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The truth shall make us free

An intriguing new book explores the social context of women’s vulnerability to shame and self-doubt

Women & Shame:
Reaching Out, Speaking Truths and Building Connection

By Brené Brown, Ph.D.
3C Press, 2004

The buildings of my old high school in Berkeley, California are embellished with magnificent WPA-era bas-relief sculptures— although I admit that in my miserable youth, I failed to fully appreciate the grace and grandeur of the heroic figures portraying art, science and industry. (To be perfectly honest, I thought they were creepy and old-fashioned.) But I did have a favorite— a giant carving of St. George, in full dragon-slaying glory, with an inscription in foot-high letters: You Shall Know The Truth And The Truth Shall Make You Free. The quotation is scriptural, and I suppose it’s a handy piece of advice as far as spiritual directives go. But I’ve always believed the fundamental connection between knowledge, truth and freedom is at least as relevant to the personal and political aspects of worldly life as to the pursuit of religious transcendence.

Motherhood is a special case in point, since the practice of truth-telling often slams into ingrained cultural attitudes about how “good” mothers ought to think, feel and act. Mothers who work up the courage to speak their complicated and sometimes bitter truths aloud— for example, Faulkner Fox and Andi Buchanan— leave themselves open to major smack-downs from people with less flexible ideas about the social roles and responsibilities of women who mother. (To see this in action, skim the reader reviews of Fox’s Dispatches from a Not So Perfect Life on Amazon.com). The ultimate brush-off aimed at women who come clean about the downside of motherhood generally sounds something like this: “Did you actually expect to have a life of your own after you had children? Stop whining and suck it up. And if you’re really that insecure and self-centered, maybe you should never have had children in the first place.”

Obviously, this is not the kind of exchange that signals the start of an enlightened discussion about the diversity of maternal experience or an appreciation for dissenting points of view. It's not the sort of witty rejoinder that sets the tone for a friendly conversation about the realities of life before and after children. No, this particular remark is calculated to rip another woman’s heart out and send her spinning into the dark void where her inner demons lie in wait. It’s the quick and easy way to shut someone up and shut her down— an express ticket to that private world of agonizing pain no one ever likes to talk about: shame.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths and Building Connection, the role shame plays in undermining women’s quality of life is significantly underestimated. And while Brown finds that not all women have identical vulnerabilities to shame, she emphasizes all are vulnerable— and women's opportunities to encounter shame in the course of daily living are almost infinite. Shame, she insists, is both a personal and social issue, and living with shame makes women feel deeply flawed and incapable of constructive change. The good news, Brown reports, is that there is something we can do to short-circuit the cruel power it holds over our lives.

Women & Shame is not a one-size-fits-all self-help book pitching five easy steps to true happiness. To the contrary, Brown’s objective is to articulate her fascinating new theory— based on findings from original research— about the psychological and social experiences of women. Her mission is to make the complexity of her ideas accessible to a general audience: Women & Shame is written in a clear and engaging style, and the author illustrates her concepts with quotes from personal interviews and self-revealing anecdotes about her own encounters with shame. Chapters are punctuated with a series of hand-drawn graphics, which Brown uses to clarify key points about interactions and processes. Some of drawings have the unstudied quality of children’s artwork (which is part of their charm), but occasionally the cartoon-like images seem incongruous with the sophisticated subject matter. The book concludes with samples from a set of exercises designed to help women decipher the role shame plays in the erosion of their personal well-being, an expression of Brown’s commitment to using her professional insights to help women change their lives for the better.

But just what does all this stuff about ‘shame’— whatever that is, exactly— and the psychology of women have to do with motherhood today? Quite a lot, as it turns out. By conducting interviews with 200 women of different ages, races, and economic standing, Brown and her research team discovered that women’s shame— which she defines as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”— is the product of an intricate “web” of layered, conflicting and competing social expectations. Brown continues: “These expectations tell us who we should be, what we should be, and how we should be. At their core, these ideals are products of very rigid social and community expectations” (emphasis in original).

Regardless of where one stands ideologically, wrangling with “layered, conflicting and competing expectations that tell us who we should be, what we should be and how we should be” is a depressingly accurate description of the social experience of motherhood in twenty-first century America. So it’s not surprising Brown’s research turns up “motherhood” and “parenting” as key areas where women are predisposed to shame (other predictable areas of vulnerability include identity, appearance, sexuality, family, mental and physical health, aging, religion and a “woman’s ability to stand up and speak out for herself.”). “Mother-shame seems to be a birth-right for girls and women,” Brown writes. “On top of the societal expectation that motherhood defines womanhood, there are some very rigid expectations about what the good mother looks like.”

According to Brown, the conflicting social signals that trigger women’s private shame spread from the far reaches of a “shame web;” influences in the outermost ring reinforce broad cultural expectations about women’s bodies, behavior, and intellectual/emotional characteristics (as conveyed by advertising, information and entertainment media, literature, and music), while the innermost ring represents the expectations of individuals in the woman’s most intimate circle (partners, family, friends and herself). “The shame web,” Brown writes, “traps us using expectations and options. First we have an unreasonable number of expectations put upon us, many of which are not even attainable or realistic. Second, we have a very limited number of options in terms of how we can meet these expectations.”

