Reflections on a Year of Shame Resilience Training

I was moved to tears the first time I watched Brene Brown’s first TED talk on the power of vulnerability. So moved that I felt strongly called to start teaching and working more directly with the concepts she talks about most—vulnerability and authenticity. Not long after watching that talk I began facilitating groups based on her Connections curriculum, which helps participants enhance authentic living as a foundation for shame resilience. Over the past year, I have facilitated the Brene Brown Connections curriculum five times in various settings, including my private counseling practice, the University of West Georgia counseling center, and as a workshop for therapists. Richard Bach says, “You teach best what you most need to learn,” and as a facilitator, immersing myself in this work has been immensely beneficial to me personally. Below are a few things that have been most impactful for me from this shame-resilience work.

Shame is universal. That statement alone is empowering. When I feel shame, I often feel alone in it. This realization helps me remember that I am not the only one who has thought there must be something wrong with me or, as Brene Brown defines shame, had that intensely painful feeling or experience that I am flawed and therefore unworthy of connection or belonging. Everyone has felt that feeling. It’s part of the human experience.

Developing mindfulness around shame. Part of the curriculum involves learning to recognize shame when we’re in it. How does shame show up in our bodies? What do we tell ourselves when we’re in shame? Developing more mindfulness about my personal experience of shame has been very empowering. I like to think of myself as a self-aware person, attuned to my feelings, my body, and my thoughts. But, over the past year I have discovered that shame is one of those feelings that can sneak up me and hijack me pretty quickly if I’m not mindful about it. This shame resilience work has helped me become more aware of the earliest signs of shame, so that I can recognize it and do something about it. Since I have begun facilitating this curriculum and developing my own shame resilience, I have become aware that undercurrents of shame are much more prevalent than I previously realized, in both myself and others.

Recognizing vulnerabilities and triggers. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but one of the things I’ve become aware of through this process is how much energy I can put into what other people think of me. I was a bit surprised by this, as I have prided myself in the past on being independent and not letting society’s expectations or other people’s opinions get in the way of how I live my life. But through the process of some of the exercises in this curriculum, I have discovered that my desire to be seen a certain way has an impact on the choices I make in many areas of my life. And, even more surprising, I realized that at times I put more psychological energy into impressing people I don’t even really know (and who may not even exist) than attending to the relationships I care about the most. This realization helps me to shift my focus and intention to the relationships that matter the most to me.

The antidote to shame. One of the biggest shift in me personally as a result of this work is that I have begun actively and quickly applying what Brene teaches as the antidote to shame–compassion and empathy. Silence feeds shame, and empathy and compassion transform it. So, once I recognize shame, in order to shift it, I must get some compassion and empathy. I can get that from myself, through sending myself some loving kindness and speaking gentle, assuring words to myself. And, I can also practice reaching out and sharing my experience with someone I trust. I am eternally grateful that I have some extraordinary, compassionate, skillful listeners in my life. And I know that not everyone has that. One of the things I love about this work is the focus on learning how to recognize and ask for what we want and need in order to create more supportive relationships in our lives. And that can take time and practice. So, sometimes we may be best served if we get our compassion and empathy from a professional. Counselors are trained at offering empathy and can also help us learn to connect with our own self-compassion. Being in a group focused on this theme is also a beneficial way to feel the shared humanity and get support with issues related to shame, vulnerability, and authenticity. It doesn’t really matter where we get it, but remembering and acting on the idea that empathy and compassion, including self-compassion, are the best ways to transform shame has definitely deepened my own path towards living with more authenticity. I have found this to be an incredibly healing and relatively fast-acting antidote to the most painful emotions, including shame.

Authenticity is a daily practice. I love the idea of authenticity being a practice. We’re not always perfect at it, but every moment is another opportunity to practice. Maybe what excited me most about Brene Brown’s first TED talk was when she said that vulnerability appears to be the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love. The days I believe this, I am more motivated to take risks and let myself be vulnerable. But often it feels more like an act of faith than a true knowing. I’m hoping and praying that if I choose authenticity it will lead to deeper joy, but many times I’m scared I’m going to fall on my face in front of a crowd. One of the biggest gifts of facilitating this work has been witnessing group members share their authentic moments and seeing the joy and courage that develops from that daily practice. Over and over again, as I see others choose authenticity and I choose it in my own life, the more data I am amassing in favor of her statement, and I seem to be developing an embodied knowing that it’s true —vulnerability truly is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.