blog series – understanding shame

cover.jpgImperfect Parenting Blog Series CD 1 – Track 4 (Post #5)


When the walls around my world start to shake and the ground below me begins to shift and give way, I get anxious. The combination of shaking and shifting can only mean that one of two things is getting ready to land: change or clarity. They are both good (for the most part), but strange emotional rumbling and little pieces of foreboding anxiety always accompany them.

After three months of rumbling, foreboding, and shaking, I think I finally get it. And, it’s huge. Clarity has arrived. She sent her sentries to stand guard while I unknowingly prepared, then she arrived and I was somehow ready.

The preparation started in February when a woman asked me why I studied a dark, terrible topic like shame. It got weird in March, when I stood in front of 100+ people and, rather than delivering my standard shame lecture, I gave a total shoot-from-the-hip talk on the importance of love – an indefinable, touchy-feely word I vowed to never use in my work. It escalated in April when I gave my parenting lecture in Houston (the one that I was so terrified to do that I actually considered faking a car wreck).

It got downright freaky in May when an amazing woman from my book club offered to analyze my hand and I said yes (totally unlike researcher-skeptic me). I cried the entire time, especially when she told me that my life purpose was love and that my life challenge is to live a life of emotional vulnerability and honesty. Finally, it all started to fall into place in June, when I launched this parenting series and taught an intensive summer course on shame resilience with 60 amazing graduate students (more to come on this).

I never intended to be a shame researcher. It just happened to me. I set out to study connection and I bumped into this dark, terrible emotion that unraveled connection faster and more violently than anything I’d ever seen. I learned that the emotion was shame and made a quick detour to study it for a couple of weeks. There wasn’t much information so I decided to stick around and do some digging.

I committed to staying long enough to get my head and heart around it. Eight years (and one breakdown/spiritual awakening) later, here I am. I get it. I know it in my head, I feel it in my heart, and, I can honestly say that I have a deep, soulful understanding of this universal emotion called shame. It is part of me. The hundreds upon hundreds of stories that people shared with me are resting comfortably in my bones.

But still the question: Why me? I’ve spent countless hours trying to understand my purpose. Why have I developed this intimate understanding of shame? What do I do with it? I’ve said it out loud in prayer: “No one likes this topic. No one wants to hear about this. Can’t I be here to know something easier? More likeable? Happier? At the least, can I have some gifts that are less revolting to people?”

Enter clarity.

I’m starting to understand that my work with shame has really been preparing me for the work that I’ll do around the ten guideposts that we’re exploring in this parenting series. I don’t think you can really understand loving-kindness, perfectionism, self-compassion, the sacredness of spirit, forgiveness, or any of these other guideposts without exploring shame. Shame plays two tapes in our heads: “never good enough” and “what will people think.” These are the messages that crush self-compassion and loving-kindness, fuel perfectionism, and move us away from authenticity.

I’ve never said anything like this before, but I truly believe that we’ll never fully know the light until we’ve walked through the darkness. We’ll never know courage until we explore our fears. We won’t find compassion without knowing why we blame, judge and rage. Until we venture into the dark, we’ll stay so afraid of disconnection that we won’t risk actually becoming connected.

Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. This procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not very popular.”

This is my work and I can honestly say that I’ve come to love it.

The parenting CD has two tracks dedicated to shame resilience and parenting: CD1, track 5 (41 minutes) and CD2, track 7 (30 minutes that I recorded at the studio based on questions I received from the audience). Rather than transcribing what’s there, I’m posting a segment from the Connections Curriculum DVD (this is part of a teaching tool that comes with a psychoeducational curriculum for mental health professionals). There is 3-part interview series from PBS here and an op/ed on shame here. If you’re interested in learning more about the definition of shame and the critical differences between shame and guilt, there is another clip from Connections curriculum here. If you want more specifics about shame (stories, examples, etc.), I suggest the book. If you want more parenting-specific information, that’s on the CD.

Shame Resilience and Parenting Strategies

Once we have a solid understanding of shame and how it operates in our own lives, there are three concrete strategies that will make a significant difference in our children’s level of shame resilience.

