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David Baxter

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The social epidemic of shame
March 8, 2007

It has the power to oppress, silence and shape the way we live, love, work and parent. It's shame, and while it may be debilitating and isolating, one University of Houston professor and researcher contends in her new book, "I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame," the time is right to bring it out into the open.

"Shame is a social epidemic," said Bren? Brown, a shame and empathy researcher at the UH Graduate College of Social Work. "We are shamed into thinking we are too fat, bad moms, not sexual enough. In our culture, the fear of not belonging and not being acceptable is so insidious that it changes our relationships, families and communities without us even knowing."

Brown discovered that shame manifests itself in many ways including addiction, perfectionism, fear and blame. She spent six years interviewing approximately 400 women about their most personal moments of shame-from the woman who was criticized by the gas station clerk when her credit card was declined (she later raged at her unsuspecting toddler as part of the vicious shame cycle), to the high school teacher who was labeled as a rabble-rouser when she spoke out at a faculty meeting (she later quit teaching).

"Shame lurks in all of the familiar places like body image, motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging and religion," Brown said. "When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight, and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling. We think to ourselves, 'I'm the only one. Something is wrong with me. I am alone.' The less we understand shame and how it affects our feelings, thoughts and behaviors, the more power it exerts over our lives."

While Brown explains that we cannot be completely resistant to shame, we can develop the resilience we need to recognize shame, move through it constructively and grow from the experiences. Across the interviews, women with high levels of shame resilience shared four things in common, which Brown refers to as "The Four Elements of Shame Resilience."

"These include the ability to recognize shame and understand what triggers it and developing critical awareness about the messages and expectations that drive shame," Brown said. "In addition, those with high levels of shame resilience can reach out and share their stories. They have connection networks and are able to 'speak shame.' They can use the word. They can be honest about their feelings and ask for what they need, rather than acting out or shutting down."

One of Brown's goals with this research is to create a national dialogue on the issue of shame, so the feelings of pain and isolation can be transformed into compassion and connection.

"My greatest hope is that we will reach out across our differences and through our shame to share our stories and to connect with those who need to hear, 'You are not alone,'" Brown said.
 
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It seems like CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy) could be really helpful in putting shame to rest. It seems to be helping me finally.
 

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