Minding Your Health – How Shame Affects Us, and What We Can Do About it

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part series.
You walk into your favorite coffee shop and spy a cute girl sitting in the corner, reading. You think about striking up a conversation with her, but you tell yourself, “She would never be interested in me” or “I’m not smart enough to be with someone like her.”

Or you walk into the bar on Saturday night into a sea of perfectly dressed, in-shape men, and you think, “I don’t belong. I haven’t been to the gym in a week, month, year, ever. Everyone’s looking at me. My hair’s a mess and my clothes are hideous.”

What just happened? One minute you’re feeling good, and the next minute you feel like hiding, telling yourself you’re not enough and you never will be. You just experienced shame. It shapes who we are and drives how we act toward one another. Shame is so powerful, yet so elemental. Usually we’re not aware how it influences our lives.

But we can work to manage shame. In this two-part series, I will share two authors’ work on shame and their strategies for building resiliency to it.

The first work is Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW. You may have heard of Brown’s work through her TED talk on vulnerability (TED talk). In this widely shared talk, she beautifully captures in 20 minutes the essence of shame.

The second work is The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World by Alan Downs, Ph.D. This book is based on Downs’ personal experience and his work as a clinical psychologist. Although his focus is men, his strategies for combating shame can be helpful to all.

Brown and Downs write that shame is a universal human experience. Brown writes of the “Shame 1-2-3s”:
1. We all have it.
2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

In other words, that cute girl in the coffee shop may be saying to herself that she’s not smart or cool enough for you to even notice her. And those good-looking, buff men at the bar? They’re thinking the same thing. In fact, Downs writes that it’s not uncommon for gay men to work out to combat their own feelings of inadequacy.

So what is shame? For both authors, shame can be summed up as feeling unworthy.

Brown writes, “Shame is the fear of disconnection. It says I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection.”

Downs states, “For the majority of gay men who are out of the closet, shame is no longer felt. What was once a feeling has become something deeper and more sinister in our psyches &amp

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