When not shame is shame

I first saw Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk back when I was at UBC.

I didn’t understand it at all the first time I saw it.

I saw it again a couple of years later. I had done some more structured and intentional personal development work by this time. And it resonated with me much more the second time I saw it.

In her talk, she made this statement:

So, where I started was with connection. Because, by the time you’re a social worker for ten years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

So, connection is essential. But there’s something that tears connection apart: shame.

In I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brown defines shame as:

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

For a long time, I didn’t recognize feelings of shame inside myself.

I read Brown’s Daring Greatly after her talk resonated with me. This was years ago now.

In Daring Greatly, Brown differentiates between guilt and shame.

(In brief, guilt is helpful. It tells us when we’ve done something bad. Shame is not useful. It tells us that we are bad.)

For the longest time, I could recognize guilt in my life. But I couldn’t recognize shame.

Earlier this year, I brought up something in a session with my therapist. I noticed that I frequently had recurring memories that would lead me to twitch involuntarily.

(Right before my session, I caught myself twitching on the way back from the bakery. Fortunately, my self-awareness has grown in recent years, such that I was able to notice it.)

Here’s one of them:

I was standing at a table with three other students in the chemistry classroom, painting a poster for student government.

The girl across from me tapped her paintbrush on the water bucket. In the process, black paint splashed right across my favourite hoodie.

“I’m sorry,” she said, raising her hand to cover her mouth.

I took this to be sarcastic. I thought I was being attacked, and I got angry.

And in that instant, I took my paintbrush and sprayed her shirt with paint.

A guy at the table looked at me and said, “Not cool, man.”

After chatting with my therapist, I realized that I was experiencing shame about this memory.

Again, from I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brown writes:

Individuals, families and communities use shame as a tool to change others and to protect themselves.

In this case, I was using shame to protect myself.

Looking back at this memory, I saw that experiencing anger led to people pushing me away. AKA: disconnection.

I saw that I was flawed when I was angry.

This makes me wonder if shame is also underlying core personality traits. 🤔

Anyhow, lots of exploring to do in this realm still. But it seems I’ve recently discovered some paths I can walk around.

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