Empathy, the Antidote for Shame

Lina, single mother of three, is in the line up at the grocery store. She feels rushed to buy dinner and get home in time to prepare it. Sarah, her 3-year-old daughter, who she just picked up from a new daycare, is overtired and whiny. She starts grabbing chocolate bars, which are so conveniently placed in her view, and puts them into the cart. Lina, says “no” and places the bars back on the shelf. Sarah continues to reach and struggle to climb out of the cart. She starts crying at the top of her lungs. Lina turns beat red. She is clearly embarrassed about being stuck in the line with a screaming child.

A couple of customers seem to stare at her. She hears a woman’s voice behind her, “When kids are this overtired they belong in bed, not out shopping at the busiest time of the day.” Lina pretends not to have heard the comment. She feels shame for not being able to calm her daughter. In fact, she feels like a complete failure as a mother. She wants to just take her daughter and leave the store without buying the groceries, but that would be really embarrassing, she thinks, and what would they then eat for dinner? She takes deep breaths and continues moving forward in the line up.

When she reaches the cashier, the woman just smiles and gently says, “That’s a tricky age.. I still remember when my kids were that young…”. Lina smiles back relieved. “It’s not easy, is it?” says the cashier and pulls out a lolly pop. “May I give this to the princess…?”

Lina feels like a weight is lifting. She feels validated, seen and understood. Instead of being judged, she is acknowledged as doing her best. What she is experiencing is empathy.

In her research, Brené Brown has collected different definitions of how we experience empathy. Receiving empathy is “feeling emotional and physical warmth”, “feeling understood”, “feeling wrapped up in a blanket”, “feeling validated”, “feeling you are not alone because somebody else gets you” and “feeling somebody hears you or feels you”.

In her shame, Lina felt alone and unworthy as a mother. When the cashier extended empathy to her, the messages was, “You are not alone. We are alike and connected. I get your struggles. I am as human as you are.”

We feel completely alone when we are in shame. We might feel like we are the only one who experiences fertility struggles, or the only one who feels they are not a good parent, or the only one who feels not thin or attractive enough, or the only person who has an addiction, or the only one who was cheated on, or the only one who was physically, emotionally or sexually abused, or the only one who hasn’t found her/his perfect partner and so on.

There also is a difference between embarrassment and shame. We experience embarrassment in regards to a behaviour of ours. We feel embarrassed when we have perhaps said something we shouldn’t have said, or when we have done something that we view as a mistake, or when somebody points out something we are self-conscious of. Embarrassment is fleeting, and we know we are not the only one who has that experience.

I have been a coach for 14 years and have always scheduled my own appointments. It has happened throughout the years, that I have “dropped the ball” and double booked or thought I didn’t have an appointment when I did. Now, each of those incidents have caused me a fair amount of embarrassment. I had to claim responsibility, apologize and hope that the other person would still want to re-book. In most cases, the incident was forgiven. Because I deep down know and believe that I am, overall, a reliable and organized person, there was no shame attached to making these mistakes for me. However, they certainly were embarrassing.

Like all of us, I have also had moments of shame in my life, whether that was in regards to having an alcoholic family member, around my fertility struggles in my twenties, about weight gain at different points in my life, or in regards to marriage struggles or relationships ending. Most of these moments of shame had nothing to do with a specific behaviour of mine but all to do with feeling judged and feeling not good enough in some way.

We all know shame, even though some people have more shame to carry due to their personal history, but, as Brené Brown points out, “to have the capacity for shame is to be human”. Feeling shame is a common human experience, yet, shame—unlike guilt—does not serve us. Feeling guilty allows us to make amends for a behaviour and gives us a chance to become a better person. However, when somebody shames us, or when we shame ourselves, we are being defined by the worst mistakes we have ever made or the worst situations that ever happened to us. It feels like there is no way out of the shameful role we have played. The label sticks, whether that is “infertile”, “disappointment”, “unemployed”, “bad mother / father / wife / husband / daughter / son”,  “jealous girlfriend / boyfriend”, “financial failure”, “unwanted child”, “weak”, “angry”, “controlling”, “victim of abuse”…  A shame label always takes away our power to grow, to leave the past behind, and to show up differently.

According to Brené Brown, experiencing shame is “like being trapped in a deep and dark hole”, unable to see and feel that we can be a better version of who we are in a given moment in time. Shame means feeling disconnected and unworthy of “being a part of”. As humans, we are evolutionary hard wired for connection, and our fear of disconnection, of being excluded from our community, will always be present. We cannot get rid of shame or be completely shame resistant because we need the connection with others, but we can develop a certain shame resilience.

