Shame Story: Something We All Have, According to Brene Brown

If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

In 2008 noted shame researcher Brené Brown wrote, “There are three things I know about shame:

1. Everyone has it.
2. Everyone is scared to talk about it.
3. The less we talk about it; the more we have it.

(For more about Brown’s take on shame and vulnerability click the link.)

But who should be on the listening end of our shame story? Brown cautions that there are six types of folks who don’t deserve to be. Watch her tell Oprah in this classic interview (of about five minutes) or skip to below:

In an article corresponding to this interview, Brown lists the six types to avoid:

1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.

2. The friend who responds with sympathy (‘I feel so sorry for you’) rather than empathy (‘I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there’). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: ‘Oh, you poor thing.’ Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive Southern version of sympathy, ‘Bless your heart.’

3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.

4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: ‘How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?’ Or she looks for someone to blame: ‘Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass.’

5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: ‘You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.’

6. The friend who confuses connection with the opportunity to one-up you: ‘That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!’

Unfortunately, all of us, says Brown, can also fall into this at times—the undesirable position of not being able to receive someone else’s shame story in a helpful way. This is most likely to happen when the shame-teller’s issues are too closely connected to our own.

So, all the more reason that choosing one’s listener needs to be context-specific. “When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.”

Furthermore, ideally we’d all have at least one of what a friend of Brown’s has called a “move-a-body friend.” Its history and coinage:

[Brown’s friend] said that one of her sister’s close friends had called her sister and asked her to help her move her mom. The friend’s mother, who was apparently only invited to visit once a year, struggled with alcoholism. When my friend’s sister’s friend came home from work, her mother was passed out drunk on the sofa. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the kids would be busting through the front door any minute. She called because she physically needed help moving her mother.

Brown felt highly complimented when she heard exactly why this same person perceives her as such a friend:

I’d call you because you would come right away, give me a hug, never look judgmental or disapproving or disgusted. And then you’d say, ‘Let’s do this.’

The next day, when you saw my mom at the park or the soccer game, you’d be kind and respectful.

And most of all, it would never cross my mind to say something to you like ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’ You don’t do that.

Afraid you don’t have enough of these friends? Just having one makes you a lucky person, says Brown. Just one MABF is indeed a precious thing.

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