Jonathan Penner // March 15, 2019

Shame beats us down, holds us back, compels us to hide, threatens us if we’re about to share our story, and moves through our soul like cancer—eventually eating us alive. It is the judge within, that internal voice that tells us we are not good, pretty, talented, successful, moral, masculine, feminine, tough, caring, skinny, creative, smart, hard-working, or popular enough—that we are flawed and ultimately unworthy of love and belonging. Too often shame convinces us to serve sentences in prisons built out of lies. So how do we stop it? How do we free ourselves from the judge within? How can we silence the voices that make us feel small, flawed, and never good enough?

Shame, fuelled by secrecy, silence and judgement, is something we all experience to one degree or another. At times it shows up through people around us, communities we’re part of, or cultural expectations imposed on us.

But while guilt is a focus on behaviour, shame is a focus on self. When guilt says, “You did something wrong,” shame says, “You are something wrong.” Guilt honestly invites you to admit, “You made a mistake, would you be willing to make it right?” While shame seductively whispers, “You are a mistake and you should know by now that you are a worthless piece of_____!”

As a shame researcher, Dr. Brené Brown observed that, “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.” whereas “Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”

Shame is the monster that threatens to hurt him if he dares open his mouth about being sexually abused. Shame is why she places her hand over her smile, hiding the teeth she wants no one to see. Shame tricks him into thinking that everyone is staring at and commenting on his fat, his bald spot, his acne, or the way he walks or talks. It’s the threatening voice that holds her back from telling anyone she was sexually assaulted. Shame is what keeps him from having his friends over because they might find out his dad is an alcoholic or his mom is a hoarder. Shame is why she never told her husband that she was demoted at work. It’s the self-disgust of falling once again into an addictive behaviour. Shame is why he lies about his income, because only “losers” earn what he gets paid. Shame is the report card she hid, or the pink slip he lied about, because people who are worth anything don’t fail like that. Shame is why he lied to his wife about who’d been watching porn on his computer. Shame is when she pretends she’s not hungry rather than admitting she has no lunch money.

"If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three 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 can’t survive," Dr. Brené Brown

Shame thrives on secrecy and shadows. It gets its power from being unspeakable. Shame hates exposure. It continually works to hold us back from reaching out and telling our story.

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three 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 can’t survive.
— Dr. Brené Brown

One way to increase empathy, our power to overcome shame, is to recognize that we are “them”. We are “the others”. That most of us are honestly one step, one misfortune, one unwise choice, one accident away from being “those people”— the ones we judge, criticize, marginalize, distrust, or view with contempt. That we too could lose our job, end up divorced, have a drug-addicted kid, experience mental illness, be sexually assaulted, live with the repercussions of one night of unprotected sex, or end up in an affair we thought could never happen to us. Accepting and embracing our own capacity to fall or fail, while owning our birthright to worthiness, love and belonging; silences the judge within.

So the next time you feel shame whispering to you, find someone who has earned the right to hear your story, then tell it. Remember shame simply cannot survive when we choose to share our story with someone who will respond with empathy and understanding. So cultivate your ability to share with honesty and vulnerability. Let go of shame and develop shame resilience.

Because in the end, the most dangerous stories we can tell ourselves are the ones that keep shame alive. The ones that stop us from truly being known, loved, and celebrated. The stories that allow shame to seduce us into believing we are unworthy of love and belonging.