#1 – Shame is universal – we all have it. We are also all capable of using it with our  children. We are the most vulnerable to shaming our children when we are feeling inadequate and judged. We need to understand our own vulnerabilities to shame – what are our triggers? Shame feels intensely personal, but it is a social emotion. It grows in families. We can’t pull our kids out of shame if we’re sinking in it.

#2 – Parent from an understanding of the differences between shame and guilt. Based on the research that I discuss on the CD, I think it’s safe to say that we would all like our children to use guilt self-talk, rather than shame self-talk. It’s just not easy to focus on behaviors rather than people, especially if we were raised with the belief that shaming is a good way to change behavior or that shame is a helpful moral compass.

It’s hard to hear that parenting is the greatest predictor of shame or guilt proneness in children (will they say, “I’m bad” or “That was a bad decision”). It feels like a lot of pressure, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity.

#3 – 85% of the men and women interviewed remembered a shame experience in school or sports that has had a tremendous impact on them as adults. The vast majority said it “changed their lives” or “charted a course for the rest of their lives.” As parents, we don’t have control over all of these moments; however, we do have significant influence over the impact of these experiences. If we raise our children with shame resilience, it is less likely that these experiences will become “defining moments.” (This is why I went back and recorded the additional track on the four elements of shame resilience).

I like to use the album metaphor. If a child is shamed at school and has enough resilience to talk about it, we essentially take that snapshot, crop it down, and stick it in an album that is full of offsetting positive experiences. If there is no open discussions of shame in our homes, and a child is literally too ashamed to even discuss it with a parent, the experience is filed into their album as a whopping 8X10 and there are no other photos to balance it out.

If you have strategies and/or struggles that you’d like to share, I think we can all learn something from your experiences and questions! Sharing our stories and ideas is essential to shame resilience.  


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  2. Ellen J

    hello Brené

    About shame resilience, you said (probably seems like a lifetime ago) -” I like to use the album metaphor. If a child is shamed at school and has enough resilience to talk about it, we essentially take that snapshot, crop it down, and stick it in an album that is full of offsetting positive experiences. If there is no open discussions of shame in our homes, and a child is literally too ashamed to even discuss it with a parent, the experience is filed into their album as a whopping 8X10 and there are no other photos to balance it out.”

    what is the difference between this ‘put it in the album’ reframing and what happens if the child shamed at school, too ashamed to discuss it becomes an adult? – How does the process, or the affect on their lives, differ after that time gap? – can it even be compared?


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  13. Emily

    I would love to listen to your parenting DVD but can't seem to find it here on your website… where might I order a copy? Thanks!!

  14. deb

    "I’ve never said anything like this before, but I truly believe that we’ll never fully know the light until we’ve walked through the darkness. We’ll never know courage until we explore our fears. We won’t find compassion without knowing why we blame, judge and rage. Until we venture into the dark, we’ll stay so afraid of disconnection that we won’t risk actually becoming connected."

    Too true. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of weeks. I’m leaping into the unknown, terrified and hoping that before I hit bottom, I’ll have my wings made. Fingers crossed.

  15. Brené Brown

    Barbara – I can’t tell you how much I connect with this:

    "in the course of writing about these very painful experiences I unexpectedly and paradoxically felt a very strong sense of how much my parents loved us"

    I don’t think we lean into the discomfort and pain just for the sake of leaning. I think we lean so we can eventually let go and fall through to the love, forgiveness and hope. We spend so much energy trying to figure out how to get around the dark – we’re always looking for shortcuts to the light. I’m not convinced they exist.

    So glad you shared your story. Thank you for your courage.

  16. Barbara

    My first impulse was to write to you privately, but I am posting in the spirit of sharing my story. I grew up in a small town with a very publicly mentally ill father who was periodically hospitalized. My father was brilliant, overbearing, violent, delusional, perfectionist, and totally untrustworthy as a parent. We loved him and tried to please him, which was impossible, while dealing with all the stigma associated with having a "crazy" father. My mother was very loving and amazingly strong under the circumstances. But we absolutely were not allowed to talk about my father’s illness, with her or anyone else. And we felt a lot of pressure to achieve, as proof that everything was fine.

