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Building Resilience to Shame


by Sally Forman

We live in a culture of shame, and shame is a topic that is rarely spoken about. It is driven by fear, blame and disconnection. We can develop resilience to shame when we have the courage to talk about it, create connection and practice compassion and empathy. This article is in itself an antidote to the silence of shame.

Who? What and How?

'When I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I like what I see. But other times I just see fat and ugly. I feel sick to my stomach and disgusted. I want to hide so no one sees me.'

'No-one knows how it really is. My husband and I make out everything is ok. In reality we hardly speak to each other and it is getting harder to keep it all up. I know some of my friends see how it really is, and that makes me cringe all over'.

Painful to read, and familiar. Shame is universal. We have all experienced shame to a lesser or stronger degree. Striving to feel accepted and worthy and meet everyone's expectations can be exhausting. The expectations that fuel shame are the expectations of, Who you should be? What you should be? and, How you should be?

Shame is organised by gender. Women are most likely to feel shame in relation to the following areas: motherhood, appearance and body image, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex, aging, religion, being stereotyped and labeled, speaking out and surviving trauma. Men are pressurised by the expectations of always appearing tough, powerful, strong, fearless, successful, in-control and capable.


So what is shame?

Shame is an emotion. It is an intense feeling of believing we are alone, flawed and unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame is the voice of perfectionism, and shame is often used socially to silence us.


How do we grow resilience to shame?

The biggest antidote to shame is empathy. Empathy is our ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us. It is our ability to perceive a situation from the other person's perspective. It is our ability to be non-judgemental.
  • When we have the courage to speak from the heart about shame, the compassion of empathy listens and shame dissipates.

  • Recognising shame, the physical reactions to it, such as stomach tightening, nausea and twinges of smallness, is an important step to regaining our power.

  • Recognising our shame triggers, our vulnerabilities, what moves us into shame, empowers us.

  • Developing our awareness of where these expectations come from, personal social and cultural. Awareness is power because it gifts us choice.

  • Connection, reaching out, to make and maintain relationships builds resilience. Connection gives purpose and meaning to life.

  • Speaking out, expressing how we feel, and asking for what we want grows resilience. When we are sincere, and honest we create trusting connections.


When we practise the qualities I have described above, of empathy, sincerity, openness, compassion and courage we not only grow resilience to shame. These qualities are at the core of being authentic, of being who we are regardless of who we are with.
Article posted on 22 November 2012

Sally Forman is a Registered Psychotherapist, Counsellor and Life Coach with a private practice in Wellington   » more details