How Shame ‘Takes Us Out’

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. ~ Brené Brown

Writing about shame, already feels uncomfortable. Almost immediately, I feel a sense of discomfort rising in me, and I have been procrastinating this blog for a while (a whole month to be exact). Memories of shame moments, have been flooding me. For all of us, shame has been a part of our life and of what has shaped us. For some of us, it is have even more potent, achy, and acute.

One of my earlier shame memory is needing to talk about my father’s suicide attempt, and explaining his long term absent from the home as he spent most of my younger life in a mental institution. There are many other shame memories. Some less or more acute:  being ridiculed, harassed, embarrassed, the list goes on.

In my psychotherapy practice, I try to invite clients to a ‘safe zone‘, where there is no ‘shame or blame’.

Now of course I know, after more then 20 some years of being a psychotherapist, and a marriage and family therapist, that this is almost impossible. We all walk the journeys of life with shame and blame,
as one of our ‘operating system’ defaults..

Shame is the feeling that there is something deeply wrong with us. That we are bad at the core and that we can not do anything about it. It ‘takes us out’.  The feeling of guilt is more about doing something wrong. The feeling of shame comes from the belief that, I am flawed, inadequate, wrong, bad, unimportant, undeserving or not good enough.

In her blog ‘Why we feel shame and how to conquer it’, Margaret Paul, Ph.D. writes: ‘You can heal your shame when You are willing to accept that others’ feelings and behavior have nothing to do with you.

“When you accept that others have free will to be open or closed, loving or unloving — that you are not the cause of their feelings and behavior, and you no longer take others’ behavior personally – you will have no need to control it. When you let go of your need to control others, and instead move into compassion for yourself and others, you will let go of your false beliefs about yourself that cause the feeling of shame.  You are willing to feel your authentic feelings, rather than cover them up with anger or shame. When you learn to nurture yourself by being present with caring and compassion for your own existential feelings, you will no longer have a need to protect against these feelings with blame or shame.”

I have been following the research, work, and writing of Dr. Brené Brown, she calls herself a ‘shame researcher’, and her body of work and research around shame is profound.  I’m so touched, moved, and blown away, by Brené Brown’s acute vulnerability and precise honesty and transparency to dive and dig so deeply around the issues of shame.

Brené Brown writes in this article:

“Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

As a shame researcher, I know that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counter-intuitive: Practice courage and reach out! ~ Brené Brown

In her TedTalk about shame, Brené Brown talks about how shame can take us out.
If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster when you got in there, that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.”

I personally felt and still feel, a lot of shame about being vulnerable around being able to succeed and being so afraid to fail. I use to say to myself that it is ‘better not to try then try and fail’. I put a magnet on my refrigerator for years saying ‘What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail’.

I waited years to launch my Hold Me Tight Couples Workshops as I was so scared and ashamed from the possibility of failure. My Hold Me Tight Couples workshops have been Sold-Out! every time I offer them.


At times we carry shame about pain and hurt we have caused others.

For myself, that’s an excruciating feeling of pain and guilt of the shame I have caused to others. Knowing that I have brought others  suffering, even if without meaning to do so, can be a big and heavy burden to carry.

I have hurt loved ones. I have caused them pain, shame, despair and misery. This is hard to write, let alone, feel.
Processing that shame can take time to unpack and be willing to own our actions, to acknowledge the impact, and to apologize, and to forgive oneself.

Processing that shame we have around hurting loved ones, can take time to unpack and be willing to ownHold Me Tight Workshops our actions, to acknowledge the impact and the hurt, and to have a sincere apology, recognizing and validating the impact, and moving through into forgiveness.

My colleagues,  Dr. Sam Jinich and Dr. Michelle Gannon of the San Francisco Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, teach therapists how to facilitate  Forgiveness Conversations , in those conversation couples learn how to reach to each other and move toward, repair and re-connection.

Empathy and Vulnerability are pivotal and essential in our ability to heal shame; our own shame and the shame of causing harm to others.

The antidote to shame, Brown says, is empathy. She explains that by talking about your shame with a friend who expresses empathy, the painful feeling cannot survive. “Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone,” she says.

Here’s the bottom line: “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says. “It cannot survive empathy.”

Please do not hesitate to call me with any questions or for more information.