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

page three

MMO: Shame seems to be the weapon of choice in the so-called “mommy wars.” Comments tossed off in casual conversation— such as an at-home mom declaring “I could never let someone else raise my children,” or an employed mom remarking “I would go crazy if I had to spend all day at home with the kids,” or any mother saying “I’ve never felt (conflicted, ambivalent, depressed, angry) about being a mother… I guess motherhood is not for everyone”— are, knowingly or unknowingly, calibrated to provoke tremendous pain and rage in women who are vulnerable. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but my sense is that some mothers self-righteously (or, at least unselfconsciously) demean other mothers in an effort to avoid coming into contact with their own vulnerability. Do we wield shame to stop ourselves from feeling shame? Is shame used to enforce ideology?

B Brown: Well, clearly, as your examples demonstrate, shame is an effective and piercing weapon. This is especially true in high vulnerability areas like motherhood and parenting. In fact, parenting emerged as one of the most divisive issues among women. I think there are three primary reasons that motherhood and parenting are such vulnerable areas: First, there are so many unattainable and conflicting expectations that many of us often feel like we are drowning and taking our families down with us. It is easy to lash out when we are overwhelmed with feelings of confusion, judgment, fear and anger. Second, most of us are absolutely committed to doing the best we can, and it is easy to perceive someone else’s decision to do things differently as a criticism of our choice rather than seeing it as simply another path. Just like when we are feeling judged, fearful and angry, feeling criticized makes it very difficult to respond to someone with empathy and understanding. Third, and this goes back to your suggestion that we may use shame to stop shame; we have all developed what the Relational/Cultural theorists from the Stone Center at Wellesley call “strategies of disconnection.” Using shame to fight shame is certainly one of them.

Let me say a little bit about empathy and strategies of disconnection—both of these concepts are critically important pieces in building our understanding of shame. Building shame resilience is about reaching out to others and building connection. When we do this with people in our support systems, we often develop relationships that are built on a foundation of empathy. This is incredibly important because, based on this research, I found that the opposite of experiencing shame is experiencing empathy. When we tell our stories or share an experience with someone and they respond with empathy, most of our shame loses its power. Expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings (Wiseman, 1996).

When we talk about high vulnerability areas like motherhood because it is exchanges within these areas where our hopes of finding connection and empathy are often dashed and we find ourselves instead feeling attacked, shamed and disconnected. Many of us have developed strategies for dealing with shame and our unmet need for empathy. Some of these strategies are rooted in connection, but many others are what Relational Cultural theorists call “strategies of disconnection.” Dr. Linda Hartling uses Karen Horney’s work on moving toward, moving against and moving away from to outline the strategies of disconnection we use to deal with shame.

In order to deal with shame, we have learned to move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and secret-keeping. We have also learned the strategy of moving toward. This can be seen when we attempt to earn connection by appeasing and pleasing. Last, we develop ways to move against. These include trying to gain power over others, using shame to fight shame and aggression.

Often, we can find ourselves engaging in these strategies of disconnection when it comes to the mommy-wars. If you think about issues like work and motherhood, labor and delivery options, breastfeeding, disciplining and sleep strategies, we often stay quiet when we disagree or have alternative ideas or opinions and/or we say what we think we are supposed to say in order to not jeopardize our connection with other mothers and/or sometimes, we use shame in response to our own threatened feelings.

Unfortunately, these strategies often move us deeper into shame. It is so important that we find support systems, even one or two friends or family members with whom we can share our experiences and know that they will listen with empathy and understanding. Both reaching out for empathy and offering empathy are key to building shame resilience.

To answer your question about how shame can be used to reinforce ideology, I definitely found evidence of this in my research. In fact, I have two sections in the book that specifically explore the concepts of “membership” and what I term, “fundamentalism.” The idea of membership is very important to us. Shame is often associated with the feeling of “not belonging” or being rejected from a valued group or community. I call this type of shame “membership shame.” Membership shame is not restricted to official clubs or groups with card-carrying members. Membership shame is based on the desire to belong to any group, large or small, with whom we want to be associated. We can desire association because we share the group’s circumstances, beliefs or values; or, we can desire association because we look up to the members and want to belong as a way to “be like them.”

Some of the “membership groups” identified by women include families, neighborhood play groups, political affiliation groups, treatment/recovery groups, sororities, profession-specific groups, faith communities/churches, identity groups like feminists, liberals, conservatives, fitness/health groups, intellectuals and mother’s groups. While we resist being labeled and put in categories, we also find security in belonging and identifying with a group of like-minded or like-spirited people.

It’s not uncommon to find that we share a membership category (formal or informal, spoken or unspoken) with our closest friends. If we are politically conservative, we might have politically diverse friends; however, we probably also have a subset of friends or family that share those political values. Membership in the subset holds importance for us, especially when we feel criticized or ostracized by people with different opinions.

