality”

STEP #4: The importance of Critical Awareness…..


The final piece of the puzzle is simply “getting real” with yourself.  When overcome with shame you often can’t see beyond the fear of exposure that a flawed self lies inside.  Attempting to see the bigger picture at such moments is important.  Asking yourself a some bigger picture questions.  Here are excerpts from my own journal…

Debunking the “fucked up parent” B.S.


As a bullied child raising a bullied child, I can think of fewer experience more shame-inducing.  To see things from the other side of the coin is truly a mind-fuck.  Needless to say, these things occur within a larger sociocultural context and kids tend to fall between the cracks. Teachers and principals are overworked.  A child’s behaviors are often a reflection what they see going on in the home.   Here is my own follow-up post to provide a bit of perspective on things.

Debunking the Ugly Duckling B.S.

imageWhile I haven’t blogged on this issue yet, I’ve always felt I have a “meat suit problem”.  The issue in my case is one of having such a “wonderful personality”.  These random characteristics defining my own meat suit leave me feeling “less than”.  I hate my nose.  I need to lose weight.  At best, I’m an ignorable BLAH on a good day.

Mind you, these are just a few examples.  I’ll end this post with a few final thoughts directly from an old journal…




Brown, B. (2006). Shame Resilience Theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame.  Families in Society. 87(1), 43-48.
Brown, B. (2008). I Thought it was Just Me: But it Isn’t: Telling the Truth about Perfectionsim, Inadequacy, and Power. Gotham.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. London: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2015).  Rising strong.  Random House:  New York.
Cushman, F., Young, L., & Greene, J. D. (2010). Our multi-system moral psychology: Towards a consensus view. The Oxford handbook of moral psychology, (1-20).
Lambert, K., & Kinsley, C.H. (2011). Clinical neuroscience: The neurobiological foundations of  mental health. 2nd Ed., New York, NY: Worth Publishers
Miller, J.B., & Stiver, I.P. (1997). The healing connection: How wome form relationships in therapy and life. Boston: Beacon.

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Insights from Brene Brown….

For a recent assignment, I was required to select a self help book that pertained in some way to the subject of career counseling and provide an overview of it. As a Brene Brown fan, I chose to revew her latest book, “Rising Strong”.  A Grounded Theory Researcher, Brene’s self-books provide a summary of findings from interviews with research participants, utilizing a Narrative Therapy perspective. From a personal standpoint, I’ve really appreciated Brene’s books, since they summarize my own path of self-development. Underlying this process of personal growth, was an inexplicable “stuckness” that feels much like a “vinyl record with a needle stuck in a groove, repeating the same sound over and over”, (Ingram, 2012). Brene’s method of addressing this issue of stuckness, is to utilize a storytelling approach.   It is by claiming ownership of our life story, that we can find an underlying system of meaning woven throughout it (Brene, 2015).  What I appreciate about her books are they appear to follow the author’s progression of growth.  For this reason I feel they are really worth reviewing below…

So What Does Forward Motion Look Like????

In the book’s introduction, Brene Brown describes how all her books fit within as part of an overall picture towards wholehearted living which she defines as follows:

IMG_2379“engaging in our lives from a places of worthiness…cultivating the courage, compassion, connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough’” (Brene, 2015, p xix).

Brene describes in her latest book “Rising Strong” how each book she has published, fits within an overall picture of wholehearted living.  Understanding this concept has been essentially for me to become “unstuck” and get off the hamster wheel.  It has taught me to understand how I get in my own way and develop a live a life that at one point had been “impossible”.   So what does forward motion – away from where we are to where we want to get to – look like??  To answer this question, a quick review of key concepts from Brene’s books is useful here….

STEP ONE: Listening to Shame…

Defined as “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”, (Brown, 2006, p 45), the concept of shame is first introduced in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” (Brene, 2010).  Here, we are guided through a discussion that encourages how the concept of shame is woven throughout our personal life narrative (Brene, 2015).  As an individual with PTSD, this was an especially laborious process and the subject of several years of therapy.  However, what I discovered is that these feelings of shame pertain to messages I’ve received throughout my lifetime about what “good enough” means.  In retrospect, I realize I’m someone who has been running towards a preconceived notion of what this has meant for me.  simultaneously, I’ve been running away from what unwanted identities, comprised the messages of shame from others, (I’m not pretty enough, I’m not smart enough, etc).  Recognizing this has allowed me to accept myself as I am as good enough right now.  The journey now isn’t about getting to a place I believed was necessary to be “good enoug”. Instead good enough is now.  I can finally relax into the moments of my life and be present to enjoy it more fully.

STEP TWO: Being Vulnerable…

In her second book, “Daring Greatly”, Brene defines her concept of vulnerability as “having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome” (Brene, 2015, p4).  Vulnerability has produced a sense of vibrant fear in me.  Yes, I am aware that vulnerability is crucial for full engagement in life or,”Being all in” (Brene, 2012, p. 2).  However, unresolved traumas throughout my life have taught me otherwise.  Vulnerability produces fear because it means I have to be seen, and risk criticism or judgment.  Being “perfect and bulletproof are seductive” (Brene, 2012, p. 2) for exactly this reason.  The practice of vulnerability in an uncertain world has taken time for me.  The first step happened as I addressed old hurts.  The second step came as I learned to become more secure in who I was and validate myself in ways others hadn’t.  In time, the fear of vulnerability has gradually subsided.

