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Shame Keeps Us Apart - Part 2 of 3

self-care Mar 09, 2022

No blame, no shame, no guilt. That philosophy can ease the burden of talking about hard things like racism. Those emotions get in the way of listening, learning, healing, making peace, and changing. That’s why letting go of blame, shame, and guilt is my motto for undoing the work of racism and oppression.

This post is part 2 in a series exploring the meanings of these words and how they can block us from doing the things we want to do, the things we know are right.

Allowing yourself to feel what you feel without judgement is part of self-care and the first step to having meaningful conversations. Letting go of judgement (of yourself and others) is key to being able to hear what’s being said with less of your own personal story getting in the way.


Shame is about fear, self-blame, disconnection, unworthiness. The most famous shame researcher I know of is Brené Brown. She shares her research and uses examples from her life to talk about how shame makes us hide because we think if people know the thing that we’re ashamed of that we won’t be worthy of belonging and love. She says that the more we hide our shame, the stronger it gets. And the antidotes to shame are empathy and vulnerability – being able to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts of another and sharing our imperfections, taking risks with other people. The opposite is digging in and trying to control everything, needing to be certain about everything, which is impossible.

Shame is about who we think we are at our core. If we are unworthy of love and belonging, then who are we to try to change, to make a difference?

Shame can contribute to flawed thinking, defensiveness, depression, physical illness, perfectionism, people pleasing, and other feelings and behaviors that create a cycle that can create more shame. While shame is harmful, it also is something that binds us to humanity and presents us with the opportunity to show empathy to ourselves and others.

Shame Isn’t the Same for Everyone

Shame affects different groups of people differently. As amazing as Brené Brown is, she is a middle-class white woman in America, and her experience of shame and her ability to deal with it is vastly different than a Black man or woman or another person of color.

One recurring comment on Brené Brown’s work is that Black people and other people of color have to work so much harder to embrace her research. We know that what she’s learned can work for us, but she can’t speak to how it affects our shame resilience. She can’t address how vulnerability can be inherently more dangerous for people of color. Which is why I was so excited when she teamed up with Tarana Burke founder of the #metoo movement, for the book You Are Your Best Thing It’s an anthology exploring vulnerability, shame resilience, and the Black experience.

Part of what I loved about the way this book is presented is that Tarana Burke’s name is listed first and they talk about this in the introduction. Brown and Burke have this beautiful conversation about how the book came about and Brown says that although she has a master’s degree and has been doing the research for more than 25 years, Tarana Burke has been teaching and training in this work for decades as well. Brown says, “In co-creation lived experience always trumps academic experience.” Burke follows up with, “You can’t make your research useful to people if you don’t prioritize lived experience, relevance, and accessibility.”

Another point that Tarana Burke makes for people doing antiracist work is, “I do not believe your antiracist work is complete or valid or useful if you have not engaged with Black humanity.” This struck me because I’ve had students who have resisted my calls to engage with people of color. They were emphatic about wanting to work with other white people to dismantle their racist beliefs and behavior. They didn’t understand that as long as they refused to engage with Black people and other people of color, they were staying in their comfort zone.

White people getting to know Black people and other people of color personally is critical to ending racism. Getting to know people is what breaks down barriers and undoes stereotypes. Understanding that the “nice” Black or Muslim people in your neighborhood and at work are not the “good” ones. They aren’t exceptions to the rule. They are the rule. We are as varied and individual as white people. And until you interact with people who aren’t like you, it’s easy to lump people you see as “other” into one monolithic group, stereotype them, and dismiss their calls for equity.

Overcoming Shame

With shame being so pervasive and experienced by almost everyone, is there a way to overcome it? I don’t know if we can completely get rid of it, but we can lessen how often and how powerfully it shows up by recognizing it and taking specific steps.

  1. Shine a light. The most powerful thing we can do is the opposite of what feels natural. Shame makes us want to hide, and the antidote is shining a light on what we feel and why, talking about it with someone we can trust with our fragile selves.
  2. Get clear on what we feel. Are you feeling shame? Or is it guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, or a combination of all four? Recognizing what you feel can stop the shame spiral before it gets going.
  3. Separate who you are and what you do. Shame is about who you are. Feeling bad for what you do is guilt, which we’ll cover in the next post.
  4. Identify your triggers. Know your insecurities so when shame tries to use them to sneak in, you can recognize what's happening and block it.
  5. At its core, shame is about feeling disconnected from others. So the more connections and interactions we have, the more we hold space for other people’s stories, the more we’ll know that our experience is normal and have compassion for ourselves.
Download 7 Words to Know When Talking About Racism. Agreeing on what words mean is one step towards having meaningful conversations.
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