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An interview with Brené Brown, Ph.D.
Author of "Women & Shame"

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MMO: You’ve described shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging” that makes women feel “trapped, powerless and isolated.” You argue that shaming is always counterproductive to healthy personal growth, but note that shame is used as “a way to try to change people… every minute of every day.” If shame doesn’t do the things we expect it to do—in other words, change unwanted behaviors and attitudes— why is it so pervasive? Does shaming have other social or psychological functions? Is there a connection between shaming and the desire to restrict the power of a particular individual or group?

B Brown: This is an extremely important question and I want to answer it in pieces. In order to understand shame’s complexities, I need to first explain how shame makes us feel trapped, powerless and isolated. Once we understand these concepts, it’s easier to see why shame is so pervasive and how, regardless of intent, it is very counterproductive to real personal growth and meaningful change.

In the four years I spent immersed in this research, one of the most difficult questions to answer was, “What do women’s shame experiences have in common?” Clearly, what triggers shame in some of us has no impact on others. What some of us experience as devastating may feel mildly upsetting for others. Yet, when you read the descriptions and hear the stories of 200 women, it’s very clear that there is something central, something core, in everyone’s experience of shame. For me the primary struggle was to locate and name what fuels and lies beneath all of these incredibly different stories.

Here’s what I found. There are no universal shame triggers. There are no events or situations that make all of us feel or experience shame. I discovered that there are, however, categories that are meaningful. Without exception, all of the participants’ shame experiences fit in one of these categories: identity, appearance, sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, health (mental and physical), aging, religion and a woman’s ability to stand up and speak out for herself. These are the categories in which women struggle the most with feelings of shame. Given our personal diversity and how differently we experience shame, is there a way to explain its impacts that actually includes all of us and is meaningful for all? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. When we experience shame we feel trapped, powerless and isolated.

Regardless of who, what, why or how, when women experience shame they feel trapped, powerless and isolated. I think it’s safe to say that each of these concepts is frightening. No one wants to feel trapped, no one wants to feel powerless and most of us dread feeling isolated. But if we understand these three concepts as intricately woven together to create shame, it becomes very clear why shame is so powerful, complex and difficult to overcome. Let’s look at each of these concepts:

Trapped: The concept of trapped emerged with two properties: expectations and options. It’s really about the ratio of expectations to options. Think about motherhood. There are hundreds of expectations, but very few realistic options for meeting those expectations available to us. Being trapped is very similar to what Marilyn Frye describes as the “double-bind” – “situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.” The concept of being trapped expands the “double-bind” concept by combining limited and punitive options with layers of competing expectations to form a complex web that traps women.

Powerless: Given how most of us are socialized to think about power, I think it’s important to start by defining the concept. When I talk about power in this book, I mean real power. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines power as “the ability to act or produce an effect.” Power is basically the ability to change something if you want to change it. It’s the ability to make change happen. Real power is not finite—there is plenty to go around. And the great thing about real power is our ability to create it. Real power doesn’t force us to take it away from others—it’s something we create and build with others. It doesn’t force us to pawn the things that are important to us—our families, our womanhood, our identities—it allows us to create those things.

When we talk about shame and powerlessness, we’re really talking about three specific components of power: consciousness, choice and change. For women experiencing shame, the ability to produce an effect that could counter shame is very difficult because most of us are unconscious of what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. Shame often produces overwhelming and painful feelings of confusion, fear, anger, judgment and/or the need to escape or hide from the situation. It’s difficult to identify shame as the core issue when we’re trying to manage all these very intense feelings. It would be highly unusual to be in the middle of a shaming experience and think, “Oh, I’m aware of what’s happening—this is shame. What are my choices and how can I change this?” Even when we recognize it, the silencing and secret nature of shame makes it very difficult for us to identify and act on the choices that could actually facilitate change or free us from the shame trap. This is what I mean by powerlessness.

