Finding Shelter in a Shame Storm (and Avoiding the Flying Debris)
You're in it. That warm wash of "not good enough" has taken over. It doesn't matter how you get into shame; the trick is getting out. In one piece. Without sacrificing your authenticity. As a shame researcher, I know that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!
But here's the tricky part about sharing your story: You can't call just anyone. If you share your shame story with the wrong person, he or she can easily become one more piece of flying debris in your already dangerous shame storm. We want solid connection in a situation like this—something akin to a sturdy tree firmly planted in the ground. We definitely want to avoid the following:
1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy ("I feel so sorry for you") rather than empathy ("I get it, I feel with you, and I've been there"). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: "Oh, you poor thing." Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, "Bless your heart."
3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can't help because she's too disappointed in your imperfections. You've let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: "How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?" Or she looks for someone to blame: "Who was that guy? We'll kick his ass."
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: "You're exaggerating. It wasn't that bad. You rock. You're perfect. Everyone loves you."
6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: "That's nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!"
Next: Find a "move-a-body" friend
When we're looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, is able to bend and, most of all, embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. When we're looking for compassion, it's about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.
We need a move-a-body friend.
A year or two ago, my good friend called, and as soon as I said, "Hello!" she said, "You're a friend who would move a body." I could tell by her voice that she was serious. I lowered my voice and whispered, "What does that mean?"
She said that one of her sister's close friends had called her sister and asked her to help her move her mom. The friend's mother, who was apparently only invited to visit once a year, struggled with alcoholism. When my friend's sister's friend came home from work, her mother was passed out drunk on the sofa. It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and the kids would be busting through the front door any minute. She called because she physically needed help moving her mother.
I let out a deep sigh and said, "Yes. You could definitely call me."
Then she said one of the kindest things that anyone has ever said to me. She explained: "I'd call you because you would come right away, give me a hug, never look judgmental or disapproving or disgusted. And then you'd say, 'Let's do this.'
"The next day, when you saw my mom at the park or the soccer game, you'd be kind and respectful.
"And most of all, it would never cross my mind to say something to you like 'Please don't tell anyone.' You don't do that."
I thought about that conversation for days. I thought about how lucky I am to have a couple of move-a-body friends in my life. I thought about how crazy it is that most of us can steamroll over these friends while we work to win the approval and acceptance of people who really don't matter in our lives—people whom we'd never call when we were in a real struggle. When we're in the shame storm.
About a week after this call, I thought I'd pay the kindness forward, and I called my friend Dawn. As soon as she answered, I said, "You're a friend who would help me move a body." She replied, "Holy crap. Did you kill somebody?" I laughed. "No, not today." Then I told her how much she means to me and how grateful I am to find shelter in her friendship.
Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, is the author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Watch a sneak preview of her appearance on "Super Soul Sunday"
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