DURING  THIS  2018  FEAST  OF  UNLEAVENED  BREAD  I  AM  READING  THE  BOOK  “THE  GIFTS  OF  IMPERFECTION  -  Your  Guide  to  a  Wholehearted  Life”  by  Brene  Brown  PhD






Five years ago, when my first book came out, I was asked to speak at a women's networking lunch. I was so excited because, like the UP Experience, I would be speaking to a group of "normal" people—not therapists or academics—but normal businesspeople. In fact, this event was my first normal audience group.

I arrived early at the swanky country club where the event was being hosted, and I introduced myself to the woman in charge. After sizing me up for what felt like an eternity, she greeted me with a stack of short pronouncements. "Hello. You don't look like a researcher. I'm going to introduce you. I need your bio."

It was an uptight twist on "nice to meet you too," but okay. I handed her my bio and that was the beginning of the end.

She read it for thirty seconds before she gasped, turned to me, and peering over her reading glasses, snapped, "This says that you're a shame researcher. Is that true?"

All of a sudden, I was ten years old and in the principal's office. I hung my head and whispered, "Yes, ma'am. I'm a shame researcher."

With her lips pursed, she popped, "Do. You. Study. Anything. Else?"

I couldn't tell her.

"Do. You?" she demanded.

"Yes. I also study fear and vulnerability."

She shrapsed, which is like a combo shriek and gasp. "I was told that you collected research on how to be more joyful and how to have more connection and meaning in our lives."

Ah . . . got it. She didn 't know anything about me. She must have heard about me from someone who failed to mention the nature of my work. Now it all made sense.

I tried to explain, "I don't really study 'how-to' be joyful and have more meaning in our lives. I know a lot about these topics because I study the things that get in the way of joy, meaning, and connection." Without even responding to me, she walked out of the room and left me standing there.

Oh, the irony of a shame researcher standing in a puddle of "I'm not good enough."

She came back a few minutes later, looked right over the top of my head, and said, "Here's how this is going to go:

Number 1: You're not going to talk about the things that get in the way. You're going to talk about the how-to part. That's what people want to hear. People want how-to.

Number 2: Do not mention the word shame. People will be eating.

Number 3: People want to be comfortable and joyful. That's all. Keep it joyful and comfortable."

I just stood there in total shock. After a few quiet seconds, she asked, "Okay?" and before I could say anything, she answered for me, "Sounds good."

Then, just as she started walking away, she turned around and said, "Light and breezy. People like light and breezy." And, just in case I wasn't clear, she spread her fingers far apart and made huge sweeping gestures with her hands to illustrate "light" and "breezy" (picture Margaret Thatcher imitating Bob Fosse).

For forty minutes I stood in front of this group, totally paralyzed and repeating different versions of, "Joy is good. Happy is so, so good. We should all be joyful. And have meaning. Because they're just so darn good."

The women in the audience just smiled, nodded, and ate their chicken. It was a train wreck.

By the time I ended the story, Steve's face was all scrunched up and he was shaking his head. He's not a big fan of public speaking, so I think he was staving off his own anxiety as he listened to my disaster story.

But, strangely enough, telling the story made me less anxious. In fact, the second that I finished telling Steve the story, I felt different. I finally got it. My work—me—the decade I've spent doing research—it's all about "the things that get in the way." I'm not about the "how-to" because in ten years, I've never seen any evidence of "how-to" working without talking about the things that get in the way.

In a very powerful way, owning this story allowed me to claim who I am as a researcher and to establish my voice. I looked at Steve and smiled. "I don't do how-to."

For the first time in five years, I realized that the country club woman wasn't out to get me and sabotage my talk. If that were the case, her ridiculous parameters wouldn't have been so devastating to me. Her list was symptomatic of our cultural fears. We don't want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick ….” how-to" list for happiness.

I don't fit that bill. Never have. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn't work. We don't change, we don't grow, and we don't move forward without the work. If we really want to live a joyful, connected, and meaningful life, we must talk about things that get in the way.

Until I owned and spoke this story, I let my lack of "quick tips" and "five simple steps" get in the way of my professional worthiness. Now that I've claimed that story, I see that my understanding of the darkness gives my search for the light context and meaning.