Isolation: Isolation is the product of being trapped and powerless. When I talk about isolation I don’t mean feeling lonely or alone. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Relational-Cultural theorists from the Stone Center at Wellesley College, have beautifully captured the overwhelming nature of isolation. They write, “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.”

Given how shame often makes us feel trapped, powerless and isolated, it does not make sense to think of shame as an effective agent for positive, lasting change. Meaningful, healthy change requires us to assess both our strengths and limitations. We change from a place of self-worth, not a place of shame, powerlessness and isolation. Real change requires awareness, insight and thoughtful decision-making – these are rarely present when we are experiencing shame.

When we think about “why” we use shame as a change agent even though it is damaging and its long-term impact can often be very destructive to both the person being shamed and the person doing the shaming – parenting serves as a good example. (The further I got into this work the more convinced I became about the need to write something on shame and parenting. At first I was going to write an article, but I have so much data at this point that I’m working on a book). We can actually use shame to turn a child’s behavior on a dime. It is both effective and efficient in the short-term. When we are stressed or run out of parenting tools, it is easy to turn to shame as a way to stop a behavior or force a child to comply with a demand. Once we’ve used shame a couple of times, there appears to be a residual effect. We merely have to threaten to use it or look as if we are going to use it and the child complies.

The problem is that the messages we send to the child are often messages that can follow the child for a lifetime. Shaming is not like “guilting.” Guilt says: “you’ve done something bad” or “you’ve made a bad choice.” Shame says: “you are bad.” There is a big difference between “you made a mistake” and “you are a mistake.” Guilt can often inspire us to change a behavior, make amends, apologize or rethink our priorities. When we feel shame, our self-worth is so low that there is little possibility for change. Harriet Lerner writes, “How do we apologize for something we are rather than something we did?” Additionally, the “residual effect” is more accurately a “decaying effect.” When we repeatedly use shame to change people, their self-worth and self-confidence can slowly erode.

So, the long answer is that shame is used as a change agent all the time. It’s used in our “here and now” society because you can actually see a swift behavior change when you use shame. The consequences, however, are very serious. Shame promotes change by using fear of rejection, fear of not being accepted and fear of disconnection. Ultimately, shame is very destructive to both the person doing the shaming and the person being shamed. When you talk to 200 women about shame (and now some men as well), you quickly learn how many of our deepest scars are from being shamed and many of our most profound regrets can be traced back to experiences when we shamed others.


MMO: “Mother guilt”— the self-doubt and anxiety mothers experience when conflicting social expectations make it impossible to be an “ideal” worker and an “ideal” mother at the same time— is now recognized as a cultural phenomenon. And we’ve all felt embarrassed when we’ve done something clumsy or thoughtless when other people are around. Is there a relationship between shame, guilt and embarrassment?

B Brown: I touched on this in the previous question, but let me go into a little more detail. We often use the terms shame, guilt and embarrassment interchangeably. In fact, there are interesting debates about the relationship between shame, guilt and embarrassment. Some researchers believe that all three of these emotions are related and represent varying degrees of the same core emotion. Other researchers believe that the three are separate, distinct experiences. My research clearly supports the argument that shame, guilt and embarrassment are three completely different responses. Here’s how the women in my study distinguished shame and guilt:

Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.

Guilt = That was a flawed decision.
Shame = I am flawed.

Guilt = That is a bad thought.
Shame = I am a bad person for having that thought.

In the simplest terms, shame is about who we are, not what we’ve done. Unlike the paralyzing effects of shame, guilt often prompts us to make amends or change our behavior. Feeling guilty doesn’t produce the same feelings of being trapped, powerless and isolated. Women described “embarrassing situations” as much less serious than either guilt or shame. Embarrassment is, by definition, something that is fleeting, often eventually funny and very normal (e.g., tripping, misspeaking, etc.). Regardless of how embarrassing a situation might be, we know (or at least have heard) that it happens to other people and we know it will go away. On the other hand, shame is often lasting, devastating and makes us feel very abnormal and alone.

shame is an effective and piercing weapon ...this is especially true in high vulnerability areas like motherhood and parenting


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