    I read your book earlier this year, and realized that I held inside what felt like oceans of shame, for feeling different, "not good enough" to have a predictable, trustworthy father; and for not living up to my mother’s expectations that I take everything in stride, or appear to. I have spent a lot of time caught between my desire to be honest about our family experience and my desire to be a good daughter, and feeling inadequate because it was an issue for me. It is a very, very limiting belief to be ashamed of struggling!

    But lately I have been writing about the pain and fearfulness of my youth, and it has been very healing. "Venturing into the dark" without guilt has been a big relief. My parents have both been dead for many years, but in the course of writing about these very painful experiences I unexpectedly and paradoxically felt a very strong sense of how much my parents loved us.

    The idea of going through the dark to get to love, self-compassion, and forgiveness struck a huge chord with me this morning.

  17. Brené

    There is so much honesty and wisdom in these comments. I just keep learning and learning. Here’s what I’m thinking:

    Renae – if my work is about anything, it’s about naming this emotion that we all experience, but can’t wrap words around. the second we name shame, it starts to lose it’s power. that’s why it fights so hard to stay unspoken. creating a family where emotions are named and freely expressed is vital. without mindful purpose, most of us create families that are behavior-focused (what did you do vs. how do you feel). I love the book, "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child" by Gottman. So helpful!

    Krista – timing is essential in this the clinical world, we talk about "leading a person to shame resilience, but not being able to make them drink." this work is about timing. I think everyone can be open to the education piece (defining shame, understanding the differences between shame, guilt, etc.), but the soul work can’t be forced. I kept this work in my head for a long time. I didn’t let it sink into my heart until last year. I wasn’t ready.Often, when we start doing this work it’s so transformational that we want to share it with our friends and family.Often, they push back because it’s not their time. So, great point about timing!

    Moncia – if you’ve got the healthy self-talk down, you’re ahead of a lot of us. That’s a gift. When I hear about your 1000 sq. feet, etc., I’m thinking STRESS. Stress and anxiety can push us into behaviors that are outside of who we want to be. For me, that can bring up shame or guilt. Guilt is very uncomfortable, but good. When I read your email, I don’t read shame. I read guilt and stress (I’m an expert in this combo). I think that’s resilience. The thing that normally works for me is readjusting my expectations – especially if I’m in an unusually stressful place. Honestly – lowering them for me, Steve and the kids. You have no idea how many times we have had this conversation: "Let’s all be really nice (even if we’re faking it) and pick our battles until the stress subsides".

    Bridge – welcome!

    Stacey – oh, Stacey. Money, scarcity, parenting and little shame fires. Now you’re singing my song. The money, scarcity and shame issue is absolutely universal.Everyone I know who has a handle on that, has done tremendous work to get to that place. I’m still working. There are days when I wake up and believe that I can live and believe in sufficiency and there are days that I wake up fearful, jealous, and resentful. I’m getting better, but it’s work! I think your ability to talk about it is awesome. I laughed when I read about the dog -I thought, "Oh – I’ve been there." The book that’s helped me a lot in this area is The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist.

    I’ve also done the pool thing.

    Last year, I went to Whole Foods to buy some flowers for my house. I was hosting a party and I had been cleaning all day – I looked and smelled terrible (and I was stressed and in deep scarcity). I was waiting in line to talk to the florist when this super-beautiful, very wealthy looking woman cut in front of me and started barking her order at the florist. I thought, "who am I to say something?" Then, right when I mustered up the courage to say, "Excuse me, I’m next" – Ellen, who is twirling Sound of Music style, knocks over a huge tub of sunflowers.

    Water spills out for miles, in every direction. She gets overwhelmed and tries to reach for me and slips in the water. Rich beautiful lady is glaring at me and shaking her head. I turn to Ellen and say, "GET UP! What are you doing?" (in a really harsh tone). I’ll be honest, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve screamed and talked like that to my children. Not because I’m perfect, but because I know it’s dangerous for me – too slippery – I can’t let myself get that close to raging and blaming – it’s not safe for me or my kids. Ellen was shocked and devastated.

