Beyond 101: Shame Shields
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
As someone who is deeply conflict-averse, I am always looking for new ways to approach conflict that make the whole process less stressful. I wrote about my favorite conflict tip, not taking anything personally, but I’ve discovered another that I thought someone else might find useful as well.
In her The Daring Way curriculum, Brené Brown identifies three ways people defend themselves when they’re in shame. She calls them “shame shields.” I’ve found that understanding the way I respond when I’m in shame and observing the way others do, can help me be less threatened in conflict and focus more on being compassionate with my loved ones.
The first shame shield is moving away. I am prone to use this over the other two. When I’m in shame, I tend to withdraw and hide from everyone. I shut down communication; I disappear from view. I put my head down. I figure if I can hide well enough, no one will know how bad I am and how unworthy I am of their love. Maybe I can hide the shame away. This shield is useless, really, because it keeps me from talking about shame. It keeps the parts of me that are vulnerable hidden, but if I am seeking connection, being vulnerable is the only path towards that. I can’t be vulnerable if I’m not even willing to be visible. It can be very comforting to hide away, but it’s a false comfort. Real safety comes from being connected to the people I trust, and I can’t do that hiding in a cave of shame.
Moving toward is a shield I used to use often. If I move toward in shame, I am doing the people-pleasing hustle for connection. I’m trying to prove that I am worthy, damn it, by acting however I think the person in question wants me to act. I’m hiding my shame of (for me) being too big, too bossy, and too loud behind the meekest, nicest fake me I can muster. I am trying to be everything I think the person wants so that they won’t stop loving me. I say yes when I should say no. This works at first, but the downside of this shield is that eventually my insides realize that I don’t really feel comfortable doing whatever hustle I’m doing. I have preferences and desires and let me tell you—I have run my family ragged trying to move toward someone who didn’t know or care that I was hustling my ass off right in front of them. Eventually, the hustle builds resentment in me, and I go from feeling desperate for a person’s approval to angry at them. Mind you, they never even knew any of this happened. This is basically the opposite of connecting.
The last shame shield is moving against. This is the aggressive, knee-jerk shield that so many of us use at times. If you hurt me, I will hurt you back and worse so that you back down and forget about ever touching my shame like that again. I think that most of the angry, hurtful words I’ve used in my life came from this place. I don’t like to fight so I don’t use this shield as much, but we all do at some point in our lives. We want to hide our shame behind the bigness of being angry and sometimes even mean. We write scathing emails; we lash out on Facebook, or worse. The saddest thing, to me, is that I think we live in a culture where this kind of action is frequently sanctioned and justified. No one is attending to the reason they hurt so badly; they are just skipping that and moving straight into rage and retaliation. I have done it, too—and every time I feel justified for a moment, then I feel sick because my shame is really what’s making itself known. It’s not anger; it’s pain and the terror that I am unworthy of love and connection. I can only bury that in anger for so long.
I find knowing these things very useful in conflict. If I can move myself to the understanding that whomever I’m struggling with also uses these shields and also feels pain and shame, I can work on being compassionate rather than shielded. I can try to reach out and speak my shame out loud rather than locking it away. If I feel safe with the person in general, I know that they will be safe even in conflict, even when they might be moving against or moving away I know that the behavior is a product of their own shame rather than anything I have actually done. I hope they can do the same when I am acting out of shame, too.
And if we mess it up, I am incredibly grateful to be able to circle back and try again. I’m glad that I have more than one opportunity to build the connections I want in my life. We often use shields at first, but if we remember this, we can go back and ask our people for another chance. Thankfully, the people who love us will likely be forgiving and kind just as readily as they will be shielded, because we are all just people doing our best to love each other. Remembering this makes everything easier, too.