The Shame that is Hidden in Our Words

“The blow of a whip raises a welt, but a blow of the tongue crushes the bones.  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but not as many as have fallen because of the tongue.” –Ben Sira 28:17-18

The past couple of posts have discussed the work of Brené Brown and the research she has done on shame.  This week, we explore how shame manifests in the way we talk to others.  As I read Brené’s work, one of the things that struck me was how powerful our words are.  When we ourselves are not feeling good and are in a place of shame, an often automatic response is to shame others.  Shame is a tool to control others and is often used as a form of discipline.  Although we no longer use the ‘dunce hat’ on the child sitting in the corner as a form of punishment, many of the techniques and ways we discipline are equally as shaming.

This post is difficult for me to write, because as I start looking back at things that I said and did as both a parent and teacher, I now realize how much shaming I did, often in the name of discipline.  It is not easy for me to look back and recognize how hurtful some of the comments that I made must have been.  I remember saying things like, ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Look at how nice everyone else is sitting.’  While at the time I was attempting to get my students to behave, I now understand the magnitude of the shaming words I spoke.  When my son picked out an outfit that didn’t match and I argued with him to change into something more ‘appropriate,’ there was shame in implying that his choice of outfit was not good enough.  Over and over I can recall times when I shamed.

Increasing my awareness of the power of shame has affected the way I talk to others.  I am now much more aware of whether my words are building someone up or shaming them.  It is not easy though.  I still find myself shaming without thinking about it until later.  Being critical, judging or laughing at someone are all ways that we shame without realizing it.  They are easy traps to fall into.  Shame is a message that there is something wrong with me and I’m not lovable.  It isn’t hard for someone to get the message of shame just from the tone of my voice, the way I look at them or my body language.   We don’t even need words to shame!  Becoming aware in the moment of the interaction takes practice.  It is frightening to think about how many times I use shame without my conscious awareness of it.   What would change if we all thought about the destructive force of shame and increased our awareness of it before speaking?  Are you ready to communicate without shame?

How Do We Protect Ourselves When in Shame?

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” –Brené Brown

In the previous post I introduced the work of Brené Brown and the distinction she makes between shame and guilt.  She identifies shame as a fundamental feeling of unworthiness or brokenness.  It is something that is wrong with us.  Guilt is recognizing that a behavior is not in alignment with our values or who we say we are.  Guilt is focused on what was done and is therefore is something that we can change.  There is an important distinction between shame and guilt in how we see ourselves and interact with the world.

Dr. Linda Hartling’s research identified three strategies of disconnection, which Brené has termed our ‘Shame Shields.’ They are Moving Away, Moving Towards, and Moving Against.

  • Moving Away is withdrawing. It is playing small and making ourselves invisible.  When someone uses the Moving Away shame shield they tend to avoid conflict and disappear whenever they feel uncomfortable.  They isolate or make themselves scarce when there is an uncomfortable situation.
  • Moving Towards is the shield of making everything perfect and pleasing others. When there is a conflict, people who use this shield will work diligently to make sure everyone else is happy, often at their own expense.
  • Moving Against is deflecting and fighting back. This person uses anger and aggression to protect themselves.  They will shame the other person in order to take the pressure off their own feelings of discomfort.

While we all use these three shields from time to time, we usually have our go-to shield.  This is the shield that immediately comes out whenever we feel threatened or vulnerable. The problem is that, as we use our shield it often begins to crack.  Our tendency is to put a larger shield up, so no one sees the crack.  Eventually these shields become so heavy that the weight is unbearable.  By recognizing our own shield, we are able to become more aware of how we are responding to situations.  That awareness is our power to make a different decision.  It takes courage to identify our shields and begin to respond differently.  It is often easier to see others’ shields then it is for us to examine our own.  That is normal, but it also falls under the shield of deflection.  While it is helpful to understand the shields others are using, it is our awareness of our own shame shields that creates the change within us.  How different would your life be without your shame shield?

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” –Brené Brown

Shame is a topic most people avoid.  It is uncomfortable and dark.  The truth is, we all have shame.  It is a universal emotion and research has shown that the only people who don’t feel shame are those that are pathologically unable to feel empathy.  So, if you can empathize you have shame.  While most people use the terms shame and guilt interchangeably, Brené Brown has helped me to understand that there is a significant difference between them.  This understanding has changed the way I look at situations and has made me aware my own self-talk.

