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 in 2010.Brown also developed a psychoeducational shame resilience curriculum and certification program for helping professionals called Connections.
But it was her TED talk on vulnerability in Houston in December 2010 that vaulted Brown into internet viral celebrity status, with over 5 million views on TED and YouTube. See my review in January 2011.
Given that Brown’s follow-up TED talk called Listening to Shame, just out in March 2012, has already been viewed nearly one 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.
What is the Theory?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:
- Recognizing and accepting personal vulnerability: All of us are 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.
- 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).
- 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).
- “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).
Shame ScreensBrown builds on work done at The Stone Center at Wellesley Centers for Women when she refers to 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, it 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:
- to be able to see the world as others see it
- to be nonjudgmental
- to understand another person’s feelings
- 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.Shame in Women and Men: Different?
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. Brown has also studied men since her original research was published. Her findings were that men and women do not experience shame differently. However, the 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? My article draws heavily from concepts presented in a book by Chris Blazina that describes societal expectations placed on men in fuller detail. While men and women may have different expectations placed on them by society, I believe those expectations are equally diverse, competing, and conflicting.WholeHearted Living
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 that WholeHearted living is the idea that our deepest search is for a life lived with three elements:
- love and belonging
- 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 that our vulnerabilities are weaknesses. From the viewpoint of WholeHearted living, 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. (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. Gotham.
Brown, B. (2007/2009). Connections Curriculum: A 12 Session Psycho-educational Shame Resilience Curriculum. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Brown, B. (2010a). The power of vulnerability. TED Talk.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.
Brown, B. (2012). Brené Brown: Listening to Shame. TED Talk
Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Gotham Press. To be released in September. Announcement.
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. Abstract.