How to Recognize and Deal with Shame in Everyday Conversations

Shame is embedded in everyday talk, making us feel uncomfortable without knowing why. Here's how to recognize and deal with shame for better conversations.

hiding

I hadn’t thought much about shame until I read I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough” by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW. Brown’s book opened my eyes to shame and its prevalence in everyday conversations. Her work made me aware of shame’s damaging effects to engaging in meaningful conversations, sharing our stories, nurturing friendships, and building community.

By recognizing shame and dealing with shame and its byproducts, I can pursue conversations on topics that frighten me; reveal my true feelings and struggles without fear of ridicule or rejection; and confront problematic remarks without returning shame to other people.

Just as significantly, I can facilitate discussions that allow me (and others) to:

  • talk freely
  • experience lively and profound exchanges
  • develop a stronger sense of belonging
  • make sense of struggles in ways that allow us to overcome past difficulties and reach out to those with similar challenges
  • become continually renewed through fresh insights about ourselves, our friends, our family, and our communities

Here, I’ll start with explaining my take on the shame problem (taken largely from Brown’s book) and then offer suggestions for removing shame from conversations.

Know What Shame Is and Why It Doesn’t Improve Behavior

I used to think of shame as being the same as guilt — just more effective in establishing and enforcing guardrails for proper behavior. And I nearly always thought of shame as something others experienced as the result of shameful thoughts or activity. I was wrong.

What I discovered is that shame is a wrong-headed sense of unworthiness, not an appropriate emotion stemming from wrong actions. Shame may manifest itself in destructive behavior. But it arises from fears, occasionally irrational and some well-founded, of being considered second rate and therefore not desirable as a friend, neighbor, colleague, etc.

In I Thought It Was Just Me, Brown establishes this working definition of shame:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame and disconnection.

She also distinguishes shame from guilt. Shame feels all consuming whereas guilt is associated with a specific act. Simply put, shame is thinking “I am bad” whereas guilt is saying “I did something bad” (when true). Further, “guilt can be a positive motivator of change, while shame typically leads to worse behavior or paralysis.”

Thinking about shame vs. guilt reminds me of how Jesus spoke with the adulterous woman brought before him by religious leaders (John 8:1-11). Members of the crowd want to stone the woman, causing a shameful death. Jesus relents to their request to honor the law of Moses but requires those who throw stones to be sinless. One by one, the accusers walk away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus. There’s no question about the woman’s guilt. But Jesus doesn’t shame her, choosing instead to forgive her and command her to “go and sin no more.”

This interaction models an inspired encounter. It acknowledges human sin and Jesus’s holiness without endorsing the shaming of a specific person.

Notice How Shame Distances Us from Each Other

Shame keeps us from being vulnerable. It causes us to believe that by revealing what we truly think, what we really believe, what we’ve experienced in the past or are currently experiencing will lead to rejection or ridicule — all the time, every time. As a result, it stops us from sharing our stories and listening to others’ stories. It prevents us from showing empathy, often replacing this generous feeling with blame, pity, anger, and fear.

According to relational-cultural theorist Dr. Linda Hartling, shame commonly sparks these reactions:

  • withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets
  • seeking to appease or please
  • trying to gain power over others, being aggressive, and using shame to fight shame

What I realized after reading and re-reading this book is that I didn’t recognize shame or its effects. I just reacted and generally shut down or kept quiet if I didn’t think my stories would make sense or resonate with listeners. But by silencing myself, I didn’t allow others to get to know me and, so, didn’t connect as strongly as I could have if I’d been upfront about my stories and the dilemmas I wrestled with.

I felt relieved in a way when I read these words by Brown, affirming that my reactions were pretty typical:

First, when we feel shame, most of us are not conscious of what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Shame often produces overwhelming and painful feelings of confusion, fear, anger, judgment and/or the need to escape or hide from the situation.

When we are experiencing shame we are often thrown into crisis mode. Most of the time we can barely handle all of the by-products of shame — the fear, blame and disconnection. In fact, there’s new brain research that is helping us understand that shame can be so threatening that, rather than processing in the neocortex — the advanced part of the brain that allows us to think, analyze and react — shame can signal our brains to go into our very primal ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode.”

What’s odd is that I don’t have dark secrets that I want to hide. Yet, I have often felt paralyzed and distressed when asked a personal question. I may have been concerned that my responses wouldn’t fit my ideals precisely or they’d fall short of other people’s standards. There may have been times when people did shame me but these aren’t representative of all my conversations. Fortunately, though, I’ve discovered that I can disarm shame and protect myself from its damage.

Be Alert to Common Shame Triggers

Brown proposes that specific topics tend to induce shame and these are correlated with gender. The signature area of shame for men is weakness. For women, common areas of shame consist of:

  • Appearance and Body Image
  • Motherhood
  • Parenting
  • Family
  • Money and Work
  • Mental and Physical Health
  • Addiction
  • Sex
  • Religion
  • Aging
  • Being Stereotyped and Labeled
  • Speaking out and Surviving Trauma

There’s a longer list for women because females tend to be subject to a higher number of conflicting expectations, which can vary within academic, athletic, social, and career circles and more.