    When I looked into her eyes, I fell apart. I started crying and we ran out of Whole Foods. I held her in my lap in the car and she kept saying, "sorry. sorry." Every time she said it, my heart broke. I finally said, "I’m not crying because you spilled the flowers. I’m crying because I’m so sorry about how I talked to you." She was old enough to get the whole story. I told her about how I felt small and took it out on her. Like you, I apologized until she wanted to change the subject. I also dried my tears, wiped her off and went back into whole foods.

    A few weeks ago, she had an experience where she felt small and took it out on someone else. She remembered the Whole Foods story and we were able to talk about it.

    Shame resilience is about:

    Recognizing shame when it happens
    Moving through it constructively
    Maintaining your authenticity
    Developing more courage, compassion and connection as a result of your experience.

    It’s NOT about never experiencing shame. As long as we are wired and hungry for connection, shame (or the fear of disconnection) will be a part of our lives. It’s about resilience, not resistance.

    Your comments, ideas, and stories are amazing. Thank you for sharing them!

  18. Stacey D

    Just when I think I have a better handle on my shame it comes back with a sudden vengence. The last few days I feel like I have been putting out little shame fires left and right.

    Of course I have had the same ‘fires’ about my body image and then again about money and how we don’t compare. This one seems really hard right now as everyone is heading out on vacations and we are not.

    I am remembering the discussion on here about scarcity, and I think that is where I am on this whole vacation thing. Instead of being internally happy about my friend who is getting away with her family for a few days, I feel slightly jealous. Of course this is not anything she knows, so when she asks me to watch her dog while she is gone she has no idea that I am left thinking, "REALLY! You are getting away on a vacation and I am left watching your dog!!!"

    Yesterday I had one of those, "I sure hope this moment can be cropped down before entering the album" with my 5 year old daughter. We were swimming over at a friends. This was the first time we all swam together this summer, and my friend knew my daughter had taken swim lessons all year. For some reason this has become somewhat of a shame issue, because now I think others think my daughter should be a terrific swimmer and know everything.

    When my daughter didn’t do what I knew she could in the pool I overreacted by telling her to get out of the pool. (That makes me cringe even as I type it!) I am sure I reacted out of my shame and then shamed her when she didn’t ‘perform.’ Even as this is happening I am thinking what am I doing?? Within a few minutes I apologize and let her know that I was wrong.

    I am grateful for these CD’s and discussions. Instead of beating myself up for this incident, I am looking at it as a learning opportunity. I learned more about myself and why I was doing what I did. I also have to look at it that I am modeling not being perfect. This opened the door for us to discuss that we all make mistakes, we are not perfect and can’t expect to be, and that when we are wrong we need to apologize.

    Of course I think I am more traumatized by this picture than she is because when I was apologizing again and talking about it at home with her, she just said ok and was more excited to show me what she was currently playing with. So maybe the picture has already been cropped!

  19. Bridge

    I am blown away really….I must order your books/CD’s because I not only believe it will help me, but I have a true intellectual curiousity about this topic.

  20. Monica

    I got your CDs in the mail last week. And since then, I don’t know how often I’ve said, "What if we were brought into this world as imperfect beings, and it’s our job to learn and teach loving kindess?". And then everyone goes, "Ohhhhh?? I like that." And then I reference you. Of course.

    I’m still wrapping my head around the shame thing. I still feel like there’s something I’m not getting. But I don’t know what it is. I’ve always prided myself on my ‘healthy’ self talk. I don’t really think I’m an idiot, but I do act like an idiot .. often. But that’s normal. I don’t really hear myself saying, "I’m such an idiot." But because of my recent bout with depression, and my (constant, it seems) annoyance with my kids … I really think there must be something seriously wrong with me. There’s been a whole lot of clairy happening, but I need MORE!!! Let’s hope more clarity is coming soon b/c I’ve been experiencing some crazy rollercoasterish, not fun, feelings and anxiety. Change has definitely settled in here as ALL of us are in the same 1000 square foot bit of space for the next two months. With two parents who seem to be always engaged and wanting to be the boss to kids who don’t really think they need a boss .. well … maybe the crying and annoyance is normal? But what if it’s more than that? What if shame has settled in too? This is where my confusion comes in. In naming it and knowing what it is.

