Shame, Empathy, and the Wholehearted Journey

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Essay partially excerpted from The Gifts of Imperfection

Turning down speaking invitations is a vulnerable process for me because years of pleasing and perfecting have left me feeling less than comfortable with disappointing people.

Not only does the “good girl” in me hate letting people down, but I sometimes struggle with the fear that if I say no everyone is going to stop asking.

My new commitment to setting boundaries comes from the twelve years I’ve spent studying wholeheartedness and what it takes to make the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.”

The most connected and compassionate people of those I’ve interviewed set and respect boundaries. I don’t just want to research and travel all of the time talking about being wholehearted; I want to live it.

Well, last year I received an email from a man who was really angry with me because I wasn’t able to speak at an event that he was hosting, which conflicted with a family birthday.

The email was mean-spirited and jam-packed with personal attacks. Rather than replying, I decided to forward it to my husband along with a little note telling my husband exactly what I thought about this guy and his email.

Trust me, it was not “good girl” wording.

I hit Reply instead of Forward.

The second my Mac laptop made the airplane swooshing sound that it makes when you hit the Send button, I screamed, “Come back! Please come back!” I was still staring at the screen, totally immobilized by my mistake, when the man fired back a response along the lines of “Aha! I knew it! You are a horrible person.”

The shame attack was already in full swing. My mouth was dry, time was slowing down, and I was seeing tunnel vision. The gremlins were whispering: “You suck!” “How could you be so stupid?” They’re so good at knowing exactly what shame tapes to play to bring us to our knees.

I was fortunate, though, because having studied shame, I recognized the physical symptoms and I knew that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!

The way to fight shame and to honor who we are is by owning our story and sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it—someone who loves us, not despite our vulnerabilities, but because of them.

Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared.

Shame instead loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame festers and grows.

I called both my husband, Steve, and my good friend Karen. They gave me what I needed the most: empathy, the best reminder that we’re not alone. Rather than judgment (which exacerbates shame), empathy conveys a simple acknowledgment, “You’re not alone, I’ve been there.”

Empathy is connection; it’s a ladder out of the shame hole. Not only did Steve and Karen help me climb out by listening and loving me, but they made themselves vulnerable by sharing that they too had spent some time in the same hole.

Shame dissipated the minute I realized that I wasn’t alone.

Here’s the definition of shame that I have developed from my research:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame hurts because it brings with it disconnection, and we are physically, cognitively, emotionally, and for many of us spiritually wired for connection.

The stories of our struggles are difficult to own, and if we’ve worked hard to make sure that everything looks “just right” on the outside, then the stakes are even higher when it comes to truth telling. This is why shame loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet!

My conversations with Steve and Karen allowed me to move through shame, get back on my emotional feet, and respond to the man’s “I knew it!” email from a place of authenticity and self-worth.

I owned my part in the angry exchange and apologized for my inappropriate language. I also set clear boundaries around future communications. I never heard from him again.

The wholehearted journey is not the path of least resistance. It’s a path of consciousness and choice.

And to be honest, it’s a little counter to the prevailing culture of today. So the willingness to tell our stories, feel the pain of others, and stay genuinely connected in this disconnected world is not something we can do halfheartedly.

To practice courage and compassion is to look at life and the people around us, and to say, “I’m all in.”

About the Author

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Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brené is a nationally renowned speaker and has won numerous teaching awards, including the College’s Outstanding Faculty Award. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on PBS, NPR, and CNN, and her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability is one of the most viewed TED talks on TED.com. Her most recent TED talk on shame was just released in March 2012. Brené is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection, and her next book on vulnerability is coming out in September of 2012. Her current research focuses on authentic leadership and wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations. Brené lives in Houston with her husband, Steve, and their two young children, Ellen and Charlie.  

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