Discover the Antidote to Shame

by Aly Hazlewood on January 24, 2016


Every afternoon at the New Life Foundation, the residents benefit from workshops ranging from topics such as mindfulness, self development, addiction recovery, creativity, and communication skills. This week, Life Coach Samina facilitated a workshop addressing the sticky topic of ‘Shame’. Centred around Brene Brown’s excellent and surprisingly humorous TED talk on vulnerability and shame, these topics have been the core of Brown’s academic life’s research.

Brown states, “vulnerability is not weakness, it is emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty, and our most accurate measurement of courage. It is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Shame on the other hand, is the swampland of the soul and the research shows it is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders and suicide.

Insidious and corrosive, shame themes stem from cultural, familial and societal definitions of what is acceptable and vary considerably from culture to culture. Of the 9 or so ‘shame themes’ that we were tasked to discuss in the workshop, I was faintly alarmed to discover that I felt some degree of shame relating to each of them. All good grist for the mill!

 “Shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement” (…)

Passive aggressive comments from others such as “who do you think you are?” so often become our own internal voice. Inwardly, the voice of shame whispers “I’m not good enough”, and we can very easily mistake this for an objective report on reality. Research from American physicist David Bohm demonstrated that thoughts like these affect our very physiology, producing what he aptly called a “neurochemical smog – a powerful wave of sensation and emotion that snowballs into more thoughts, sensations and emotions, a downward spiral that leaves us depressed and unable to act. The whole situation can seem very real, very believable. A thought like that, which flashes through the mind for a split second, can hypnotise us and shape our entire life.”

Brown goes on to say that “shame thrives on secrecy, silence and judgement” creating a dissonance between your persona, the public ‘you’ that you present to the world, and your true self. All the things that we are afraid of being, the dark thoughts, the petty judgements, can take on epic proportions. One has to be able to touch these shadows with great compassion and kindness in order to slay the dragon of shame.

“The realisation that I judged myself far more harshly than anyone else (…)”

This is the antidote, empathy. In sharing our shame, the obvious commonality brings enormous relief. During the workshop exercises, I felt a great welling of tenderness in the witnessing of people’s vulnerability and courage to share. It is a truism in life that the degree to which you are able to be with your own vulnerability is the degree to which you can be with someone else’s.

Speaking personally, one of my most liberating experiences at New Life was being skilfully guided by my life coach to unload something I’d been carrying for the last 22 years. It had been a cause of red hot shame to me. The prompt for me to prise back the lid on this box of shame, was hearing a fellow resident of New Life bravely share their life story at the weekly community event. This disclosure felt like a permission slip for me to do the same. The realisation that I judged myself far more harshly than anyone else was ever likely to, and the sense of lightness that followed has been immensely freeing.

Of course, traversing our edge can feel perilous. But growth only occurs outside of our comfort zone, so one has to embrace a certain measure of discomfort in order to expand into the fullness of being.

“We are all our kindest moments and our darkest hours”

In a community such as New Life, there is a certain implied trust in the ‘safety of the container’ for the sharing and witnessing of shame and vulnerability. But out in the real world, it’s wise to employ skilful discernment before exposing our soft underbelly to just anyone. I also like to check in with my motivations for sharing vulnerability. If there is any sense that I might be seeking some validation from the person I’m considering opening myself up to, I simply shelve it for a while. Seeking approval or validation has the potential to set us up for even more shame, because we can never predict or control the reactions of others.

In the words of Jeanette LeBlanc, “None of us is solely the best or worst of ourselves. We are all our kindest moments and our darkest hours. We are the deepest shame and the proudest accomplishment. Shadows can never exist without light.”

Check out Brene Brown’s excellent new book here

You can watch the full TED talk here.

Learn more about the New Life Foundation here

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