I'm happy to report that The UP Experience went really well. I actually told this "Light and Breezy" story as my talk. It was a risk, but I figured that even C-suites struggle with worthiness. A couple of weeks after the event, I got a call from the organizer. She said, "Congratulations! The evaluations are in and your talk finished in the top two of the day, and given what you study, you were the dark horse going in." 

Here's the bottom line:

If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way—especially shame, fear, and vulnerability.

In Jungian circles, shame is often referred to as the swampland of the soul. I'm not suggesting that we wade out into the swamp and set up camp. I've done that and I can tell you that the swampland of the soul is an important place to visit, but you would not want to live there.

What I'm proposing is that we learn how to wade through it. We need to see that standing on the shore and catastrophisizing about what could happen if we talked honestly about our fears is actually more painful than grabbing the hand of a trusted companion and crossing the swamp. And, most important, we need to learn why constantly trying to maintain our footing on the shifting shore as we gaze across to the other side of the swamp—where our worthiness waits for us—is much harder work than trudging across.

"How-to" is a seductive shortcut, and I understand that. Why cross the swamp if you can just bypass it?

But here's the dilemma: Why is "how-to" so alluring when, truthfully, we already know "how to" yet we're still standing in the same place longing for more joy, connection, and meaning?

Most everyone reading this book knows how to eat healthy. I can tell you the Weight Watcher points for every food in the grocery store. I can recite the South Beach Phase 1 grocery shopping list and the glycemic index like they're the Pledge of Allegiance. We know how to eat healthy.

We also know how to make good choices with our money. We know how to take care of our emotional needs. We know all of this, yet. . .

We are the most obese, medicated, addicted, and in-debt Americans EVER.

Why? We have more access to information, more books, and more good science—why are we struggling like never before?

Because we don't talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best for us, our children, our families, our organizations, and our communities.

I can know everything there is to know about eating healthy, but if it's one of those days when Ellen is struggling with a school project and Charlie's home sick from school and I'm trying to make a writing deadline and Homeland Security increased the threat level and our grass is dying and my jeans don't fit and the economy is tanking and the Internet is down and we're out of poop bags for the dog—forget it! All I want to do is snuff out the sizzling anxiety with a pumpkin muffin, a bag of chips, and chocolate.

We don't talk about what keeps us eating until we're sick, busy beyond human scale, desperate to numb and take the edge off, and full of so much anxiety and self-doubt that we can't act on what we know is best for us. We don't talk about the hustle for worthiness that's become such a part of our lives that we don't even realize that we're dancing.

When I'm having one of those days that I just described, some of the anxiety is just a part of living, but there are days when most of my anxiety grows out of the expectations I put on myself. I want Ellen's project to be amazing. I want to take care of Charlie without worrying about my own deadlines. I want to show the world how great I am at balancing my family and career. I want our yard to look beautiful. I want people to see us picking up our dog's poop in biodegradable bags and think, My… ! They are such outstanding citizens. There are days when I can fight the urge to be everything to everyone, and there are days when it gets the best of me.

As we discussed in the last chapter, when we struggle to believe in our worthiness, we hustle for it. The hustle for worthiness has its own soundtrack and for those of you who are my age and older, it's not the funky "Do the Hustle" from the '70s. It's the cacophony of shame tapes and gremlins—those messages that fuel "never good enough."

"What will people think?"

"You can't really love yourself yet. You're not———enough." (pretty, skinny, successful, rich, talented, happy, smart, feminine, masculine, productive, nice, strong, tough, caring, popular, creative, well-liked, admired, contributing)

* “No one can find out about ."

* “I’m going to pretend that everything is okay."

* “I can change to fit in if I have to!"

* “Who do you think you are to put your thoughts/art/ideas/

beliefs/writing out in the world?"

* “Taking care of them is more important than taking care of me."

Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough. 

If we want to develop shame resilience—the ability to recognize shame and move through it while maintaining our worthiness and authenticity—then we have to talk about why shame happens.

Honest conversations about shame can change the way we live, love, parent, work, and build relationships. I have more than one thousand letters and e-mails from readers of I Thought It Was Just Me, my book on shame resilience, that all say the same thing: "I can't believe how much talking about shame changed my life!" (And I promise, even if you're eating while you're talking about shame, you'll be okay.)