We can test drive Brown’s theory of shame by looking at some of the conflicting expectations that whirl around mothers’ heads regarding paid work and family:

Mother A is employed full-time and finds her work extremely satisfying. She often feels pressured to get everything done on the job and at home, but she's confident her kids are happy, healthy and enjoying life to the fullest. Her own mom always encouraged her to be financially independent, and her husband is supportive (even though she seems get stuck doing most of the child care and housework they agreed to “share”). But there’s always the niggling feeling— and occasionally a nauseating rush of awful uncertainty— that she and her children may be missing out on something important that can’t be replaced or repaired. Then one day another mother somewhere— in a newspaper interview, on the radio, at pre-school drop-off, overheard at a café— announces she “could never let anyone else raise my kids.” Face flushed, ears ringing, Mother A feels the pit of her stomach fill with ashes and bile. The thought flashes by that maybe there is something seriously wrong with her in the motherhood department because she genuinely loves working outside the home. Welcome to Shameville.

In the house next door, we have Mother B, who left her upwardly mobile but extremely stressful job when her second child was born. Occasionally, life at home with the kids seems a dull and uninspiring compared to the giddy pace of her demanding career, but she truly enjoys living life on child time and is certain she wouldn’t want things any other way. When she flips through the pages of popular parenting magazines, the moms in the photographs and advertisements look like the kind of mom she’d most like to be— trim, relaxed and in control; their families are child-centered and always seem to be having fun. But some days— all right, most days— her real-life kids act like little monsters, and she fights with her husband about money, sex and the way he leaves his dirty clothes crumpled up on the bedroom floor with the expectation she will pick up after him, as if she's some kind of slave. And sometimes Mother B secretly worries that she’s wasting her hard-earned college degree, that her marketable skills are rotting away while she cranks out grilled-cheese sandwiches and homemade play-dough, and that maybe the real reason she decided to stay home was because she wasn’t cut out for the corporate rat-race anyway. But she’d never admit her self-doubt to her at-home mom friends, who all seem so confident and well-adjusted. Then one day another mother somewhere— on a TV talk show, on an internet message board, in the grocery store check-out line, at a child’s birthday party— says “I simply can’t imagine staying home with my kids all day.” Mother B’s eyes begin to spin in their sockets as a fiery red rage fills her head. She’s like to rip that stupid floozy’s hair out by the roots. Meanwhile, a little voice coming from the gaping black hole that just opened up in her chest is whispering: “You take such pride in being a full-time caregiver. But maybe you’re just a loser.” Hello, Shame.

Brown believes that when shame is allowed to fester in a woman’s psyche, it leaves her feeling “trapped, powerless and isolated”—not a psychological space that’s conducive to critical thinking or mapping out a realistic course for productive change. She points out that shame thrives on silence and secrecy— after all, who really wants to trade in the carefully crafted fiction of “normalcy” to open up about how damaged and despicable they feel, deep down inside? Frankly, I’d rather throw myself into a bathtub full of broken glass. But Brown’s central thesis is that as long as we allow our authentic selves to be held hostage by shame, we are more likely to react to conflict in ways that ultimately reinforce our unhappiness.

We can’t expel shame from our inner world, Brown insists, but we can develop resilience to it so it doesn’t box us into a lesser life. But building shame resilience is no quick fix; it’s a process that demands introspection, critical awareness, and making a sustained effort to reach out to others who can relate to our experiences. It helps to be strong; in the course of reading Women & Shame, aspects of my own life-long relationship with shame became painfully vivid to me— not a “pricking of the conscience” type of pain, more the “having your entrails ripped out by rabid wolverines” variety. But if sitting with my discomfort will eventually lead me to a place where I’m no longer terrified of coming face-to-face with the magnitude of my shame, it’s probably worth it.

But back to motherhood, shame and the power of the truth to set us free. Brown believes the enemy of shame is empathy, which she describes as “the ability to perceive a situation from another person’s perspective… to see, hear and feel the unique world of the other.” When we make contact with others who will listen attentively to our real story and reflect it back it without judgment or pity, we loosen the stranglehold of shame long enough to realize we are not alone. By giving and receiving empathy, we learn internal conflict and chronic ambivalence are par for the course in a society that sends mixed signals about the nature and needs of men, women and children. When we feel validated, we are in a better position to validate the experience of others. We become less consumed by our fear of shame and freer to focus on the things we’d like to change to make our lives better. If mothers hope to act collectively, we would do well to consider the value of confronting the sources of our shame on both a personal and societal level; otherwise, we run the risk of remaining isolated, trapped and powerless.

This all begins with speaking the truth— to ourselves and others— and valuing empathy over passing judgment on other moms. If enough mothers keep telling the truth about motherhood, and enough mothers (and others) pay attention and respond without criticism or condescension, the unyielding ideological boundaries that define who mothers should be will begin to sag. Maybe if we tell the truth long enough and loud enough, they will collapse. Perhaps as individuals, mothers will finally have the freedom to extract their authentic selves from the unrelenting pressure of cultural expectations about who mothers are and what they do best. And when that happens, we will have reached the point where we can really start to change the world.

So let’s get going. We have nothing to be ashamed of.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
July 2004

More on Women & Shame:

The MMO interview with Brené Brown, Ph.D.
author of Women & Shame

Brené Brown’s Web site has more information about her book, Women & Shame, news articles, recommended resources and her speaking schedule.

Excerpts from Women & Shame (in .pdf)

Uncovering Shame

Appearance, Motherhood, Parenting and Family:
The Perilous Pursuit of Perfection

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© 2003-2008 The Mothers Movement Online.


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