Woman looking down in shame

“Should” is shame; use of the word “should” indicates a shame statement is to follow. I should be thinner. I should read more. I should watch less TV. I should be stronger. I should be a better mom. I should be able to handle this. I should have known. I should have left. I should never have opened myself up… Sound familiar?

Likely so.

Dr. Brené Brown, renowned shame and vulnerability expert, has found that, “shame is an epidemic” in our culture. From messages we receive in the media, to the very way we communicate with each other, shame is a lesson learned early. In her “Listening to Shame” TED talk from 2012, Brown says that shame frequently manifests itself in women as a feeling that they must, “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” When we fail or fall short of this—as all of us humans often do—shame is quick to punish, humiliate and condemn.

It is important to distinguish the difference between shame and guilt. In the same lecture, Dr. Brown explains this critical contrast succinctly:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad,”… Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

As the exercise of shame gains momentum, we naturally begin to align with it; shame starts to make sense. It becomes a habit, a regular practice, a voice in our minds that both structures and distorts our beliefs. When evaluating who we are, shame is given credence and a seat at the table.

Now a fertile landscape of self-doubt, enter abuser stage left.

In intimate partner violence, abusers capitalize on this already smoldering fire of insecurity. They get close, get personal, and subsequently get ammunition to use against their partners. Having identified tender places in their partners’ heart or past, they press in hard on those wounds.

One client felt shame that her body did not look the way magazines and movies would tell her it should look. One evening, when ordering herself dinner at a local taco joint, her partner called her a “fat pig.” Going on to say—rather loudly—that her order indicated she was “disgusting,” unlovable and undesirable, he simultaneously fanned the flames of shame and forged a unique weapon within its furnace. “You shouldn’t eat all of that. I would leave you if you ate tacos. You are lucky to have me. No one else would love you. No one else could.” Completely embarrassed and already possibly prone to believe these equally hurtful and incorrect remarks, this client did not eat tacos for over five years.

Emotional repercussions of intimate partner abuse such as that described above are sometimes upstaged by more visible displays of violence. However, many Genesis clients say that they would actually prefer physical abuse, arguing that the psychological components are the hardest to recover from and the most damaging to their sense of self. Believing that you are inherently bad and that something is wrong with you—with the person you love reaffirming this in action and word—seeps in like a toxin, polluting all the areas of your life and the very lens you perceive it through.

Nevertheless, healing is possible. Mending shame wounds starts by identifying the false beliefs, challenging them, finding proof of the contrary, and rewiring self-talk to more accurate conclusions. Below is an example—oversimplified for the sake of demonstration—of how our clinicians begin to poke holes in the all-too-confident voice of shame.

I am bad.

What is the evidence that supports this belief?

I did something bad.

What is the evidence against this belief?

I’ve also done good things.

Is this belief a habit or a conclusion from the facts?

Partially a habit; I’ve believed this for a long time.

Does this belief take everything into account?

It does not reflect all the good choices I’ve made or appropriately weigh the circumstances around me.

What is an alternative thought that might be more correct?

Sometimes I make bad choices.

Already this Socratic reasoning starts to break down the very black-and-white absolutes that shame shouts onto the self. In doing so, individuals are able to depersonalize—an intentional process of separating the identity from the behavior/event/belief/etc. Referring back to Dr. Brown, depersonalizing is rechanneling the thought to say, “I made a mistake” rather than “I am a mistake.”

Interrupting shame cycles and confronting false self-talk can be a long and vulnerable journey, but it is possible. After several counseling sessions, the aforementioned client is able to enjoy tacos again. Perhaps the bigger and broader task is combatting the culture that trains and informs these shame habits in the first place. Learning about self-love, acceptance and grace and promoting these within our environments can begin to foster a space where shame’s opinion is not definitive.

Consider pausing for a moment the next time you find yourself saying “should” and look a bit deeper. What beliefs inform that statement? Are they true?