Overcoming Shame

by Annie Higgins, M.A., LPC

In June of 2010, Brené Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher from the University of Houston, gave a TED talk (www.ted.com) entitled “The Power of Vulnerability” that went viral. The central message of her talk is that in order to establish connection with others we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Throughout her research, Brown found a common thread among those who were able to let themselves “be seen, really seen” by others, which was her definition of vulnerability. What these people shared was the belief that they were worthy of love and connection combined with the courage to be imperfect. She summarized her talk by saying that if we could each believe “I’m enough”, then we would be kinder and gentler to ourselves, which would enable us to be kinder and gentler to each other.

In a follow-up TED talk, Brown elaborates on the second aspect of her research: shame. Her main message is that in order to be vulnerable we must overcome the shame-based messages we believe about ourselves. Brown said that these messages usually come in the form of “I’m never good enough” or, if we are able to move past that thought, then “Who do you think you are?” becomes the gremlin that keeps us on the sideline of life. She makes a very important distinction between shame and guilt. Guilt says, “I made a mistake,” whereas shame says, “I am a mistake.” Guilt is very adaptive because it motivates us toward behavior that is more consistent with our value system. Shame, on the other hand, is destructive because it motivates us to hide ourselves for fear of rejection, and ultimately leads to isolation.

I am so encouraged by Brown’s research and attention to these very important topics. However, I cannot read and reflect upon it without feeling that it is incomplete. Brown’s final charge to her readers is to believe they are “enough” in and of themselves. This may work for some, but when I try to muster up that belief in myself, I fall incredibly short. For me, I need something outside of myself to which I can anchor this belief. And for me that is the Gospel. I know that I’m treading on sacred ground here and that it is extremely difficult to summarize the entire Gospel message. However, I believe that one of my favorite Bible teachers, Tim Keller, is able to capture the essence of what I believe when he says, “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

I come face to face with the fact that I do not always think or behave according to my values on a regular basis. I believe this is what drives those tapes in my mind that say things like, “You’re a fraud; you’ll never be good enough! Why do you even try?” And if all I had to go on was my own effort at being a good person, the cycle would continue: set goals to “be a good person,” fall short, beat myself up for falling short, hide the shameful aspects of myself from others, set stricter goals, fall short, beat myself up worse, and on and on…

But if I anchor my worthiness to who I am in Christ, then I understand the process of sanctification. I understand that I am deeply loved in my fallen state. It’s not about trying to earn my way into “enoughness” but knowing that because I am anchored to the One who lived a perfect life and died in my place, I can give myself grace when I fall short and at the very same time let that motivate me toward loving myself and others better. This is the understanding that I’m a work in progress and I will make mistakes in this life. But instead of letting my imperfections keep me isolated in shame, I can let them motivate me to look to the source of love and experience the freedom of being truly known and fully loved at the same time. I believe that if we can get this understanding deep down in our core – that the only One who sees us to the bottom loves us to the top – then we’ll have the courage to embrace our imperfections and combat those shame-based messages we’ve been telling ourselves for years.

Whether or not you believe the Gospel, I would encourage you to think about the research presented by Brené Brown and ask yourself these questions: To what is my worth as a person anchored? How secure is that anchor?

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