Book review: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) – Brené Brown

I first came across Brené Brown’s research into shame resilience and living wholeheartedly while reading this interview. At the time, I felt the enormous weight of my own shame and, because I didn’t understand it, the more I tried to move away from it the more pronounced it became. Reading the interview was like a choir of heavenly voices and a bolt of sunshine; finally, here was something that could help me understand my shame and complement my mindful self-compassion (MSC) practice.

I read the article again. I watched the TED talk. I felt moved and inspired and wanted to understand the concept of shame even more, so I was thrilled when my MSC book-study group agreed to discuss Brown’s first book. One might think that reading about shame and then discussing it with others could be rather exposing. For me, it provided a chance to get to know my fellow participants on a more personal level. And hearing about others’ encounters with shame gave me a sense of shared experience.

Which brings me to Brown’s first point about shame: it creates and thrives on silence and secrecy, by making us feel small and unworthy. So breaking through our fear of disconnection to the point where we can talk about it with others can actually be quite difficult. This is where Brown advocates for empathy – the ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us – rather than sympathy, which can actually exacerbate shame. And of course, we cannot be vulnerable where there is judgement, so empathy creates a space that feels safe enough for us to share our shame with others.

This cannot make us immune to shame, but it can build our resilience to it. Brown identifies four separate elements required to achieve this: recognising shame and understanding triggers, practicing critical awareness, reaching out and, finally, speaking shame.

While this book is mainly concerned with how women experience shame, it deconstructs shame and vulnerability in ways that are accessible to men. Brown’s research has found that while men and women experience shame in similar ways, each have different triggers. For men, being perceived as weak is the major cause of shame.  For women, shame often presents itself around body image and competing/conflicting expectations.

In dictating what and how women should be in the world, these (often confusing) expectations leave very little room for authenticity and connection. Brown has conceptualised these components of shame in a ‘shame web’. For each element of shame resilience, this web can be found on one end of a continuum. On the other end, depicted in a flower, are the components of empathy. Representing these ideas visually is simple, but effective; especially for those who may read this book in stages.

In addition to visual representations, Brown draws on numerous examples and case studies to illustrate important points such as:

  • the universality of shame;
  • differences between embarrassment, guilt, humiliation and shame;
  • sources of shame (appearance, parenting, fertility and sexuality, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction, ageing and religion);
  • unwanted identities and stereotyping;
  • competing and unrealistic expectations (from self or others);
  • behaviours that we use to mask shame (judgement, anger, avoidance, deflection or projecting shame onto someone else);
  • responding with empathy rather than invalidation or judgement;
  • meeting unmet needs where possible;
  • developing connection networks;
  • practising compassion and courage;
  • being authentic and honest without using these as ways to shame and judge others; and
  • creating change.

On this last point, Brown’s message is clear: ‘we cannot change and grow when we are in shame and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others’.

Understanding this has propelled me forward on my own journey to shame resilience, just as I hoped it would. Pain had me down, but shame had me isolated and silent. I thought it was just me.

But it isn’t.

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