Whoever came up with the concept of “Pride” when naming our Pride Marches and Pride Month was definitely clever. As LGBTQ people, we use the word pride a lot. But perhaps we don’t spend enough time understanding the opposite of pride: shame.
All people, and especially LGBTQ people, experience the destructive force of shame.
Shame is not the same thing as guilt. Guilt sometimes can help us find our moral compass and so it has some value. But shame does not help us grow.
Here are some definitions offered by the well-known shame researcher and writer, Brene Brown*:
- Guilt = I did something bad.
- Shame = I am bad.
As you see, shame goes deeper. It’s much more painful than guilt.
According to Brown’s research, there are some common gender trends in what evokes shame.
Men try to avoid shame by following the maxim: “Don’t be a p*ssy.”
Women try to avoid shame by living by the rule: “Be perfect and compliant.”
As you know, men are told to be macho, strong, and unemotional. Women are told to be pretty, pleasing, and not too strong. Deviating from these rules is one of the most shame-inducing triggers.
Ultimately, what is shame? Brown’s research reveals this important definition:
Shame is the fear of disconnection.
It’s the fear of being unlovable.
It’s the belief that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging.
And if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you already know that isolation is humanity’s greatest fear.
There’s even research by the National Institute of Mental Health showing that in our brains, social rejection and physical pain hurt in the same way.*
LGBTQ people risk this pain of rejection because they are more likely to live outside of our culture’s sex role rules.
So how do we heal from shame? Pride marches can help, but there’s a lot more we can do.
Shame is a social concept. It happens between people. Therefore, the best way to heal from shame is through people.
Receiving empathy from people is the number one way to heal from shame. Empathy is about connection. And since the fear of disconnection causes shame, connection is the answer to the problem.
We experience empathy when someone shows us with their words, eyes, or actions that they “get” how it feels to be us. It’s one of the core healing experiences in good therapy. It’s also an essential healing experience outside of therapy.
That’s why the hard work of finding empathic friends and lovers is so crucial to human happiness. These people can be hard to find because it feels vulnerable to give and get empathy. These kind of friends are easier to find in a book club than in a night club.
Coming out to the people we care about is an important aspect in healing shame.
Holding secrets can be traumatizing. There’s research to prove this. People who experience rape or incest sometimes find that hiding the traumatic event and not discussing it with others can be more traumatic than the actual event.
Yes, it feels vulnerable to open up to others. And yet there’s really no way to receive empathy without being vulnerable. In therapy we practice being vulnerable in the “safe enough” therapy room so that we can then more easily experiment with it in the unpredictable world of relationships. In therapy you are more or less guaranteed an empathic response. In the outside world there’s no guarantee and that is scary. It takes practice and baby steps.
Where can you take a baby step towards vulnerability today?
*Brown, Brene, Ph.D., LMSW (2012) Daring Greatly. New York, Avery.
*Kross, E., Berman, M., Mischel, W.,Smith, E.E.,& Wager, T. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 15: 6270-6275.