Shame is one of the primary destructive engines behind many mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, addiction, and interpersonal difficulties. As opposed to guilt, which is the uncomfortable feeling that you have done something wrong, shame is the feeling that there’s something wrong with you—and therefore, that you’re not worthy of connection and belonging. For many of us, shame is so painful that we keep it secret, turning to behaviours like withdrawal, anger, and perfectionism to try to avoid it. One interesting research finding is Brené Brown’s conclusion that shame is organized around gender: women and men experience shame differently in ways that are tied to our cultural expectations about gender roles.
For women, shame often arises around the perceived failure to fulfill many conflicting expectations, resulting in feelings of powerlessness and isolation. In Brown’s words, women feel the pressure to “do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” It makes sense then that perfectionism is one of the most common responses to shame by women, manifested in the constant striving to fulfill unrealistic and competing ideals of being the perfect mother, wife, businesswoman, friend, caregiver, or student, and having the perfect body, home, children, partner, education or career. Perfectionism is not only a problem because it is driven by shame and sets us up to fail, but also because it puts our sense of worthiness in the hands of others, as something to be negotiated on a daily basis. The constant pleasing and performing that perfectionism demands is what Brown refers to as the “hustle for worthiness.”
Practicing shame resilience brings the hustle for worthiness to a halt, and can help us improve mental health and be more authentic.
Brown suggests a few strategies for building shame resilience:
- Recognizing shame: knowing what shame is and how it manifests in our minds and bodies when we’re experiencing it
- Acknowledging our vulnerabilities: being aware of what’s likely to trigger shame and cultivating acceptance that each of us is both flawed and worthy of love and belonging
- Telling our stories: the antidote to shame is empathy, and so reaching out to someone you trust (a partner, friend, or therapist) will diffuse that shame and build resilience through connection.
- Becoming critical of unrealistic expectations that drive shame: examining these expectations when they arise in our thoughts, and becoming aware when we’re unconsciously holding others to them as well.
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.