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The Ordinary Courage of Being Our Selves.

Shame Can Keep Us From Deeper Fulfilment, Freedom and True Intimacy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. My shame, my patients’ shame, my loved ones’ shame. Shame that makes us feel anxious, wrong, bad, burdensome, and humiliated, even when we haven’t done anything wrong.

Dr. Brene Brown has spent her career researching, publishing, and talking about shame – the issue that plagues all of us but that no one wants to talk about. When Oprah asked her about her research, Dr. Brown said she was originally told if she studied shame it would tank her career. “Research courage,” they told her, “don’t look at shame.” None of us want to look at it, we simply want to avoid it. And yet, it plays a powerful role in most of our lives.

When asked to define shame, Dr. Brown explains it this way: Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.

That feels about right.

Why do we experience shame? In a recent study, Daniel Sznycer argues that shame evolved as a defense to prevent individuals from damaging important social relationships. Evolutionarily, especially back in early human hunter-gatherer social groups, it was likely that humans evolved shame as a way to defend themselves by avoiding or concealing things that would make others devalue them so that they could be viewed by others as a “fit” or desirable member of the group. Ancestrally, the degree to which other people valued one’s welfare would have affected one’s access to resources such as food, mates, and support in times of conflict. In other words, it’s an emotion that evolved as part of our survival so that we would not be kicked out of the herd.

Today, we don’t need shame to survive. Yes, we might be kicked out of a herd, but if we keep looking, we will most likely find a herd that we can join just the way we are. Yet we still have shame – we’ve been wired for it.

Shame is so painful, and can so easily distort things. When my needs don’t match the needs of someone I love and they are disappointed, this can evoke shame. When I’m ashamed about my feelings, I can waste hours trying to make myself feel differently because I “should,” rather than allowing myself to have my feelings and let them move through me. Sometimes I might anticipate someone I care about feeling sad or hurt by something I want to say or need and it can cause me shame and then distort my communication with them, causing the very feelings I’m trying to avoid. Fundamentally, all of that is based on a belief that who I am – what I need and want and feel and desire – is unlovable. Doesn’t belong in the world.

This does nobody any good, including me.

In her work on shame, Brene Brown goes on to say that shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. She says it depends on a buying-into the belief that “I am alone.” Shame cannot survive empathy, she says. For me, this includes not only empathy from others but, even more importantly, empathy for myself. Compassion.

Some time ago I developed a different relationship with fear. I haven’t stopped feeling it, I just stopped letting it be a guiding force in my life. I feel it, give it a nod, listen to what it’s telling me, then cooly evaluate that message. If there is something important for me to hear, I listen and factor it into my decision. If it’s simply reacting from old paradigms or fear of the unknown, I thank it for it’s concern and move forward.

I think we need to develop a similar relationship with shame. When we have a knee-jerk reaction to the surfacing of shame, we reinforce it. By reinforcing it, we make choices to live a less-than full life with only parts of ourselves. Most of us have made these choices to compromise ourselves – we know how bad it feels. Ultimately it can lead to depression, midlife crisis, unhappy relationships, neglected passions, addiction, affairs, divorce, and, ultimately, health problems and death.

If we, instead, give shame a nod – understanding there is a biological and evolutionary drive that we no longer need to heed – and then chose to be our fullest selves anyway… well, that’s where a different kind of freedom lies. As Brown says:

“We certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage.

Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Yes, it is. And yes, we must. If we want to live full, rich lives that express who we are deep down as people, we must take the risk to override the shame and to be fully in relationship with others and the world. With all of ourselves, with heart. So here’s to ordinary courage.


Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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