    In the last week, I’ve been heard saying (many, many times) … "I’m sorry .. there’s nothing wrong with you .. I’m not yelling at you b/c I think you’re annoying/bad/etc .. I shouldn’t get so annoyed. The yelling is MY problem. It’s not actually that big of a deal. I’m sorry …." (Yesterday my 9 year old actually responded by saying …yeah, yeah mom .. I KNOW!) Is this just what we do as parents? Screw up and then say sorry? Or do we get to a place where we’re not screwing up so much?

  21. Krista

    Honestly, I’ve got to admit the first time I listened to your re-telling of the young woman questioning why you do shame research/work….my first thought was "what a *fill in the blank*"….
    I know that’s not nice, but I can’t tell you how incredibly grateful I am to have found the word, the information, the discussion, the freedom from shame (ok,that might be pushing it, but it’s a process right?!). So to hear that someone actually questioned it….I was a little miffed.
    But the more I thought about it, I realized that I don’t think I would have been ready to hear, admit, process it all before now either. I think we all have our "spiritual awakenings/breakdowns" in one form or another when we might be ready to hear it. To delve into it. To quit spackling it. I agree whole heartedly with Renae….you are giving us the words. And how freaking AWESOME is it that you do what you love and are making huge impact!
    Okay….so regarding parenting and shame….looking back on my first 9 years of parenting…..I could actually remember an incident of shaming my son. And I did it because he was exhibiting behaviors that I don’t like about myself. Yuck.
    What I have found though….is the more I talk about these things, the more I share, the more I realize I am not alone, and the less likely I am to be hard on myself or him for some of these things.
    Sorry, I’m rambling….on vacation, hard to focus! 🙂
    Brene this post kind of reminds me of Jack Johnson’s Hope….this part of it anyway…..

    Your reflection is a blur
    Out of focus
    But in confusion
    The frames are suddenly burnt
    And in the end of a roll of illusion
    A ghost waiting its turn
    Now I can see right through
    It’s a warning that nobody heard

    It will teach you to love what you’re afraid of
    After it takes away all that
    You learn to love
    But you don’t
    Always Have to hold your head
    Higher than your heart

    Kind of like saying….once you embrace it (all of it, all of you, all the good, bad, and ugly) you finally learn to love. really love…yourself and others. That’s so much easier said than done. I think when we are hiding behind our shame, we are living in our heads, but when we are able to expose it, we are finally able to live in our hearts.

  22. Renae C

    One of the things I’ve been trying to do since starting in on this series is to put words around emotions – and to help my 9 year old put words around them. It’s not easy. And her reluctance to frame emotional events verbally makes me realize that we’ve been taking the easy way out by not having the hard conversations about the hard things. Emotion was shameful in my family of origin – we weren’t supposed to feel it (unless it was moderate happiness) and we certainly weren’t supposed to talk about it.

    This series has made me realize that it’s not enough for me to be able to do it for myself, internally, or sitting across from my analyst – it’s critically that we do it often, and out loud, in our home and daily life. That’s the only way my daughters are going to learn to do it. And then when that ugly picture gets taken, as invariably it will, we have the tools we need to crop it down to reasonable size.

    And Brene – you are so right – we cannot fully engage in the wonderful things life has to offer until we have grappled in the dark for a while. It’s so much more convenient to numb or repress the painful things – but if we do, we miss the ecstatic. As I was reading the first part of the post – I was thinking "my how Jungian of you" – and then you stuck in the quote. Why you? Because only someone that has been down that road of inner struggle can help guide someone else through it – and you are doing an amazing job of helping us see that we can work through the darkness where shame lives and be able to come out on the other side into the light of lovingkindness and connection. You are giving us the words….