Get on the Line: Shame

A friend of mine loaned me her CD set of Brene’ Brown’s Men, Women and Worthiness. I am a huge fan of Brown’s work. I first discovered her on a Ted Talk about Vulnerability. I won’t go into a lot of detail because I’ve written about her and her work before. You can search my site with her name and pull up some of the other blogs.

The Power of Vulnerability, Brene Brown

What I love about her work is that she shares her own experience along with the data she collects about other people’s experiences with shame. She admits that she has shame, and she talks about what it feels like from the inside instead of just as an observer. And, regardless of whether you think you have ever experienced shame or not, her research tells us that everyone experiences shame. She says we may cover it up with rage, but rage is the mask that shame wears when its owner can’t allow themselves to be vulnerable to it. Shame sucks. I know. I’m one of you, too.

I can’t possibly cover everything she talks about in this CD, but one of the things that struck me the most about today’s lesson was that shame organizes itself by gender. We all feel shame, and it feels the same for all of us, but the triggers for shame are very gender-specific. Brown says that shame tells us we don’t ‘belong’, and we are hard-wired for belonging. As cave people, if we didn’t belong, we’d quite literally die because we depended on each other for survival. Shame goes to the core of of our survival needs, and we experience it in the same way that we experience trauma that hi-jacks the limbic system. In other words, when we feel it, we feel the very same physical symptoms that we do if we were put into a situation of life or death. We may want to fight or flee. But, since we really need to belong, fighting or fleeing doesn’t help us connect. We have to learn to deal with shame without causing further damage to our relationships.

There was apparently a study done that determined what our culture sees as norms of femininity and masculinity. Shame strikes us when we don’t fit into these norms. Since men and women are different, and, whether you like it or not, our society has different expectations of us, we have different triggers for shame. For women, shame shows up when we can’t be everything we’re ‘supposed’ to be or when we think someone has seen that we struggle to meet those expectations. For men, her research shows that their main expectation is that they should ‘not be perceived as weak’. EVER…

These are the norms for femininity for our culture (as listed in the study):

  • Being thin
  • Being nice
  • Modesty
  • Using all available resources in pursuit of appearance.

The norms for masculinity were defined as:

  • Emotional stoicism
  • Primacy of work
  • Control over women
  • Violence
  • Outward disdain for homosexuals

I don’t like either one of those lists. And, yet, I definitely see our society reflected in them. I know I’ve felt shame as recent as this weekend over not having my toenails painted. It wasn’t major, and I quickly worked through it, but I know I felt it. I had to make an excuse that it was because of budget constraints. But, it’s really not. I just don’t want to spend my money on it, and I really don’t care if my nails are red or clear. Why the hell does that matter? But, it does. Why else do we have nail salons on every corner?

Shame comes for me when I’m afraid that my mask has been torn off. Or, if I feel that I’ve been shunned by some group because I’m different. It’s really, really painful. My whole system shuts down, I start sweating, and I have tunnel vision. I feel like I’m five years old. The antidote to shame, according to Brown, is empathy. Sympathy – ‘you poor thing’ – make it worse. But, empathy – ‘I know – me, too – is the only thing that works. I have two or three people that I can call when I’m in a shame spiral that can be there with me. All I have to do is say “I’m a mess”, and they shift into empathic mode. They let me talk. They are present with me. They share a time when they had an experience where they felt the same way. They communicate through their words and their presence that I belong. It’s the only thing that ever works.

I’ve learned over the years that I have to name shame. I have to say that I have it, and I have to tell others when I feel it. I know what situations trigger me. It helps me to know what the ‘incoming’ looks like. When I see it coming, and I know what my symptoms are, I can treat it. I have to take a break and only talk to those people who can be present with me in my shame. A conversation gone bad can make it worse. Brown says she makes sure that she doesn’t text or email or talk to anybody that is unsafe until she gets in a better spot. I need to get better at that. I can get hi-jacked and send texts and emails that make things worse. My shame about not being nice pounces on top of whatever else triggered me. The person on the other side gets mad and insulting, too, and my shame just keeps on building. By the time I get done, I truly am a mess. There is a process to dealing with shame, and I’m glad I know what it is today. For most of my life, I was just a big glob of shame waiting to be triggered over any little missile. Today I can thankfully say that it happens intermittently.

One of her Brown’s research subjects shared his story, and it was very powerful for me in helping me understand shame from the male perspective. This gentleman said he first felt shame on the first day of football practice his freshman year. He was dressed for practice, and his coach yelled at him to “get on the line”. He said he must have had a look of fear come over his face because his coach screamed at him, “Don’t be a pussy!! I said ‘get on the line’!!” In that moment he realized that it was not acceptable to feel fear. He would not belong on the team if he felt fear. So, instead of feeling fear, he ‘got on the line’ and used aggression to overcome his shame at being fearful. It became his mode of operation to use rage and anger to combat feelings of shame.

What ‘line’ do you have to toe today? In what area of your life do you feel you are not measuring up? When are you using anger to punish those that push your shame buttons? Be gentle with yourself. I’m with you. I screw it up all the time, too.






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