Have you ever had that awful pit in your stomach, a wash of discomfort throughout your body, or incessant thoughts that you just can’t seem to get out of your head in the middle of the night? I believe we all have, but it can be difficult to identify or explain what those feelings are.
Really powerful emotions (both positive and negative) are often very difficult to describe. We sometimes just don’t have the words. Having the words can enhance a positive experience or bring comfort to a difficult one.
I have spent the last several weeks reading Brene Brown’s books I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and The Gifts of Imperfection. Brene Brown is a self-described shame researcher/story teller who has helped bring understanding to very difficult emotional experiences. She said that the four most common difficult emotions that people experience are embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, and shame. Brown illustrates that knowing the differences and definitions of these four experiences makes all the difference in how we interact with them and move through them effectively. Let’s start with the definitions:
Embarrassment: A fleeting moment or circumstance that others have most likely experienced and one that we can eventually find funny and almost normal. Embarrassment is the least powerful of these emotions, as we know that it will go away and that others have likely had a similar experience.
Guilt: Guilt is recognition that “I have done something bad.” Although this is not a great feeling, it can often be a positive motivator of change. Guilt is holding an action or behavior up against our ethics, values, and beliefs.
Humiliation: Humiliation is a deep sense of discomfort that happens to someone, but is not deserved. Humiliation can turn into shame if not recognized.
Shame: Shame is a belief that “I am bad.” While guilt can motivate positive change, shame typically leads to worse behavior or an emotional paralysis. Shame goes to our core identity and is focusing on who we are, rather than what we have done. People believe that they deserve their shame and internalize this negative message.
These four experiences all stem from a similar root: the need to feel worthy and accepted from others and from ourselves. We all have this universal need, so we are all prone to feeling the pain that comes from perceived unworthiness and disconnection. According to Brown’s research, shame is the most diabolical of the four, as it strikingly pronounces “I am flawed, I am not worthy of love and connection.” It is truly devilish in its isolation and meaning. Yet, we all experience shame and there are ways to be more resilient in combating it.
The other commonality of these emotions is that they need to be shared in order to go away. Harsh self-judgment, silence, and secrecy only feed the awful beast. The cure for shame (and the other “ickies”) is empathy. We need someone to prove to use that we are not alone and that whatever happened, they are with us. But, they need to be shared with someone who we trust and who has earned the right to hear our story.
Compassion and empathy are the cures to these awful emotions. Some people find compassion and empathy from a spiritual/religious source, others from a close friend or family member, some from a therapist, mentor, coach, or maybe even a trusted pet! We must reach outside ourselves, to others, in order to cure shame. One last caveat, Brown states that we can only receive compassion and empathy to the extent that we love and care for ourselves. This can be a difficult process, but one worth cultivating.
For more information on Brene Brown and her research, you can refer to her clips on YouTube, her popular TedTalks, or her books Daring Greatly, I Thought it Was Just Me (But it Isn’t), and The Gifts of Imperfection.