Brené makes the distinction between the two in this way; shame is a label of who we are and guilt is a behavior or something that was done.  Shame is a fundamental belief that there is something wrong with us.  It is the feeling of being flawed or unworthy.  Guilt is the recognition of a behavior that is not in alignment with who I say I want to be.  When I make a mistake at work, if my self-talk is about how stupid I am or what an idiot I am, that is shame.  If my self-talk is about what a stupid mistake I made, that is guilt.  It sounds like a slight difference, ‘I am stupid,’ versus ‘I did something stupid,’ but the distinction is critical.  When we are in shame, there is something wrong with us and we have no power to change who we are.  When we did something wrong, it is the behavior that is not working.  We can change a behavior.  We can’t change who we are.  The distinction between these two is absolutely critical.

As you begin to listen to your own self-talk, take note of any shaming statements and see if you are able to shift them to focus on the behavior or situation instead.  This is a challenge, but it is important to discern which thoughts are empowering us to change and which are keeping us stuck.   For example, when I look in the mirror and tell myself that I’m fat and focus on scale numbers that keep going up, I’m in shame.  When I notice myself talking like this, I can choose to instead remind myself that I have been eating fast food and have not been exercising regularly, which have caused the scale numbers to go up.  I now have the power to make a behavior change.  I may feel guilt about the number on the scale, but recognizing that there is a behavior I can change gives me the power to do something about it.  Guilt can be a powerful motivator for change, but shame eats away at our core sense of value.

Shame is a deep topic and Brené Brown has written extensively on it.  I will share more about her research and her understanding of how shame works in the next few weeks.

The Paradox of Tolerance

“Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” –Mahatma Gandhi

America was founded on the principles of freedom and tolerance of differing beliefs, but we seem to be at a crossroads.  How tolerant can we be to the hate and violence that seems to permeate our media. defines tolerance as, “The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”  The problem is that when we have tolerance of intolerance, the problem doesn’t go away and those who are intolerant become emboldened.  Karl Popper wrote the book, The Open Society and Its Enemies while in political exile during WWII.  The two-volume book was published in 1945.  The book has been called a philosophical defense of the importance of democracy.  One of the points he discusses is the paradox of tolerance.  Popper states, “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.  There is a major point here.   Can we be tolerant of intolerance?  How do we change intolerance?  Peace and acceptance of differences depends on us, as a society, coming to consensus on when to be tolerant and when to be intolerant.  To me it comes down to a simple question.  Does the intolerance cause suffering for someone else?  If the answer is yes, someone is suffering due to intolerance, then we need to be intolerant of their intolerance.  If there is no suffering, then it can be tolerated.  I can be tolerant of other’s opinions and beliefs, but if their words, actions or behaviors cause suffering to another person, that becomes intolerable and must be addressed.  Popper goes on to state, “In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

What would the world look like if every individual spoke out about intolerance which causes suffering?  It is time.  Our future depends on the choices we make today.  Peace can only happen when we are truly tolerant of everyone and intolerance is not tolerated.

Why Do People Hate? What Do We Do About It?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The news stories of the past couple weeks have been difficult to watch.  From the war of words with North Korea, to the violent protests in Charlottesville, to the terrorist attack in Barcelona, we have been reminded that change is needed if we as a species wish to survive and experience peace.  We are at a critical point in history and these events are bringing major issues to the forefront.  People are concerned and scared about what the future will hold.  Now is the time to ask if the way we have been doing things is working.  This is not about who is right and who is wrong.  Those are judgements.  This is about asking does it serve us to threaten nuclear war on a country smaller than the size of Mississippi? Does it work to respond to hate with hate? 

There is one thing in common with all people who hate.  ISIS, Neo-Nazis, the KKK, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump all share one quality.  They are fearful.  They are scared to lose something that they value.  When we look at them as extremely scared individuals who are acting out in fear, it is easier to begin to have some compassion for them.  Hating them will not change them, it will only lead to more hate.  I believe that all people are good at their core.  It is our innate human nature to be giving and caring and loving.  When people hate, it is because they have forgotten who they are.  They have been engulfed by their ego and taken over by fear.  When we begin to become curious about what they are fearful about, we start to understand.  On that level, healing begins as we are able to go under the rhetoric and address the real issues.  It is no longer working for us to hate.  We are all diverse individuals sharing one planet. When we begin to honor that diversity, and look for ways to show love and compassion to those who look and believe differently, the world will be at peace.

Martin Luther King, Jr. left us with many words of wisdom.  Here are two more quotes from him which are just as appropriate now as when he spoke them:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Are we ready to change?