I’ll add to this list ones we may encounter at church:

  • Lack of knowledge regarding a passage or story in the Bible
  • Failure to raise law-abiding, tradition-following children
  • Political or social beliefs that don’t mesh with others in a group
  • Lack of knowledge regarding popular Christian authors and thought leaders
  • Lack of compassion (or conversely, an affinity) for people in a certain group

I used to think of these areas as ones in which some (including me) were sensitive, unnecessarily. So, I’d feel shame about feeling shame. But now I realize that sensitivity is often reasonable and even normal, not an overreaction to innocent remarks or benign situations.

Further, I’ve learned that one person may react more strongly when a conversation turns to certain topics, such as mental health and money, than another person, who may feel a sense of shame regarding parenting, aging, and being stereotyped.

Knowing these categories makes me alert to shaming activities when these topics are broached. As a result, I can remind myself not to judge others (or myself). I can also intervene when someone inadvertently shames someone else by proposing that only certain approaches, mindsets, and behaviors are appropriate.

As a simple example, I avoided feeling shamed when I went to the lake for a kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding session, which involved wearing a bathing suit. I’m not so much fearful of being teased about my size or shape. But I feel self-conscious of stretch marks that my suit reveals. Armed with knowledge of body image as a shame trigger now, instead of keeping covered up with board shorts, I mentioned my hesitation about these scars. It felt good to deal straight up with this issue, which truly was a non-issue with this particular group of people.

Practice Courage, Compassion, and Connection

In I Thought It Was Just Me, Brown suggests that we learn “shame resilience,” which is a process of moving through shame so that we limit its impact on our self-image and our relationships, not only in terms of friends and family members but also members of our broader community. Here, I’ll explore this process from a conversational point of view.

To deal with shame, we can practice courage (sharing our stories without fear), compassion (showing empathy rather than blaming the victim or circumstances), and connection (connecting with our authentic selves).

Courage

Practicing courage involves being honest in expressing our mistakes, shortcomings, struggles, and failures. Ideally, we’ll share with trustworthy people who won’t attack us or turn against us when we’re in a vulnerable state. In addition, those with whom we’re talking will encourage us to make changes and grow while accepting who we are and where we’ve been. Being honest with ourselves and each other requires fearlessness.

Compassion

Showing compassion means truly seeing another person and feeling for them in their difficulties, rather than blaming them for their mistakes. We may fool ourselves into believing that a person’s actions caused their problems directly and singularly. We then use blame as a tool for avoiding compassion and dodging the difficulty of truly hearing and understanding another person’s story. Brown proposes that we can still hold our friends (and ourselves) accountable for decisions. We can encourage them to make positive changes while also extending compassion.

When I consider the Book of Job, I sense that God was annoyed at Job’s friends because they blamed him (Job) for tragic circumstances. They want to hold Job accountable for some sinful action, perhaps because they can’t imagine that a righteous man would suffer without cause. But not only do they fail to understand that assigning blame isn’t useful, they also miss an opportunity to show compassion for their friend. (See What the Book of Job Taught Me about Being a Friend).

Connecting

Connecting centers on being true to ourselves. “Just be yourself” sounds pure and simple but can be difficult to practice effectively.

I don’t want my personality to be molded by the world but I can’t pretend that outside influences don’t exist. Brown describes the connected or grounded women as ones who have “managed to hear their own voices over the competing and conflicting messages around them. They have managed to build enough empathy to think clearly, evaluate their own needs and determine what makes them feel connected powerful and free.”

As an example, if you’ve been a call center employee of a certain wireless provider, you probably wouldn’t want me to be myself — or the self I was before I learned to express myself clearly and with as little emotion as possible. Fortunately, through self-awareness and a commitment to personal growth, I now laugh when retelling the saga about the time you wouldn’t allow me to block bill collectors from calling my children until I jumped through hoops involving a time-consuming process of becoming an account owner and then an account manager. Today, I still shake my head though I’ve learned not to shake my fist during our interactions, like when you chastised me for using four digits of a certain private number as my PIN, despite your previous insistence to do so.

The idea here: I can love, respect, and connect with my imperfect, authentic self while at the same time, allow myself to be improved through continual renewal. I can also learn to do the same for others, encouraging them to be real while supporting efforts to rid themselves of bad habits or inappropriate attitudes.

Recognize and Deal with Shame in Everyday Conversations

Until I explored Brown’s work and considered her arguments, I never realized how much shaming activity occurs under the surface in day-to-day communications. I did get that people (me included) felt hesitant to share stories because a) they were scared to articulate and admit struggles to themselves and 2) they were fearful of being belittled, ridiculed, or shamed in some way. Brown’s book has helped me to understand specific issues to address and overcome in order to make everyday conversations more real.

First, I can and have started with myself. I’ve begun to practice going first in telling my stories and being as honest and transparent as possible. I’ve also learned to show compassion and empathy more readily, not just in big moments when someone I love is facing a crisis but also in smaller ones involving retelling of day-to-day happenings.

Next, I’m paying more attention to shame and shaming as a group member and facilitator. I’m practicing techniques for dealing appropriately with shaming situations. It’s difficult not to match shame with shame, which is a gut reaction. But I’m learning how to speak out kindly when I see shame happening and then channel a conversation to a more mutually respectful one. My hope is that more civil conversations will lead to more authenticity, closer connections, and greater growth.


I wish I had found and read I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I am Enough” years ago. I could have engaged in more meaningful conversations much earlier! It’s worth the time to read.

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