Some membership groups keep group members “in line” by using very fundamentalist tactics. I define fundamentalist groups as any group espousing a belief system that holds itself so right and true that it discourages or even punishes questioning. Although we often associate fundamentalism with religion, fundamentalist thinking can be seen across all types of membership groups. While the research participants did talk about religious fundamentalism, they also gave a wide variety of examples like motherhood fundamentalism, political fundamentalism, therapy fundamentalism and parenting fundamentalism. These groups often support one ideal or one approach to various subjects.

Fundamentalist groups often provide “ideology-reinforcing” answers to every imaginable question and reject answers or explanations outside of the accepted “ideology.” These groups can also encourage members to be ideologues versus critical thinkers and discourage questioning by labeling members or threatening them with expulsion from the group. Unfortunately, shame is often used to threaten members. Fundamentalist groups can also seem appealing because they often offer members a place to hide from people who disagree with them by supplying members ready-made, pre-packaged rebuttals and strategies for dealing with critics. Fundamentalist groups are often effective at convincing members that they can’t succeed or survive without membership in the group.

There are over 100 stories and examples in the book. One example of “membership” shame that comes to mind is a woman who spoke about her mother’s group decision to adopt a specific “sleep strategy” book:

Every mom in my play group loves this one guy who writes books about how to get your baby to sleep through the night and books about how to discipline your children. I hate his books. I can’t stand him or his advice. I think he’s terrible and I don’t like the way these women treat their kids. It’s completely opposite from what I want to do. The shaming thing is that I don’t say anything. I don’t agree or disagree when they’re talking about it. I just walk over to the swing set or pretend I’m busy doing something. I know if I said something they’d give me the cold shoulder. This sounds overly-dramatic, but I know there was one mom who said she thought they were wrong and she pretty much got kicked out of the play group. That’s a bigger deal than you think. When you stay home alone with kids, neighborhood play groups are a big deal.

Membership and belonging are, unquestionably, an important part of our lives. This is especially true in high vulnerability areas like motherhood and parenting. When we feel rejected or even threatened with rejection by a group we value, we are very vulnerable to shame. If we want to belong to groups that offer us connection, power and a sense of freedom, we must choose our groups with some level of acknowledged vulnerability and critical awareness. We need to understand why group membership is important to us (acknowledging vulnerability) and how the groups really work (critical awareness).

MMO: Based on your research, you conclude that it’s impossible to get rid of shame or repair it, but we can build resilience to it by cultivating empathy, discovering and acknowledging the sites of our personal vulnerability, practicing critical awareness, and reaching out to others for validation of shared experiences. But because shame “demands that we hide our ‘shamed selves’ from others in order to avoid additional shame,” doesn’t shame work against forming the empowering connections we need to build resilience? How can women get started on developing shame resilience? What can they expect as they go through the process?

B Brown: First, I would say that we can repair shame, or at least repair its effects. Repairing the effects of shame is very much a part of the healing process. Developing shame resilience, this ability to move toward empathy in the face of shame, is not an easy process. If it were, shame would not be such a prevalent and destructive force in our lives. As your question suggests, the greatest challenge to developing shame resilience is the way shame actually makes us less open to giving or receiving empathy. Shame protects itself by making it very difficult for us to access its antidote. When we are in shame, reaching out for empathy feels very dangerous and risky. And, when we are in shame and someone reaches out to us, it is unlikely that we will be willing to dig deep and find anything besides fear, anger, blame and confusion.

The primary purpose of the book is to help readers explore and define shame and to share information, ideas and strategies for building shame resilience. This is not an easy process, and for every strategy there are potential barriers. But fortunately, the amazing group of women who participated in the research really talked openly about these barriers and about how they moved past them and, in some cases, right through them. If we learn from their wisdom and anticipate those barriers and understand how they work, the process can be much more effective. In fact, I think the single most hopeful piece of this work is the fact that shame resilience can indeed be learned. It is not inherent—it is about skills and information. Shame resilience is something we can all work toward and something we can share with other women.

MMO: Do you think men and women experience shame differently?

B Brown: I’ve just finished the initial research pilot on men and shame so I’m not ready to talk in terms of “findings” or a theory of men and shame. I will say that I’m starting to believe that we are more alike than we are different. The purpose of the pilot was to determine if I would need to develop a new theory of shame resilience or if the theory that emerged from the study on women and shame would fit and I could interview around it. I’m still analyzing data; however, I believe that in almost every important way, the model fits. While women are faced with a web of many layered, competing and conflicting expectations, there seems to be one major expectation for men—do NOT appear weak. There definitely appears to be a relationship between the perception of weakness and how men experience shame. While the web is the best metaphor for describing how women get trapped by shame, I’m starting to see a “very small box” for men. I’ll keep you posted!

mmo : August 2004

More on 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

In MMO Books:

The truth shall make us free
MMO review of Women & Shame

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