Maybe Yes, Maybe No

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”  John Maxwell

We think we know what we want.  We have our sights set on a goal and we know what needs to happen to make it.  Unfortunately, life doesn’t always cooperate with our plans.  Instead of success, we experience ‘failure.’  These so called ‘failures’ are often anything but a failure.  I recently heard an old story which puts this into perspective.

There was once a poor peasant who lived in China with his son.  Their most prized possession was their horse.   One day the boy left the gate open and the horse ran away.  Everyone from the village told the man how terrible it was that his horse escaped.  The man simply responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Two days later the horse returned and there were six wild horses who followed him.  The villagers all exclaimed how wonderful it was that the horse returned.  The man again responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Several days later the boy was taming one of the wild horses and he was thrown off, injuring his leg.  The villagers told the man how terrible it was.  Again, the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’  Several days later the Emperor’s army came through their village, taking all the young men to fight in the war.  Because the boy was injured he was not taken.  The villagers returned to tell him how wonderful it was that his boy was spared, to which the man responded, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’

This story is a wonderful illustration of letting go of attachment to an outcome.  The wise man knew that what looked like a ‘failure’ could turn out to be a blessing and what appeared to be just what he wanted, could in fact turn out to be trouble.

Life is filled with ups and downs, blessings and disasters.  While it is important to set goals and take action, sometimes life has other plans.  Going with what is and letting go of our attachment to how life is supposed to be, is a blessing.  Is this experience what you wanted? Maybe yes, maybe no….

The Dangers of Joy

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” –Leo Buscaglia

Joy is an emotion that we all say we want more of.  The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right.  But, what happens when we find the happiness and joy that we say we all want?  If you are like most people, when things are going well, we say that things are ‘too good.’  We wait for the other shoe to drop.  As crazy as it sounds, thanks to the research of Brené Brown, we now know that joy is the most difficult of all emotions for most people to stay with for any length of time.  When things are going well, we forebode the joy.  I remember standing over my son’s crib when he was a baby and as I looked at him in wonder and amazement, feeling the joy well up in my heart, I had a sudden image of him dying.  I was sure that he stopped breathing and began to panic as I didn’t see his chest move.  Of course, he was fine, but in that moment of pure joy, the brakes were applied and it was back to reality.  Whether it is due to Hollywood sensitizing us, or our own innate nature it is difficult for us to stay with joy.  When my son was going to a high school dance, a group met at a friend’s house for pictures.  He was then riding with his friends to the dance.  I couldn’t help but have a moment on the ride home, when I was alone, to think about whether the photos of him laughing and smiling could be his last.  Images of a terrible accident and headlines flashed across my mind.  This should have been a moment of joy, but instead I was worried.

Joy is an emotion that we have fear of.  In many ways it is scarier when life is going well then it is when things are falling apart.  Misery loves company.  It seems you can always find something negative to talk about with other people, and they will commiserate with you.  People try to offer support and help when it is obvious that there is a need.  When things are going well, everyone seems to assume that there is no need for support.  One of the points that Brené Brown makes is that people in recovery need to go to more meetings and be with more people when things are going well, because joy can be a trigger for relapse.

While it seems counterintuitive to think of joy as being a dangerous emotion, in many ways it is.  Joy is pure vulnerability and whenever we feel vulnerable, fear sets in.  Become aware of foreboding joy and remind yourself to enjoy the moment for what it is.  Challenge yourself to feel the pure joy of life. Take some time to soak in the joy.

The Gift that comes from Death

“Death is a challenge. It tells us not to waste time… It tells us to tell each other right now that we love each other.” –Leo Buscaglia

This has been a challenging couple of weeks, as several families I know have had to deal with the death of a loved one. No matter what the circumstances, whether the individual was young or old, whether it was sudden or expected, death is not easy to face. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous book, On Death and Dying, explains various stages that people go through as part of the grieving process. She identified shock, denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance as stages that people progress through and noted that people may be in several stages simultaneously and may move back and forth between california-140113_640stages. In her book, she states, “It might be helpful if more people would talk about death and dying as an intrinsic part of life just as they do not hesitate to mention when someone is expecting a new baby.” In our society, death is a taboo subject. It is not something that is commonly talked about, yet it is inevitable for all of us to face. In some cultures death is a time for joyous celebration with songs and parades, in others the deceased is kept in the home for several days after death before the burial or cremation. Buddhism actually encourages people to think about death as a constant companion, like their shadow. Although it sounds morbid, there is something special that happens when we are forced to deal with death. Suddenly all of our daily problems seem small in comparison and expressing love seems much more important. There is a shift in how we view the world when we are faced with the reality that we are not guaranteed tomorrow. We begin to think about what we would miss most about life and we make those things our priority. We have all been given a terminal diagnosis: it is called birth. While we all know this, it is something that most of us don’t like to think about. Our denial of the inevitable causes us to put off doing things for another day but, if we knew that this was our last day, what would the priority be? A hospice nurse once told me that the biggest thing she learned from sitting with people in their last days was that most people talked about their regrets for the things they didn’t do when they had the opportunity. While it is often hard to find meaning in death, there is a gift; it awakens us to life.

