Shame Series III: Empathic Connection

Building off of the last blog on the different types of shame shields, I want to share a bit about why these shields don’t serve us in the long run. Shame is painful; it is isolating; and it is universal. Shame is not something that is often talked about in even the closest of relationships; when I work with my clients on shame, it is after we have established a solid rapport and it is rarely brought to the table by clients- “Hey, I have an idea- let’s talk about my deep, dark shame!”. Yeah, that’s typically not happening. Because shame is rooted in this core experience that “I am flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”, we are often driven to avoid connection in response to shame.

“I am bad” → “I do not want others to find out that I am bad” or “I will be rejected if I show that I am bad” → shields. Unfortunately, this cycle builds on itself. This cycle assumes that the experience of “I am bad and unworthy” is true! Shame begets shame. So what reduces shame? Empathic connection.

Unlike the shame shields, empathic connection goes head to head with shame and serves as an antidote. When you share your experience of shame with a trusted person (very, very important- not everyone is a safe person with whom you can share) and are met with empathy, that deep down belief that you are not lovable or worthy because of your flaws is shattered. The belief that you are unlovable and unworthy cannot persist in that moment when you, flaws and all, are being met with love and belonging from another person. Empathic connection teaches us that we are lovable, we are worthy, and we do belong.

Now, one instance of empathic connection does not forever drive the experience of shame from your life. But, the more you reach for empathic connections over shame shields, the more that experience of shame is eroded. You may begin to recognize the earliest signs of shame, and begin to reach for connection before those trusty shields. Those experiences of being unworthy of love and belonging will very likely show up again, but you have had practice in turning to another in these painful moments and being embraced, literally or figuratively; and that embrace reminds you that your flaws mean you are flawed, but do not mean you are unworthy.

Perhaps you have had this experience before; sharing your shame with a trusted confidant and feeling that person’s love and acceptance envelope you in a way that shouts “You belong! You are not perfect, and you belong and are loved just as you are!”. Perhaps you have not had this experience- maybe you have never been able to let down your shield; maybe your attempts at letting down your shield were met only by others putting up their own. But can you imagine? Can you imagine this felt experience of belonging and being loved when your shame is telling you that those very experiences are unattainable for you?

This. This is how we combat shame. The shields protect us from the sting of the shame in the moment, but ultimately reinforce the voice of shame. Empathic connection turns the voice of shame on its head, and declares “I am worthy. I am lovable, and I do belong.”

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.