Shame Series II: How We Protect Ourselves

In the previous blog (the first in the shame series), we explored the types of self-conscious emotions and how you can differentiate them from one another. As a quick refresher, shame is rooted in the experience of “I am bad”; shame is an incredibly painful experience. It is often a very isolating experience, despite the fact that shame is universal.

Brené Brown identifies three shame shields, based on the three strategies of disconnection developed by Linda Hartling. Basically, these are behaviors that we lean on in order to protect ourselves from the experience of shame. It makes so much sense that we would want to protect ourselves from shame; unfortunately, the very behaviors we employ to protect us tend to just exacerbate and feed shame long-term. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Shame Shields

Let’s use an example situation to look at the three types of shame shields. Let’s say you’re charged with developing an important pitch at work. You spend time and energy on this project, present it in front of your colleagues and superiors, and your ideas are immediately shutdown. Shame sinks in. “I’m such an idiot. I can’t do this. Why would I ever think I’m capable of pulling this off? I’m failing. I’m a failure. I don’t deserve anything.”

How do you respond next?

1.     Moving Away: this looks like hiding, withdrawing, and avoiding. If you use your shield of moving away in response to the example situation, you put your head down, you shrink back to your desk; you never mention the failed presentation, and you certainly never volunteer or seek out future opportunities like this.

2.     Moving Toward: this looks a lot like people pleasing. In the above situation, you might apologize profusely to your colleagues and superiors; you offer to come in early, stay late, and continue to redo the presentation in an effort to gain the favor of those around you. You are going to people please your way out of this shameful feeling.

3.     Moving Against: this looks like turning the shame on those around you; you cope with your own shame by inflicting it on others. You remind your colleagues of all the times they’ve missed the mark; you point out all the areas in which they are falling short. Sure, maybe you delivered a subpar presentation, but at least you’re on time to pick your kids up from school and sit down to dinner together (you say to your colleague that has shared her challenges in getting quality time with her kids after the long work day).

You likely have a primary shame shield, although different shame shields can be used in different situations or relationships. Can you reflect on your own experiences to identify how you attempt to protect yourself from the pain of shame?

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Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.