Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the work of Brené Brown, a Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who studies shame. (Check her out! brenebrown.com) Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950’s, I recall a lot of parenting that included messages about shame: “ shame on you,” “you should be ashamed of yourself,” “how shameful!” Although the messages may be subtler these days, shame creeps into our culture in so many ways.
What exactly is shame? And how does it differ from its cousin, guilt?
Most people in the field agree that guilt is a feeling of having done something wrong, whereas shame is the feeling that we are wrong – that there is something defective about us. While they are frequently confused and used interchangeably, there is a crucial difference between the two emotions.
The biggest and most important difference is that when we feel guilty about something, we usually want to change. As Brené explains in her first book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), we feel guilty when we hold up a mirror to our actions and see that they conflict with our values or with the person we want to be. We realize that, underneath it all, we can do better – we are better. And frequently, we take steps to be better. On the other hand, when we feel shame, our experience is that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. This belief actually deprives us of the motivation to make amends for the action that triggered this feeling. After all, if we are that _______________ (fill in the blank: lazy, self-centered, stupid, insensitive…) person, we probably will never change and most likely don’t have the ability to be any different.
So in speaking with our employees, colleagues, friends or family, it’s always best to focus on behavior – you did this, as opposed to you are this. We can also follow it up with the acknowledgement of who we believe they really are as a person, or what behavior we know they are capable of.
While it is easy to slip into judgment of others, most of us find it even easier to get stuck in self-judgment about any number of things we have or have not done. This makes it difficult for us to move forward in a healthy, authentic way. But we can begin to mitigate the negativity that results from these feelings of shame by evaluating our actions from what Brené calls a “strengths perspective.” We can take a mental inventory of our strengths and “examine our struggles in light of our capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, values and hopes.” We can then use these as resources for change. It seems a lot more possible to change our behavior or ourselves when we are aware that we are smart and capable than when we view ourselves as foolish and incompetent.
There is no denying that confronting our feelings of guilt and shame, and overcoming them, is hard work. If it were easy, we would all do it regularly. Really, who wants to be stuck feeling bad about themselves? When we approach life from the perspective of not only wanting to be better but knowing we can be better, we become more authentic and begin to use our gifts and strengths in more situations. Take a moment to consider how your life would be different if the worry, self-doubt, shrinking from speaking your mind, and lost opportunities due to fear were a thing of your past. That life could actually be yours! And when communicating our feelings about other peoples’ actions, by focusing on behavior and pointing out their strengths, we can illuminate their path and power their change. The payoffs to them, to us, and to our world would be huge, as we each bring our best selves to every situation.