Shame Resilience 101

Here are the first three things that you need to know about shame:

1. We all have it.  Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don't experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.

2. We're all afraid to talk about shame.

3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable—it's the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy. In fact, the definition of shame that I developed from my research is:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Shame keeps worthiness away by convincing us that owning our stories will lead to people thinking less of us. Shame is all about fear. We're afraid that people won't like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we're struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it's just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles).

People often want to believe that shame is reserved for the folks who have survived terrible traumas, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And while it feels as if shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places, including appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging, and religion. To feel shame is to be human.

The stories of our struggles are difficult for everyone to own, and if we've worked hard to make sure everything looks "just right" on the outside, the stakes are high when it comes to truth-telling. This is why shame loves perfectionists—it's so easy to keep us quiet.

In addition to the fear of disappointing people or pushing them away with our stories, we're also afraid that if we tell our stories, the weight of a single experience will collapse upon us. There is a real fear that we can be buried or defined by an experience that, in reality, is only a sliver of who we are.

I tell a lot of these stories in my book I Thought It Was Just Me, but the one that comes to mind now is about a woman who worked up the courage to tell her neighbor that she was a recovering alcoholic, only to have her neighbor say, "I'm not sure I'm comfortable with my kids playing at your house anymore." This brave woman told me that she pushed through her fear and said, "But they've played here for two years, and I've been sober for twenty years. I'm not any different than I was ten minutes ago. Why are you?"


If shame is the universal fear of being unworthy of love and belonging, and if all people have an irreducible and innate need to experience love and belonging, it's easy to see why shame is often referred to as "the master emotion." We don't have to experience shame to be paralyzed by it—the fear of being perceived as unworthy is enough to force us to silence our stories.

And if we all have shame, the good news is that we're all capable of developing shame resilience. 

Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience. 

The first thing we need to understand about shame resilience is that the less we talk about shame, the more we have it.

Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. 

When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us. We need to share our experience. Shame happens between people, and it heals between people. If we can find someone who has earned the right to hear our story, we need to tell it. Shame loses power when it is spoken. In this way, we need to cultivate our story to let go of shame, and we need to develop shame resilience in order to cultivate our story.

After a decade of research, I found that men and women with high levels of shame resilience share these four elements:

1. They understand shame and recognize what messages and expectations trigger shame for them.

2. They practice critical awareness by reality-checking the messages and expectations that tell us that being imperfect means being inadequate.

3. They reach out and share their stories with people they trust.

4. They speak shame—they use the word shame, they talk about how they're feeling, and they ask for what they need.

When I think about the men and women in my study who spoke about the transformative power of story—the folks who own and share their stories—I realize that they are also people who practice shame resilience.

Because so much of worthiness and shame resilience is about owning our stories, I want to share one of my own shame-resilience stories with you. 

But before I do that, I want to address two commonly asked questions about shame. I think it will help you wrap your head and heart around this tough topic.

What's the difference between shame and guilt? 

The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the differences between "I am bad" and "I did something bad."

Guilt = I did something bad. 

Shame = I am bad.

Shame is about who we are, and Guilt is about our behaviors. 

We feel guilty when we hold up something we've done or failed to do against the kind of person we want to be. It's an uncomfortable feeling, but one that's helpful. When we apologize for something we've done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don't feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. 

Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its effect is often positive while shame often is destructive. 

When we see people apologize, make amends, or replace negative behaviors with more positive ones, guilt is often the motivator, not shame. In fact, in my research, I found that shame corrodes the part of us that believes we can change and do better.

Doesn't shame keep us in line? Along with many other professionals, I've come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to lead to destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution. 

Again, it is human nature to want to feel worthy of love and belonging.

When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness. Full of shame or the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others. In fact, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.

Children who use more shame self-talk (I am bad) versus guilt self-talk (I did something bad) struggle mightily with issues of self-worth and self-loathing. Using shame to parent, teaches children that they are not inherently worthy of love.

Shame Researcher Heal Thyself!

No matter how much you know about shame, it can sneak up on you (trust me, I speak from experience). You can be in the middle of a shame experience without even knowing what's happening and why. The good news is that, with enough practice, shame resilience can also sneak up on you! The following story not only illustrates the insidious nature of shame, it also reinforces the importance of speaking about shame and telling our story.

