Shame Resilience

  • Written by Steve Safigan
  • -Thursday, May 17, 2012

Shame resilience theory (SRT) was developed by researcher and author Brené Brown in 2006. She popularized her theory with her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't) and broadened her research beyond shame to what she calls "WholeHearted living" in a second book, The Gifts of Imperfection. She also developed a psychoeducational shame resilience curriculum and certification program for helping professionals called Connections. But it was her TED talk in Houston in December 2010 on vulnerability that vaulted Brown into internet viral celebrity status, with over 5 million views on TED and YouTube. I reviewed this talk on PPND in January 2011. In March 2012, Brown presented a follow-up to her original TED talk called Listening to Shame which has already been viewed nearly a million times. I thought this would be a good time to take a closer look at the theory behind the phenomenon. Shame and vulnerability are topics nearly nobody wants to discuss, yet there's something that deeply resonates with Brown's work.

According to Brown, shame is a silent epidemic, and the more we keep it secret, the firmer its hold on us. Even helping professionals are hesitant to use the word "shame" with clients. Shame is associated with a host of issues including addiction, violence, and depression. She defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of connection and belonging." We cannot escape shame; it is a daily human emotion. However, we can develop resilience to shame. Shame resilience theory teaches that shame resilience can be cultivated by:

  1. Recognizing and accepting personal vulnerability: All of us our vulnerable to experiences of shame, our shame triggers. When we recognize the emotional and physical signs of shame, we have the chance to understand what's happening and why, and to seek help. Conversely, when we fail to acknowledge shame, we are taken off-guard, we are flooded with overwhelming emotions, and we fail to recognize what we are feeling.
  2. Raising critical awareness regarding social/cultural expectations: Critical awareness surrounding shame is the ability to link how we are personally feeling with society's sometimes conflicting and shaming expectations of us as individuals. We see the big picture (we contextualize).
  3. Forming mutually empathetic relationships that facilitate reaching out to others: When we reach out for support, we may receive empathy, which is incompatible with shame and judgment. We recognize that our most isolating experiences are also the most universal. We recognize that we are not defective or alone in our experiences (we normalize).
  4. "Speaking shame," possessing the language and emotional competence to discuss and deconstruct shame: By learning the language of shame, we learn to draw distinctions between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. We can "name shame" by separating it from secondary emotions such as anger, fear, and isolation. We learn to ask for what we need. We learn and share what we know with others (we demystify).

Brown builds on work done at The Stone Center at Wellesley Centers for Women when she references our shame screens. A shame screen is a defense mechanism we employ when we experience shame. Our brain involuntarily invokes our flight, flight, or freeze instinct. In social situations, this means our first and most basic urge is one of the following: (a) Move away—withdraw, hide, stay silent, keep secrets; (b) Move against—try to gain power over the other, be aggressive, control; or (c) Move toward—seek to please, try to belong. Recognizing our basic fear instincts in social situation allows us to recognize that we are in shame and choose an alternate response.

Brown asserts that empathy and shame are on opposite ends of a continuum. Shame results in fear, blame (of self or others), and disconnection. Empathy is cultivated by courage, compassion, and connection, and is the most powerful antidote to shame.

Brown references Theresa Wiseman's four defining attributes of empathy: (a) to be able to see the world as others see it; (b) to be nonjudgmental; (c) to understand another person's feelings; and (d) to communicate your understanding of that person's feelings. Brown defines empathy as a skill, and so she stresses actively practicing giving and receiving empathy.

Brown formulated her shame resilience theory by studying women only. Brown explains that many researchers believe that men and women's experience of shame is different. However, Brown has also studied men since her original research was published. Her findings were that men and women do not experience shame differently. However, societal expectations that fuel shame are different for men and women. She asserts, "women experience shame as a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations and messages… Men don't have the same web of conflicting or competing expectations. Men have one weighty, huge expectation, which is the small box of being seen as strong/not weak.

My personal belief is that Brown has oversimplified men's shame. To say that for men, shame is one thing is to take a 'big-box' approach and say that everything fits into that box. Brown wrote that a man can be anyone, anything, or any way so long as he's not perceived as weak. I believe this statement denies the suffocating societal expectations placed on men in virtually all areas of their lives. See my PPND article, Positive Male Identity: What Is a Real Man Anyway? This article draws heavily from concepts presented in the book The Secret Lives of Men by Chris Blazina and describes societal expectations placed on men in fuller detail. While men and women may have different societal expectations placed on them, I believe those expectations are equally diverse, competing, and conflicting.

Although Brown's research started with shame, she found herself "personally and professionally transformed" by the positive qualities of shame resilience, what she calls "WholeHearted living." Brown asserts,

WholeHearted living is the idea that our deepest search is for a life lived with three elements: (1) authenticity; (2) love and belonging, and (3) a resilient spirit… Shame tells us that we are unworthy, unlovable, and incapable of change. Shame tells us that our imperfections make us inadequate and our vulnerabilities are weaknesses… (However) our imperfections do not make us inadequate; they are what connect us to each other and to our humanity. Our vulnerabilities are not weaknesses; they are powerful reminders to keep our hearts and minds open to the reality that we're all in this together.

Shame separates and isolates. Practicing shame resilience reconnects us, where we find courage, empathy, and compassion.

Blazina, C. (2008)
The secret lives of men: What men want you to know about love, sex, and relationships. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Brown, B. (2006)
Shame Resilience Theory: A Grounded Theory Study on Women and Shame. Families in Society, 87, 43-52.
Brown, B. (2007)
I thought it was just me (but it isn't). Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2007/2009)
Connections: A 12-session psychoeducational shame-resilience curriculum. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2010a)
Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability. Video retrieved January 21, 2011 from TED.
Brown, B. (2010b)
The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2012)
Brené Brown: Listening to Shame. Video retrieved May 11, 2012 from TED.
Hartling, L. M., Rosen, W., Walker, M., Jordan, J. V. (2000)
Shame and Humiliation: From Isolation to Relational Transformation. Working paper 88. Wellesley, MA: The Stone Center, Wellesley College.
Safigan, S. (2011)
Whole-hearted living. Positive Psychology News Daily.
Safigan, S. (2012)
Positive male identity: What is a real man anyway? Positive Psychology News Daily.
Wiseman, T. (1996)
A concept analysis of empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 23, 1162-1167.