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:
- We need to be able to take another person’s perspective and to see the world as the other person sees it.
- We need to be truly non-judgmental.
- We need to be able to understand what the other person is feeling.
- 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.
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