The Destructive Power of Shame

I just watched Brene Brown’s amazing TED talk about shame: It was a good reminder of just how destructive shame can be. Shame keeps us from taking risks, from “daring greatly” as she puts it, because we’re too afraid that we might fail, or look foolish, or draw unwanted attention. It convinces us that we’re not good enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough, or _whatever_ enough. It talks us into playing it safe, settling for what we are confident we can get rather than what we really want.

Shame is insidious. It is relentless. It robs us of joy and keeps us from living up to our full potential. Ironically, the way to overcome it is to openly acknowledge that we feel it, and become willing to talk about those deep dark secrets that shame has convinced us would cause others to reject us if they only knew.

I recently attended a Christian women’s gathering at which the featured speaker talked about the fact that she was sexually abused as a child, by her dad who was a pastor. She shared the fact that her healing began when she first told a counselor about it, and later her husband, and finally her mother and her siblings. Now she helps other women heal by speaking openly about something that is still a secret source of shame for many, letting them know that they are not alone and it is OK to be honest about what really happened.

Whether or not we were abused in any way as children, we all carry some shame, because humans are imperfect and even the best parents and friends inevitably say and do things that hurt us, and because no matter how much we try to play it safe, at some points along the way we will nevertheless have some failures and take some actions we later regret.

We can choose how to deal with our shame, though. If we deny it or try to keep it carefully hidden away, it will always hold us back and we’ll forever see ourselves as less than others, unworthy of love, and incapable of accomplishing anything truly worthwhile. If we freely acknowledge the shame we carry, and are willing to challenge the negative messages it sends us, take risks and “dare greatly,” and share our true selves with others without worrying about what they will think, we will overcome our shame and have more authentic, loving relationships and happier, more fulfilling lives. How will you choose to deal with your shame?

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