STEP THREE:  Growing from Failure…

Overcoming shame and becoming vulnerability can be difficult when you stumble and fail.  However, failure, as Brene notes in her latest book, “Rising Strong” is an inevitable part of progression though life.  For this latest book, Brene (2015) gathered stories of sucess in a series of interviews to uncover any commonailties.  What she found were narratives mirroring Joseph Campbell’s (2008), book “The Hero with a Thousand Phases”.   In the first act of this book, the main character finds himself in a situation, which is the onset of a new adventure (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008). The second act finds our hero in a situation in which he has to take drastic steps to solve his dilemma (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008). The final act finds our character doing what is necessary to achieve his goal, resulting in a conflict resolution (Brene, 2015; Campbell, 2008).  In sum, her latest research has uncovered stories of success arising form failure as a learning opportunity to along a spiritual path towards wholeness.  The final section of this post provides a brief overview of these steps:

Rising Strong: An Overview

“If we are brave enough, often enough, we will fail; this is the physics of vulnerability.  Once we fail in the services of being brave, we can never go back.  Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being” (Brene, 2015, p5).

In her latest book, “Rising Strong”, Berne (2015) provides an overview of how to move past failure.  The first step, known as “The Reckoning”, (Brene, 2015, p37), involves acknowledging our story and accepting responsibility for our narrative role. The second step, known as “The Rumble” (Brene, 2015, p37), involves taking ownership of our story and involves an honest examination of it. Along the way, we’re forced to acknowledge truths and erroneous assumptions. Finally, Rising Strong process involves a “Revolution” (Brene, 2015, p37), and involves rewriting our narrative and learning from our rumble to create a new story. What follows is an overview of the steps in this narrative process….

STEP ONE: “The Reckoning” (Brene, 2015).

 In her discussion of “The Reckoning”, Brene (2015) states: “you either walk into your story and own your truth or you live outside your story, hustling for your worthiness” (p45).  Brene, (2015) notes that fear and trauma often complicate our efforts to claim ownership of our story.  To explain this desire to resist our life story, she utilizes the concept of chandelier pain as an exquisite and intolerable hurt which one cannot ignore (Brene, 2015, p16).  Rather than owning it, it isn’t uncommon to medicate, numb it or stockpile it.  Taking time to work through the unresolved traumas in my own life has been critical to the initiation of forward motion in life.  In order to “get unstuck” this was an absolutely essential step for me.

STEP TWO: “The Rumble” (Brene, 2015).

The next step in growing from failure involves examining our life story, and how we have created it as the narrator.  This process, which she calls “The Rumble”, (Brene, 2015), mirrors narrative therapy.  She encourages readers to examine the stories behind our emotions.  As I’ve said often throughout this blog, there’s a big difference between thing through your feelings and not with them.  I believe this is what Brene is speaking of here.  What stories, believes, and thoughts underlie your emotional responses to life events?  What triggered the emotions?  How does this narrative exists as a self-fulfilling prophecy, by creating the life experiences which reflect it?   The section ends with an overview of questions that might be useful in examining our narrative: (1) what do I need to understand about the event? (2) What do I need to learn about from other people in this story? and (3) what do I need to understand about myself in the context of this story? (Brene, 2015, p92-93).  Finally, Brene (2015) states this process simply begins with an attitude of curiosity and willingness.  

STEP THREE: “The Revolution” (Brene, 2015).

            The final step in this process of growing from failure is revolution: a “no-turning-back” Brene, 2015, p 254) stage.   This “revolution” involves a renewed sense of clarity this process starts once insight is put into practice (Brown, 2015). In a step-by-step manner, this process involves a gradual change as we create new stories based on altered narratives. A convenient example, would be my latest (and successful attempt to lose weight). Rather than chasing a physical ideal based on what I considered to be “good enough”, I’m instead assuming “good enough” is now. The result is, a sense of peace in which self-care is the priority, and getting there occurs one step at a time.


I owe a debt of gratitude to Brene Brown for helping redefine the concepts of failure and success. When I was younger, success was always a “then point” where I could work my way into being “good enough”. Success was conceived of as a state of invulnerability, in which I was delivered from my own shame-laden life story. Failure, in turn was what I didn’t want to be in the present. As I have (long since) learned, success requires us to examine our past and any underlying narratives. Acting on these insights on the road to success, taking a chance not knowing the outcome, and risking failure.  This means acting on faith, that the journey contains the lessons we need to find our way there.


Brown, B. (2006). Shame Resilience Theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame.  Families in Society. 87(1), 43-48.
Brown, B. (2008). I Thought it was Just Me: But it Isn’t: Telling the Truth about Perfectionsim, Inadequacy, and Power. Gotham.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. London, England: Penguin.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House: New York.
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces, 3rd ed. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Ingram, B.L. (2012). Clinical Case Formulations: Matching the Integrative Treatment Plan to the Client. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.



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