What am I ashamed of?
It’s an uncomfortable question, and it’s Brené Brown’s fault that I am asking myself.
If you’ve never heard of Brené Brown, her 2010 Tedx talk on vulnerability went viral (over 20 million views to date), and she has fascinating research on vulnerability, authenticity, courage, and shame.
A lazy Saturday at my parents’ house led me to peruse the TED channel on Apple TV while my kids were napping. I stumbled across another of Brown’s talks, Listening to Shame (2012). In it, she starts to unpack the power that shame has over women and men, and especially how vulnerability can overcome it. Since it reminded me of things I have said myself on this blog (To All the Fat Girls), and since today is the feast of St. Lawrence, AND since yesterday’s lectionary reading featured Psalm 34, I had to write about it.
The Power of Shame
I greeted yesterday morning with delight at starting a new journal, and I definitely didn’t plan on the soul-searching that followed.
But then Psalm 34 was the psalm for the daily reading…
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
…And I wrote in my journal, “What is this shame that has power over me? What is this shame that I carry?”
Three answers came to mind:
The shame of unbelief that says, “You should have believed your friends.”
The shame of ignorance that says, “You should have known better.”
The shame of failure that says, “You should have tried harder.”
Making peace with the girl in the photos
For as long as I can remember, I have carried the shame of being overweight. That applied then, in the picture above, where I was about 180 lbs and happier than I had ever been. I remember seeing that picture of me shortly after it was taken and thinking, “Ugh.”
That same shame still applies now, when I am 28 weeks pregnant and nearly 100 lbs heavier. I look at pictures like the one on the top and think—“WHAT WAS I THINKING?” How did I not see how beautiful I was and how healthy?
Enter the shame of unbelief.
When I would express to my friends and loved ones how unattractive and unappealing I felt, they would immediately contradict me with words like, “You look great! You are doing good!”
I refused to believe them because the voice of condemnation in my head was louder and more believable. For a while, I wondered, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that I could love myself then?” But I know now, after learning a lot about shame and condemnation, that even if someone had said those exact words to me, I would not have believed them. And so, I carry the weight of the shame of my unbelief. The shame of unbelief keeps saying to me, “You should have listened to the voices of those who loved you—so stupid not to! If only you had, life would be better now.”
And then I think about how little I understood what I was putting in my mouth, taking on a caloric debt that I will be repaying for a long time. I’m an emotional eater—I eat when I am happy, when I am sad, when I am frustrated, when I am excited, when I am depressed, and when I am anxious. I didn’t know how much was going in because I wasn’t paying attention.
Enter the shame of ignorance.
Ignorance is not bliss, like some have said. I carry the weight of the shame of not knowing how, in my life situation, to make better food choices. The shame of ignorance tells me all the time, “You should have known better…you’re a doctor’s daughter. You’re smart. You’re good at math. Calories in, calories out—duh!”
And then I look in the mirror and think about the times I have tried to make healthy choices and how, due to so many circumstances, I have not been able to succeed.
Enter the shame of failure.
My inability to believe, my ignorance of the consequences of my choices—they are part of my failure. I have failed to care for this body adequately, and I carry great shame for that.
Some causes of shame are invisible, but mine is very visible. I carry it around with me, because my very body is what causes me shame.
Typing this is almost too much. The weight of this shame has been nearly debilitating. But I know I’m not alone.
Brené Brown says,
“Shame is an epidemic in our culture. And to get out from underneath it — to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other. Very quickly, some research by Mahalik at Boston College. He asked, what do women need to do to conform to female norms? The top answers in this country: nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. When he asked about men, what do men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were: always show emotional control, work is first, pursue status and violence” (at 18:03 in Listening to Shame).
I’m not alone, right? Does anyone else carry shame for not meeting cultural norms for men and women? Visible or invisible, this shame can be incapacitating to us in relationships, in work, in every aspect of our life. I have missed out on too much life because of this shame. And I refuse to do it anymore.
Brené Brown says that there is power over shame, and it comes in the form of vulnerability.
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too” (18:54).
Friends, we have to share our stories. We have to connect with others who are hurting. And the best place to start is with where we have been hurt or are currently hurting.
Remember the story of St. Lawrence (225-258 AD), whose feast the Catholic Church celebrates today. Under the emperor Valerian, Roman authorities demanded that Lawrence, a deacon in the church at Rome, gather all the treasures of the church to hand over to the state. So, obediently, Lawrence went and rounded up all the treasures of the church—the lame, the beggars, the blind, the suffering. The weak ones, he knew, were the true treasure of the Church.
Your wounds, your weaknesses—they are your treasure.
Will you open up your treasure chest and share the riches you have? Sharing my struggle with the shame of being overweight in a world that demands physical perfection is where I am starting today.
Hear this: You are not alone. Shame can be a prison, but you have the keys to freedom, and they rest in your story—that you are loved beyond your wildest imagination by the One who created you, that your wounds are precious, and that there is healing for you, no matter where you are right now.
I’ll leave you with Brené Brown’s words that conclude her talk about listening to shame:
“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” (19:18).
L’chaim, friends. To life!