Shame resilience allows us to move through a shaming experiencing without twisting and shaping ourselves into sacrificing who we are. That means proudly being who we are “without performing, pleasing, perfecting or improving” (Brené Brown). Shame resilience happens when we move “from shame to empathy, from fear to courage, from blame to compassion, and from disconnection to connection” (Brené Brown).

Shame is a highly individualized experience. It is very personal. What is simply embarrassing for you, might bring up intense shame for somebody else due to their own history, and vise versa. When we are with another person who is experiencing shame, we have to be very careful not to project our own ideas of whether something is shaming or not onto them. Minimizing their experience does not help them, but rather increases the shame. When we minimize, the message we are articulating is, “you should not feel shame”. The other person ends up feeling ashamed that they are experiencing shame.

The only antidotes to shame are love, compassion and empathy. Shame hates being spoken. Shames grows and thrives through secrecy, silence and judgment. However, if we bring empathy to a situation which evokes shame, shame cannot survive.

Empathy, according to Theresa Wiseman, has four parts:

  1. We need to be able to take another person’s perspective and to see the world as the other person sees it.
  2. We need to be truly non-judgmental.
  3. We need to be able to understand what the other person is feeling.
  4. We need to be able to communicate our understanding of the other person’s feelings.

There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy says, “poor you. I feel for you. I am not having your experience, but I feel sorry for you.” Sympathy exacerbates shame. Empathy, on the other hand, is like saying, “I feel with you.” The two most powerful words to heal shame are an empathetic, “me too”.

You might wonder, how you can have empathy with somebody who has had an experience you have never had? We don’t need to have gone through the exact same situation to know what it feels like. Empathy is not about connecting to a specific experience, but about connecting to the emotions an experience elicits.

Having had the same experience that somebody else has had can sometimes even get in the way of empathy. We are individuals and our experiences are very different. Instead of assuming that the other person feels the way we felt in that situation, we can be curious about what the other person is going through and we can offer to be with them in that experience.

 

If you are curious about finding out more about working with embarrassment and shame, contact me for a free phone consultation. I offer sessions for individuals and couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!

Experiencing Shame: Women vs Men

“Will you stop guilt tripping me?!” exclaims Peter. His wife Linda, sitting across from him, stops with surprise on her face. “I am not trying to make you feel guilty. I am just trying to get through to you. I want to see changes…” Her voice trails off. Peter has shut down. His body language indicates that what he is actually feeling right now is not guilt but shame.

Even though Peter feels that Linda is trying to control him by making him feel guilty, the emotion that is actually triggered for him is shame. Guilt and shame are related, yet they have different directions and are dissimilar emotions. We experience guilt when we feel that we have done something bad, we have made a mistake or not the strongest choice in a certain situation. We are able to apologize and let the other person know we will make a different choice next time. The focus is on the behaviour and we are separate from our behaviour. Shame is way more debilitating. It is the experience of being bad, of feeling that there is something profoundly or deeply wrong with who we are. Shame is directed at the person themselves. What is most devastating about this emotion is that we believe we deserve our shame. Shame corrodes the parts in us that believe that we can do better.

Shame is highly correlated with depression, rage, suicide, addictions, and eating disorders. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely related to these experiences because the more we are able to separate ourselves from our actions, behaviours or choices, the less we are pulled into self-loathing or the feeling of worthlessness which leads to depression and addictions. We are able to see that we did something that was not in line with our values but we do not experience being fundamentally bad.

Most of us grew up with being shamed by our care-givers. As parents, we need to make clear distinctions between who our child is and what they did. A sentence like “You are a bad girl/bad boy” instead of “you are a good girl/boy but you didn’t make a good choice”, teaches us to feel ashamed. We carry this shame into our adult life and it gets triggered by similar situations and events.

In my last article, we explored the Inner Critic voice more and talked about how to cultivate an Inner Champion that helps us to not get caught up in shame and instead to feel good enough. The more shame we carry inside, the easier it is for our Inner Critic to make us feel flawed and lacking.

Brené Brown has researched how men and women experience shame differently and that there are gender specific shame issues. If we want to help our partner to not be activated into experiencing shame, we need to understand more about this emotion and how it affects us all.