Why does bad stuff always happen to me? What makes it difficult to move beyond our circumstances

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” ― Wayne W. Dyer

There is no denying that some people are given extremely difficult circumstances in life.  Some of the challenges that people face are excruciatingly painful just to hear about and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to live in their shoes.  So why is it that some people seem to get through difficult circumstances with strength and courage while others seem to crumble and get stuck?  I remember watching news footage after a tornado went through a western town.  The news reporter talked to a couple that was standing in front of where their house once stood and they were sobbing as they told the reporter that they lost everything.  It was heart wrenching to watch.  The reporter then went across the street where another couple stood looking at the debris that was once their house.  That couple told the reporter that they were so grateful to be alive.  They said they lost the material things, but their whole family was safe and they were just grateful that they had each other and could rebuild the house.  Here were two couples looking at exactly the same circumstance, yet they both had very diftree-illusionferent experiences.  The only thing that was different between these two couples was their perception of what happened.  One couple was stuck in the negative, while the other was able to look at the positive.  It seems so cliché to say that it is important to see life with the glass half full.  We have all heard that advice a thousand times, yet what makes it so difficult for us to do it?

There has been an abundance of brain research in the recent decades which has given us some clues to figuring out why it is easier to see the glass as half empty and harder to see it as half full.  Rick Hanson wrote a book called Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.  In this book he explains how evolutionarily our brains have gotten upgrades, but the reptilian brain, which is on the lookout for danger is still functioning well.  He says that our brains are like Velcro for negative and Teflon for positive.  In studies they have found that it takes significantly less time for the brain to register a negative event then it does a positive event.  We have a built in negativity bias that we have to overcome.  What Dr. Hanson suggests is that we have to consciously soak in positive events for the brain to register them.  So, the next time you see a rainbow or a sunset or your child smile take a few seconds and allow the brain to soak it in.  The more we take the time to form the neural pathways for happiness the easier it becomes.

So, why does bad stuff always happen to some people?  While I don’t want to deny the fact that some circumstances are extremely difficult, what separates the people who get stuck and those who rise strong has much more to do with their perception of the problem then with what actually happened.  So take some time to build the brain wiring for positive and see if it shifts how you see the preverbal glass of water.

Can the truth set you free?

“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”― Maya Angelou

How many lies do we tell ourselves?  Really think about it.  That voice that is constantly chattering away has a way of spinning things around.  It comes up with some incredible lies.  It tells us things like, we aren’t good enough, someone else is better than we are, that there isn’t enough of something, that we will fail at what we are working on, that we caused something bad to happen, and on and on.  Sometimes the thought train of lies carries us off and before we know it webokeh-1209432_640 are starting to believe that those thoughts are true.  So how do we get off the train?

Over the past few weeks I discussed the image of our ego being a cage and the authentic self as being within the cage.  There is a big question that can open the door of the cage and help us stop the train of lies.  When we ask ourselves if those thoughts are actually true we begin to crack the door open.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  Sometimes we get thoughts stuck in our head and we have all the evidence to prove that the thought is correct, so we don’t even question it.  There are facts that tell us that we don’t have enough money, the time isn’t right, we don’t have the education or we just aren’t able to do it.  Our brains pull up all kinds of evidence to prove that it is right.  It will remind you of the time in second grade when you tried something new and then everyone laughed when you failed.  It will bring up every time that someone was better.  It will tell you to look at your bank account to prove that you will never be able to have or do what you dream of.  But here is the big question.  Just because those facts are there, does it mean that what you are envisioning can’t happen?  Just because you failed in the past does it mean that you are destined to always fail?  Instead of allowing the past experiences to become the cage that keeps us stuck, asking ‘what have I learned from these experiences?’ pushes us to the truth that we can have and do something different in the future.  When we feel as if we have failed and the thought that ‘I can’t do this’ comes up, continuing to ask the question, ‘is that true’ digs down deeper and deeper into the actual truth.  The actual truth is that we are limitless.  The actual truth is that we are more then we realize.  As Marianne Williamson says in her book, A Return to Love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”