For several months in 2009, my blog was featured as an example site on the hosting company's main page. It was really fun because I got lots of traffic from people who wouldn't normally search out a blog on authenticity and courage. One day I got an e-mail from a woman who liked my layout and design. I felt proud and grateful . . . until I got to this part of her e-mail:

I really like your blog. It's very creative and easy to read. The snap of you and your girlfriend in the theater would be the only exception ... egads! I would never add a bad photo to a blog, but I am the photographer here. ;-)

I couldn't believe it. The photo she was referring to was a picture that I had taken of my good friend Laura and me sitting in a dark theater waiting for the Sex and the City movie to start. It was opening day and we were feeling goofy and excited, so I pulled out my camera and snapped a picture.

I was so angry, confused, and shocked by this woman's comment about my picture, but I kept reading. She went on to ask a lot of questions about the blog's design and then closed her e-mail by explaining that she works with many "clueless parents" and that she plans to let them know about my parenting work. Whatever. I was so pissed off.

I paced back and forth in the kitchen, then sat down to pound out an e-mail.

Draft #1 included this line: "Egads! I would never put down someone's photography, but I'm the shame researcher here."

Draft #2 included this line: "I checked out your photography online. If you're concerned about posting bad photos, I'd rethink posting your photos."

Draft #3 included this line: "If you 're going to send a shitty e-mail, the least you can do is spell-check it. 'Their' does not mean 'they are.'"

Mean. Nasty. I didn't care. But I also didn't send it. Something in my body stopped me. I read over my attack e-mails, took a deep breath, and then raced into the bedroom. I threw on my running shoes and a baseball cap and hit the pavement. I needed to get out of the house and discharge the weird energy coursing through my veins.

About one mile into my walk, I called my good friend Laura, the friend who happens to appear with me in said theater picture. I told her about the woman's e-mail and she gasped, "Are you kidding me?"

"Nope. I'm not kidding. Wanna hear my three responses? I'm still trying to decide which one to use." I recited my "kill and destroy" responses, and she gasped again.

"Brene, those are really ballsy. I couldn't do it. I'd just be really hurt and probably cry." Laura and I talk about heavy stuff all of the time. We have a very comfortable rhythm. We can ping words all over the place or both get really quiet. We're always analyzing and saying things like, "Okay, stay with me . . . I'm thinking . . ." and "Does this make sense?" or "No. No. Wait. It's coming to me."

At this point in our conversation, I said, "Laura, don't say anything. I need to think about what you just said." For two or three minutes the only sound was my sweaty panting.

Finally, I said, "You would get your feelings hurt and cry?"

Laura reluctantly responded, "Yes. Why?"

"Well . . . ," I hesitated, "I'm thinking that crying and getting my feelings hurt would be the brave option for me."

Laura sounded surprised. "What do you mean?"

I explained the best I could. "Mean and nasty is my default setting. It doesn't take courage for me to be shaming back. I can use my shame superpowers for evil in a split second. Letting myself feel hurt—that's a totally different story. I think your default is my courage."

We talked about it for a while and decided that Laura's courage is acknowledging hurt without running from it, and my courage is acknowledging hurt and not hurting back. We also agreed that cruelty is never brave—it's mostly cheap and easy, especially in today's culture.

After talking for another mile or so, Laura asked, "Okay, now that we've got the acknowledging-hurt thing down, what would be the courageous thing for you to do with this e-mail?"

I fought back tears. "Be hurt. Cry. Tell you about it. Let it go. Delete the e-mail. Don't even respond."

Laura was quiet for a minute; then she blurted out, "Oh my ….! That's shame resilience, right? You're practicing courage."

I was confused, like I had never heard the term before. "Huh? What do you mean?"

Laura patiently said, "Shame resilience—you know—your book? The blue one. The four elements of shame resilience: Name it. Talk about it. Own your story. Tell the story. Your book." We both started laughing. I thought to myself, Holy crap. It works.

A week later I was standing in front of a group of seventy graduate students who were taking my course on shame and empathy. I was talking about the four elements of shame resilience when one of the students raised her hand and asked for an example. I decided to tell the "egads" story. It's such a great example of how shame can happen at a totally unconscious level and how important it is to name it and talk about it.

