Posted by: Joan Brooks | August 28, 2012

How to Reduce the Effects of Shame (Part 1)

In this three-part series, I’m going to explain how you can reduce the effects of shame in your life. In this first article, I’ll describe shame and we’ll start exploring some of  its debilitating effects on our lives.

In the next article, we’ll take a look at how we came to have so much shame. In the last article, I’ll help you discover ways to reduce shame that work for you.

Let’s begin.

 Shame. Sometimes just the word is enough to trigger shame, to make your cheeks flush and your eyes look down at the ground.

Shame. It’s what keeps you from speaking up or telling someone trusted about the time you were raped, or even about the time you won an important award.

Shame: It disguises itself as the “inner critic” or “gremlin”, that perfectly reasonable voice that keeps you from making a fool of yourself. Except that voice is really your shame saying, “Don’t be too big” and “You’re not good enough.”

Shame: It keeps you from admitting a mistake or asking for help.

Shame: It says, “I didn’t just make a mistake, I AM a mistake!”

Shame: It says, “Don’t show any sign of weakness!”

Shame: It lives in your body, ready to spring at any moment.

Shame: It thrives in secrecy, silence and judgment.

Usually, we can only consider our shame in small bite-sized chunks before we become overwhelmed and have to flee into a pan full of brownies, a slug of alcohol or a vicious game of “Kill the Zombies Before They Kill You.” So, in this series of articles, I am going to explore shame, a little bit at a time, and encourage you do to the same.

Let’s start with this: How does shame affect you and your life?

I’ll start with two examples. First, I have a hard time admitting I made a mistake. I feel ashamed of myself for not being perfect. The result is that I have to hide who and what I am, and it creates friction in my relationships as I dance around what really happened. I find it hard to ask for help because I don’t want to admit I don’t know how to do something, thus leading to more mistakes.

My second example is this: My shame keeps me from taking risks. What if I don’t do it perfectly? What if people don’t like what I’ve done? Better to not try than to fail. Even writing this blog has been difficult for me. Am I doing it right? Will anybody want to read it? Now, I know this is poppycock, and I still have to tell myself that what I have to say or do is valuable and that even if people don’t respond to it, I’ll be okay. This reminds me of the wisdom my body gave me as I started writing these blogs – write only from your heart what will help and touch the heart of others! This is a true antidote to shame.

I believe my two examples of shame (there are many more!) are very common for women. We have been taught to be perfect, and if we can’t be perfect just don’t show up. In her TED Talk, Listening to Shame, Dr. Brene′ Brown asserts that women’s shame organizes itself around having to do it all and do it all perfectly, while men’s shame organizes around not appearing to be weak. Both types of shame are debilitating and keep us from being fully human and fully magnificent.

Now, it’s your turn. How does shame show up in your life? How does it keep you small? How does shame affect your relationships? An honest, open look at any situation or condition is the first step in change. Take a courageous look at your shame. Nothing diminishes shame faster than speaking it out loud.

As always, share as little or as much as you like, although this time I really encourage you to name your shame so you can take away some of its power over you.

Befriend your body and live your most magnificent life!


  • MAmos

    Joan, great article. Looking forward to the next 2 parts!

    • Joan Brooks

      Thanks, Melba! I plan to post the second article soon. I’ve been thinking of the ways shame becomes inbedded in our bodies. Yikes. There’s so many ways! Stay tuned for more. Love, Joan

  • maggiebea

    It’s taken me days to just read through this post. When I first saw it, I thought ‘oh, she’ll have something great to say about this’. I already knew that shame, like many emotions, lives in the body and is often out of reach of the conscious mind. But I didn’t realize how shame takes me away from things I want to do — like, say, reading this post.

    I read: “I’m going to tell you how to reduce the effects of shame.” I thought “YES I want to know this.”

    Hours later I realized that I then immediately moved on to something else (answering an e-mail? pouring another cup of tea?) without even noticing. The shame I hide inside me didn’t want me to know how to reduce its effects.

    Just now I’m spending a weekend watching how often I confuse “be right-sized” with an internalized instruction to “play small”, to “not take up space”, to “not seek the attention of those in leadership”. Even though, in fact, several of them have repeatedly encouraged me to do just that. Even though, in fact, I have repeatedly received the feedback that people think I am aloof and wonder why I don’t speak up more.

    Meanwhile, whenever I do speak up I feel like I’m taking up too much room.

    Important topic, this, and I’m appreciating what you’ve said so far. Can’t wait to see the next installment. How many days it will it take me to read through it?

    • Joan Brooks

      Maggie, thank you so much for your courageously honest comment. Yes, shame does stop us from doing what we want, rather it is reading an article on shame, speaking up and standing out, or taking our rightful space/place in the world.
      You hit on a key point in your comment, shame often operates unconcsiously. Making shame and the consequences of shame conscious goes a long way in reducing it’s effects.
      I’m interested in what you said about shame not WANTING you to reduce its effects. I want to pay more attention to that dynamic! Let me know what happens when you read the next article (to be published this week).
      With warm regards and affection,

  • Noel Wight

    Joan..Kudos to you!! What a courageous and honest look at this pernicious emotion. You’re right ..just the word “shame” resonates with body too reacts in contraction.. looking for a place to seeps into our cells and imprisons us in endless masquerades. Bringing it out into the light ..naming the shame..begins loosening its grip so that we can stand in our magnificence and imperfection.

    • Joan Brooks

      Noel, I love what you’ve written here about the power of shame and the power of naming it and bringing it out into the light. And a great big YES! to our magnificence and imperfection.
      And thank you so much for commenting. This is the first blog I’ve written that people haven’t commentted on. How much I appreciate your words of encouragement.
      Warmly and with great affection,