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Shame and Guilt


There has been extensive research by Brene Brown on vulnerability and shame, and the following is based on an inspiring talk by her that profoundly moved me.


If we look at the root of shame, we need to talk about vulnerability. Despite many people’s beliefs, vulnerability is not a weakness, and that myth is dangerous. Vulnerability involves emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. It is our most accurate measure of courage, which involves being honest and being seen. If you consider the success of our society, or the basis of a human being’s development from the moment they are born to adulthood – development, growth, innovation, creativity and change cannot happen without embracing vulnerability. To create something and put it out there takes vulnerability. Part of that process is to fail, which can bring about shame. Sometimes failure is a vital part of learning and succeeding, making shame unavoidable.


As a society we need to talk about shame. To learn to embrace failure, we must embrace shame. When you are trying to be brave shame is the gremlin – the ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are.’ We are our own worst critic. Guilt is ‘I did something bad’ or ‘I made a mistake’ which is a reflection of behaviour. Shame is ‘I am bad’ or ‘I am a mistake’ which is a reflection of the self.


Shame has a strong correlation with depression, violence, aggression, addiction, abusive behaviour, eating disorders, bullying and suicide. Guilt is inversely correlated with these behaviours. Everyone feels shame (apart from sociopaths, who are unable to). So are all those sounding familiar to what’s going on in our society today?


Shame is organised by gender but feels the same to all genders. For women it can be ‘do it all, do it perfectly, don’t let them see you sweat.’ For men it can be ‘don’t be perceived as weak. If you are vulnerable you get the sh*t kicked out of you.’ There are unobtainable expectations on who we’re supposed to be, which are unrealistic and we set ourselves up to fail.


Shame is an epidemic in our culture. We need to find a way back to each other and understand how it affects people. We need to look at how we work and how we look at each other. Vulnerability is usually felt secretly, in silence and with judgement, but vulnerability is the path forward and we need to be able to say, ‘me too’. To be able to feel empathy towards each other is the key - empathy is the antidote to shame.


So the next time you try and beat yourself and tell yourself ‘I am bad’, just adjust that statement slightly to say, ‘I did something bad’, and acknowledge your vulnerability and humility. Take information from your mistakes and think about what you’d do different next time. To release yourself from the confines of shame and bring yourself a sense of peace and appreciation of your connection to the wider universe, think about the phrase ‘to dare greatly’, and accept yourself for the brilliant being that you are.



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