I set up the story by describing my blog and my new commitment to learn photography. I told them that I felt vulnerable about sharing my pictures, and I felt ashamed and belittled when I received this critical e-mail.

When I told them about my deep desire to respond with cruelty, several of the students buried their heads in their hands and others just looked away. I'm sure some were disappointed by my lack of enlightenment. Others looked plain scared.

One student raised his hand and said, "Can I ask a personal question?" Given that I was in the middle of sharing a vulnerable shame story, I figured that it couldn't hurt. I was wrong.

He bravely said, "I hear you saying that it was about feeling criticized about your photography, but was that really the vulnerability? Did the shame come from feeling like you were being criticized for a bad picture, or were you ashamed because you're allowing yourself to be vulnerable and open rather than closed and protected, and someone hurt you? Was it really about letting yourself be open to connection and getting hurt?"

My mouth got dry. I started sweating. I rubbed my forehead and then looked straight at the red-faced students.

"I can't believe it! That's exactly what happened. I didn't know it until this minute, but that's what happened. That's exactly what happened. I took a goofy picture in the theater—something I don't normally do, but I was with a close friend and we were feeling giddy and girly. I posted it online because I was excited and thought it was fun. Then someone criticized me."

A couple of the students glared at their brave colleague like, Way to go. You traumatized her. But I didn't feel traumatized. Or found out. Or exposed. I felt liberated. The story I needed to own in order to access my worthiness was not a story of a rookie photographer struggling with criticism over a photograph. It was the story of a pretty serious person being fun and spontaneous and goofy and imperfect and having someone poke at that vulnerability.

Resilience is often a slow unfolding of understanding. What did that experience mean to me? What were the gremlins mumbling? Not only do we need to own our story and love ourselves in the process, we have to figure out the real story! We also have to learn how we protect ourselves from shame if we want to develop worthiness.

What Does Shame Look Like?

When it comes to understanding how we defend ourselves against shame, I have the utmost respect for the work from the Stone Center at Wellesley. Dr. Linda Hartling, a former relational-cultural theorist at the Stone Center and now the director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, uses the late Karen Horney's work on moving toward, moving against, and moving away to outline the strategies of disconnection we use to deal with shame.

According to Dr. Hartling, in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And, some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending really mean e-mails).

Most of us use all of these—at different times with different folks for different reasons. Yet all of these strategies move us away from our story.

Shame is about fear, blame, and disconnection. 

Story is about worthiness and embracing the imperfections that bring us courage, compassion, and connection. If we want to live fully, without the constant fear of not being enough, we have to own our story. We also have to respond to shame in a way that doesn't exacerbate our shame. One way to do that is to recognize when we're in shame so we can react with intention.

Shame is a full-contact emotion. Men and women with high levels of shame resilience know when shame is happening. The easiest way to know shame is to cultivate an awareness of our physical shame symptoms.

As I mentioned in the chapter on courage, compassion, and connection, I know that I'm struggling with shame when that warm wash of inadequacy comes over me, my heart races, my face feels hot, my mouth gets dry, my armpits tingle, and time slows down. It's important to know our personal symptoms so we can get deliberate in our response to shame.

When we're in shame, we're not fit for human consumption. 

We need to get back on our emotional feet before we do, say, e-mail, or text something that we'll regret. I know that it will take me ten to fifteen minutes to pull myself together and that I will definitely cry before I'm ready. I'll also need to pray. Knowing this is such a gift.

If you want to kick-start your shame resilience and story-claiming, start with these questions. Figuring out the answers can change your life:

Who do you become when you're backed into that shame corner?

How do you protect yourself?

Who do you call to work through the mean-nasties or the cry-n-hides or the people-pleasing?

What's the most courageous thing you could do for yourself when you feel small and hurt?

Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: "Who has earned the right to hear my story?" 

If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. 

If we have a friend, or a small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredible lucky.

We don't need love and belonging and story-catching from everyone in our lives, but we need it from at least one person. 

If we have that one person or that small group of confidants, the best way to acknowledge these connections is to acknowledge our worthiness. 

If we're working toward relationships based in love, belonging, and story, we have to start in the same place: I am worthy.







Keith Hunt