Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. ~Brené Brown
Shame is simply looking bad in front of people. Looking bad specifically in front of people that are important to you. It could be in front of the opposite gender, maybe the same gender, your boss, your family, an authority figure. It might be someone that you respect. It might be someone older than you or someone younger than you. It’s this idea of you don’t want to look bad in front of them. That’s not so bad, right?
It causes us to be afraid. It restricts us from being authentic. It restricts us from being completely vulnerable and experiencing true intimacy in our friendships, in our relationships. Even with our coworkers we become so timid, so afraid to come out of our shell that we always play it safe. We never take risks. We never say what we’re thinking. We keep our opinions to ourselves. We mute ourselves. Mute ourselves to the point where we become these bland white bread, plain Jane type of figures, and we look just like the rest of the people because we don’t want to be the nail that sticks out.
Shame destroys you. It corrodes you. It causes you to go down a destructive path, whether it be acting out like engaging in affairs, succumbing to addictions, drugs, or it can go the other way where you just go into isolation, depression, loneliness. That’s the destructive pattern of shame. It damages our relationship with people. It damages our self-image. It damages our ability to go beyond who we think we are.
There are three things that can grow out of shame: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When you add these ingredients of secrecy, silence, and judgment into your life and you have shame, then the shame will grow exponentially to cover every facet of your life. It will shape you. It will shape your character. It will shape the way you think. It will shape the way you think about others. It will influence the people you meet, the things you do, who you date, who you marry, how you raise your children.
In severe examples of shame, especially in my culture, which is Korean and heavily influenced by Confucianism, the feeling of shame is intensified. I would even say it’s stronger than Western individualistic culture because the consciousness and the burden of shame are not at an individual level in Asian collectivist cultures. For a culture like Korean, shame bears the weight of a collective society. When you’re feeling shame, you’re not just feeling it on behalf of yourself. You’re actually feeling that you’re letting down the whole society, the family, or your entire organization, and this, unfortunately, had led to many suicides.
Back in college, two young Asian men that were in my business program committed suicide. One was on his way to a large accounting firm and the other had a job secured at a major influential company. They both killed themselves. Something made them feel that they were unworthy to be alive.
Step #1: Becoming Aware
A simple life map is a really good way to identify your events of shame. You can do a short one by dividing your life up into certain developmental stages (ages 0-6, 7-13, 14-21, etc). Then within those buckets, within those segments, identify the most painful event that happened in that portion of your life map. Then after you have written it out, I’m sure you have a couple uncertain or not and see which is the one that is the most painful for you. Also, which is the one that you feel like no one can know. If anyone knew this one, then they would reject you. They would never accept you.
Then you must take an interpersonal risk and be open and vulnerable to someone you trust and let them see you for who you truly are.