A Snapshot of Brené Brown’s Study of Shame and Resiliency

By Amanda Polster, LMSW

“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs 3 things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it cannot survive. The two most powerful words in a time of struggle are me too” - Brene Brown

Brené Brown, an American researcher, professor, author, and inspirational speaker, has spent two decades studying difficult emotional experiences such as courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. Brown’s extensive research has helped us understand how these emotions relate to each other, and how to work through difficult emotions like shame. In her recent book, I Thought It was Just Me (But It Isn’t) , Brown illustrates the power of shame and helpful tips to work towards shame resiliency. Whether its relationships, parenting styles, work environments, family dynamics, you name it, Brown demonstrates that shame impacts all of us,  it’s an unspoken epidemic, and the less we talk about it, the more power it has over our ability to feel connected.

Brown defines shame as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection.” She goes further to describe the gender organization of shame, in which “women most often experience shame as a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations that dictate who we should be, what we should be, and how we should be.” Brown’s definition highlights that shame is part of all of us, and is often impacted by the environment we live in and our gender identify.

Brown shares in her book that we often confuse shame with guilt because these two emotions can seem similar in the ways they impact us and our relationships. Yet, she helps us understand the important difference between shame and guilt: shame is focused on ourselves while guilt is focused on our behaviors. Some common thoughts below illustrate the differences between shame and guilt, and the impact shame has on our identify, self-confidence, and connection towards others.


Guilty Thought                                                          Shameful Thought

“I did something bad”                                                  “I am bad”

“I made a mistake”                                                      “I am a mistake”

“I made a stupid choice”                                             “I am stupid”


When we experience guilt, we have a strong desire to take accountability and ask for forgiveness from the person or people we harmed, which involves empathy, compassion, and courage. However, when we experience shame, we feel hopeless, isolated, and unforgiving. Brown describes how this harmful self view has been a leading cause for addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.

Shame is not a hopeless epidemic though. How do we build strength to work through some of our most shameful experiences? Brown shares some helpful tips on how to develop shame resiliency to overcome some of our deepest struggles.

To get out from underneath shame, we have to understand how it affects us and the relationships we have.

Brown describes the ways human connection - our ability to forge meaningful and authentic relationships with others - is on a spectrum where empathy is on one end and shame is on the other. She also illustrates the nob that moves us on this spectrum is vulnerability, where the more vulnerable we are - the more capable we are of sharing our strengths and struggles - the more empathy we hold. Brown uses four tips to help us move this vulnerability nob further from shame and closer towards empathy and shame resiliency.


1. Recognizing Shame and Understanding Triggers

Brown shares that the first step towards shame resiliency is recognizing shame and understanding our triggers. When we become more aware of our shame and things that increase these feelings, we can make mindful, thoughtful decisions about how we can respond to shame in a productive and healthy way. Brown provides a helpful companion worksheet to help us increase awareness, identity, and connection to counter shame symptoms. https://brenebrown.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/ITIWJMreadingguide.pdf


2. Practicing Critical Awareness

Brown helps us identify the ways shame can feel like the zoom lens on a camera; when we feel shame, the camera is zoomed in and all we see are our struggles and flaws. This experience can feel isolating, as if “I am the only one and something is completely wrong with me.” Brown challenges us to zoom this internal camera lens out to think more broadly about our struggles and to reflect on how these situations can be impacting many other people in the same way. We can begin to ask ourselves questions that challenge where expectations come from and what type of pressure we naturally feel as a result of these expectations to normalize our shame. Some questions Brown suggests we ask ourselves to increase critical awareness are:

•    What are the social-community expectations?

•    Why do these expectations exist?

•    How do these expectations work?

•    Who benefits from these expectations?


3. Reaching Out

“Regardless of who we are, how we were raised or what we believe, all of us fight hidden, silent battles against not being good enough, not having enough and not belonging enough. When we find the courage to share our experiences and the compassion to hear others tell their stories, we force shame out of hiding and end the silence”


Brown emphasizes in this tip the ways we can heal through our connections with others. She also highlights the ways we are more alike than we are different, in that we all need to feel valued, accepted and affirmed. Reaching out and giving space to hear other people’s stories of their internal struggles increases empathy and connection and reduces experiences of judgment and rejection. Brown shares six ways we can reach out to increase our connection with others and to use our voice as power to counter shame symptoms; she calls these the six P’s:

•    Personal: your interactions with family, friends and co-workers

•    Pens: writing a letter to organizational leaders and legislators

•    Polls: getting educated about leaders and issues, and voting

•    Participation: joining organizations that support your issues

•    Purchase: buying from companies that support your values

•    Protests: standing up for what you believe in


4. Speaking Shame

This is likely the toughest tip because it requires us to seek the vulnerability to share our shame experiences with others. Brown helps us understand the benefits of sharing and the ways storytelling helps us communicate who were are, how we feel, what’s important to us and what we need from others. Telling others how we feel and asking for what we need are basic requirements of resilience and connection. Brown also highlights that speaking shame holds people accountable for the ways their actions might have impacted us, and creates opportunities for others to increase empathy towards us to build stronger relationships.


While shame can feel deflating, there are many ways we can get out from under shame to build resiliency, courage, compassion, and empathy. If you are struggling with shame, we are here to help. Call us at 347.994.9301 to schedule an appointment to begin working through your experiences of shame together.