Most of us, like Peter, are unaware that we are even experiencing shame. We will substitute the word shame with guilt. It is part of our culture that it is shaming in itself to admit to feeling shame. The assumption is if I am acknowledging shame, or like Brené Brown says “claiming shame”, it means I am somebody who should be ashamed. The same can apply to fear or anger. There is a stigma to feeling these emotions, so we are not even able to recognize them correctly. Anger can often cover up fear or shame.

Brené Brown points out that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism and anger. She says, “in my experience, men have two switches when it comes to shame: pissed off and shut down.” Peter in our example shuts down and has shut down many times before in his interactions with his wife. Linda is unaware of how she triggers shame for him and is unable to help him out of that experience of shame.

It starts with recognizing and acknowledging the emotion of shame. “If we don’t claim shame, it claims us” (Brené Brown). It corrodes all our relationships and we might give up on them because we can just not stand the feeling of not being good enough anymore. When we claim this emotion as what it really is, we can work with those younger parts in us which we have exiled because they were shamed by somebody in the past. Working through shame gives us the gift to live a life without playing small. It’s the opportunity to step into who we truly are, and to build the respectful loving relationships we really want.

According to Brené Brown’s research, shame is different for women and men. The women she interviewed told her that shame is “being rejected, not being able to do it all and most of all shame is people seeing you are struggling or failing”. Linda feels most ashamed when she feels she didn’t manage to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect daughter and perfect career woman. Peter can trigger her shame when he shares with their common friends or his mother that Linda had a fight with her own mother or yelled at their daughter. She feels deeply ashamed when what she says is “private” is revealed without her consent. These are the areas she feels vulnerable and exposed in and Peter has a hard time understanding that being exposed and seen as flawed triggers the experience of shame for his wife.

One woman in Brené Browns studies said, “You work hard to keep up appearance and shame is when the mask is being pulled off and the unlikable parts of you are seen. It feels unbearable to be seen.” Shame for women is often also being an outsider and not belonging. Not getting “a seat at the table with the pretty popular girls”.

The shame experience that comes up for a lot for women is when others see that we are not holding it all together. Life for women is often about making sure no one ever sees how hard you are working to hold it all together. Not only is it shaming to not be able to keep all the balls in the air, but it’s shaming when people see us struggle.

Shame is also connected to what we as women believe to be feminine qualities. According to Jim Mihalik’s Research from Boston College, that is “being thin, nice, modest, and using all our resources in the pursuit of looking better”. So there is shame attached to not having the perfect body or not looking perfect at all times. Being caught in our pajamas or not having the perfect slim and trim body that the media have brain washed us into believing we need to have. PSYCH-K® or the belief change technique from Shadow Energetics can help reprogram our gender stereotypical subconscious beliefs.

For men, shame is “failure, at work, on the football field, in marriage, in bed, with money, with your family, with your children, it doesn’t matter.” Shame is being wrong as opposed to doing something wrong. Shame is a sense of being defective. Shame occurs when people think you are soft or afraid. Shame for men is connected to being perceived as weak. And shame is being criticized or being ridiculed. Peter feels when Linda criticizes him that he is defective and a failure as a husband, a father and as the provider of the family.

How can Linda and Peter get out of this dynamic of triggering each others shame and either of them shutting down, or getting angry in response?

As a first step, they both need to learn to become aware when shame is being triggered for either of them and have empathy for each other. Present day interactions bring up our conscious and subconscious childhood memories. With IFS (Internal Family Systems), Linda and Peter can rescue and unburden the inner children which have experienced shame in the past. As they heal these parts in themselves with self-compassion and empathy, shame loses its power over them. As they both work individually on their own childhood experiences related to shame, they are activated less and less into this emotion. They are able to communicate differently and problem solve better without this incapacitating emotion taking over.

Let me finish with another quote by Brené Brown:

“Show me a woman who can sit with a man in vulnerability

and really hold space for him,

I show you a woman who has really done her work.

If you show me a man who can be with a woman in struggle,

who is in pain, and he can just hear her and validate her,

without trying to fix it or make it better,

I show you a man who has done his work.”

 

If you are curious about finding out more about working with your parts in general or the emotion of shame specifically, contact me for a free phone consultation. I offer sessions for individuals and couples.

Angelika

905-286-9466

greendoorrelaxation@yahoo.ca

I know your time is valuable and I appreciate you reading my blog. If you are enjoying my articles, you can subscribe to receive an e-mail notification whenever I post a new blog. All you need to do is to enter your email address in the field in the left sidebar. Thank you for your support!