In I Thought It Was Just Me, sociology researcher Brene Brown examines the concept of shame–both how it impacts us and how we can develop resilience to it.
Shame, as Brown defines it, is different from guilt or indignation. When you hold up something you did against your values and you think, “that was wrong, I need to work on that or change that” you have guilt. When someone else says, “you are wrong!” and you think, “that’s a false accusation, I didn’t do that” you have indignation. But when you or someone else accuse you of being wrong and you think, “yes, I’m a bad person, I’m a person who always does ____” and it defines you, that’s shame.
Shame causes feelings of confusion, fear and disconnection, like you want to hide or escape. Reactions to shame are lashing out in anger, being silent and hiding your real self, or seeking to appease and please the person who shamed you. Understanding how to recognize shame was helpful for me both personally and in thinking of how to relate to other people and to my children.
Most people have certain shame triggers, and it was interesting to me to read about the common reactions to shame so I could identify what some of those are for me. I found it helpful to think of shame as the concept of someone (either someone else or me) giving me an unwanted identity.
For example, in reading this book I realized that the first time I can remember having this shame reaction was on my 4th birthday. I had gotten a new outfit and told my preschool teacher, “This is my birthday suit!” She laughed and explained what birthday suit meant. I’m sure she wasn’t unkind, but what I heard was, “You think you’re smart but really you’re clueless and a fool.” I wanted to crawl into a hole. This is still a shame trigger for me three decades later. It was really helpful to me to identify a few major triggers–things that cause me to lash out or have that feeling of wanting to hide–because once you identify the feeling you can start getting through it in a rational and healthy way.
Another helpful distinction Brown draws is between empathy and sympathy. When someone is experiencing shame, it’s most helpful to offer empathy. Shame is a shared experience, even if our triggers are different. In contrast, sympathy makes the person feel even more isolated. As Brown puts it, sympathy says, “I’m over here and you’re over there. I’m sorry for you and I’m sad for you, but let’s be clear: I’m over here.” I definitely know people who give sympathy rather than empathy, and I avoid them when I’m having a problem. It’s awful to go to someone with a problem and hear the equivalent of “wow, you really ARE a weird and bad person. I’m nothing like that.” Thinking through this distinction helped me to think about the ways that I respond to people who are hurting or dealing with problems, and also helped me to identify people in my life who offer more support and empathy.
In the course of her research, Brown noticed trends of how some people can successfully cope with shame and are resilient to it. She compiled these strategies and writes about them in the book. Some of these include having the belief that you can always change or improve, being grounded in who you are and what you believe, not pinning self-worth to things you can’t control, and building a support network of people who offer you empathy.
I thought the concepts in I Thought It Was Just Me were interesting and offered excellent insight into relationships. It was not only helpful to me in thinking through how I respond to certain triggers, but also influenced my perspective on how I relate and respond to other people. If you’re interested in these sorts of issues, I’d recommend the book.
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