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Motherhood, shame and society

An interview with Brené Brown, Ph.D.,
author of "Women & Shame"

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Interview and introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

What is shame? How does it affect us? How does shame relate to motherhood as a social issue? How can we reduce the harmful effects of shame? Why does it matter? When I started reading Brené Brown’s recent book, Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths and Building Connection (3C Press, 2004), my brain was suddenly burning with a hundred of questions. As with trying to find a clear, simple language to describe the complex intertwining of social, cultural, political and economic conditions that add up to the “motherhood problem,” I realized that describing the nature of shame and the way it shadows our lives is a complicated business.

Brown, who is a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work, learned early in her career that “you can not shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” She wanted to know more about how and why people do change, and the consequences of attempting to use shame to change people. What she found is that “most of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame. Individuals, families and communities use shame as a tool to change others and to protect themselves. In doing this, we create a society that fails to recognize how much damage shame does to our spirit and the soul of our families and communities.”

Brown— who takes a special interest in the intersection of private and public issues, particularly how women’s personal experiences are shaped by social, political and economic forces— engaged in a four-year study involving interviews with 200 women to find out more about when and how we encounter shame, how shame affects us and how we try to cope with it. She describes the research process and her findings in her book. But Women & Shame is not an academic treatise or simply a theoretical explanation of how shame hurts us and holds us back. It’s an accessible narrative about the personal and social complexity of shame, and how shame interferes with our ability to accept and express our truest selves. This is information women can use to change their lives. And I believe that once we discover the capacity to change our own lives, we also connect with our power to change society.

I managed to winnow down my hundreds of questions about women, motherhood, shame and society to a mere eight, which Brené Brown graciously agreed to answer for the MMO. Because shame is usually hidden from view— out of sight, but as it turns out, never really out of mind— there are no simple questions, and no simple answers. I encourage you to read on, think it over, learn more.

Brené Brown lives in Texas with her husband and daughter.

MMO: Before reading Women & Shame, I only had an abstract idea about shame and how it functions. I’d always assumed shame was a moral response — something we feel when we’ve violated our most deeply held values. But your research suggests that shame is about who we are rather than what we believe is right or wrong, and that the experience and transmission of shame depends on both an external and internal factors. What is shame, and how does it affect women’s lives?

B Brown: As a researcher, one of my greatest challenges was deconstructing shame — what is it, how do we define it, how does it work and how does it impact women. The definition of shame emerged from the data in two parts. The first part is a very broad conceptualization of shame that is based on the participants’ descriptions and explanations of shame: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.

The final definition — the one I use in my work — expands on this first definition to include a second part, the “why & how” of shame: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame leaves women feeling trapped, powerless and isolated.

Women most often experience shame as a web of layered, conflicting and competing expectations. These expectations tell us who we should be, what we should be and how we should be. At their core, these ideals are products of very rigid social and community expectations. They present very narrow interpretations of who women are “supposed to be” based on demographics (i.e., their gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, religious identity) and/or our roles (i.e., a mother, an employee, a partner, a group member). The expectations are often born in our larger society, then filtered through our various cultures and communities. It is important to note that communities are not just determined by geography. They can be based on race, ethnicity, social class, group membership, ideology, faith, politics, etc.

Many, if not most, of the expectations are impossible to meet. They are ideals and myths that no woman could possibly embody. But more than that, what makes them even less attainable is the way the layers of expectations often conflict and compete with one another. The conflicts happen because the expectations don’t appear out of thin air; they are imposed and enforced by real people—individuals and/or groups of individuals. The social-community expectations can be enforced by our family members, our partners, our friends, co-workers, our children, helping professionals, membership groups and faith communities. Many times we even impose these expectations on ourselves.

These social-community expectations and the way they are enforced by the people in our lives are, in turn, constantly reinforced by a very powerful media culture. The media culture is what we see on television, in advertising and marketing. It’s what we see in movies, what we hear in music and what we read in newspapers and magazines.

In addition to defining shame, it was important for me to identify shame’s conceptual home — in research language we use the term “construct.” For example, in your question you ask about the possibility of shame being a “moral construct.” After doing this work, I propose that shame is a psycho-social-cultural construct. The psychological component relates to the participants’ emphasis on the emotions, thoughts and behaviors of self. The social component relates to the way women experience shame in an inter-personal context that is inextricably tied to relationships and connection. The cultural component points to the very prevalent role of cultural expectations and the relationship between shame and the real or perceived failure of meeting cultural expectations. Interestingly, across the interviews, not one participant described experiences or conceptualizations of shame as something that could be considered exclusively psychological, social or cultural.

MMO: You’ve had a longstanding curiosity— both personal and professional— about the nature of shame and its influence on our lives, but you write that becoming a mother heightened your commitment to making a formal study of shame. What was it about the intersection of motherhood and shame that sharpened your interest?

B Brown: When I first started this work, I was reluctant to tell people that motherhood was the experience that had sealed my commitment to studying shame. In academics, we are trained to keep our lives very compartmentalized and certainly to keep the “personal” tucked away and out of sight. As much as I try to debunk the false separation of the personal, political and the professional with my students (graduate students who are 90% female), like most women I still find myself having to fight that separation expectation everyday.

After informally studying shame for almost five years, I looked at motherhood through a very unique lens. I had watched for years as my friends courageously negotiated what I call mother-shame. There are very rigid expectations, which are certainly community specific, around motherhood. There are sets of expectations for every issue you can imagine, ranging from the big issues of wanting or not wanting children, the appropriate age to get pregnant, how many children to have, how to negotiate motherhood with other roles, how to present oneself, how to negotiate partnerships (including the idea of partner as prerequisite) or how to deal with infertility, to the everyday issues about what “good mothers” look like and what “good nurturing” looks like. To me, motherhood certainly felt like a minefield of conflicting and competing expectations.

Surprisingly, my awareness of these expectations combined with the time and energy I had spent trying to understand shame had, at least partially, prepared me for motherhood. I was (and still am) vulnerable to mother-shame; however, I had unexpectedly developed a level of resilience that really allowed me to approach motherhood from a much calmer and more authentic place than I had anticipated. Does that mean that I gracefully traverse the minefield without setting off the big mother-shame bombs? No way! I stumble into them as often as everyone else; however, I’m much more likely to recognize what’s happening and to diffuse the effects by telling my stories and sharing my experiences with the people in my life who I know will respond with kindness and empathy.

In the end, this unexpected shame resilience around motherhood issues motivated me to formally research shame. At the time I couldn’t explain what I knew or why it helped. I’ve since learned that understanding shame, acknowledging our vulnerabilities, developing critical awareness about the expectations that often drive shame and sharing our stories are the four essential elements of shame resilience. With shame resilience, we are far less likely to internalize shame and let it turn into self-blame or self-loathing.

MMO: You believe it’s important for women to recognize shame as both a social and personal issue. Why?

B Brown: What makes shame so powerful is its ability to make us feel trapped, powerless and isolated. What makes it so dangerous is its ability to make us feel like we are the only one— different— on the outside of the group. Many of us actually fall prey to the same sources of shame as other women, and we experience very similar reactions. However, due to the isolating and secretive nature of shame, we feel like it is only happening to us and that we must hide it at all costs. Shame demands that we hide our “shamed selves” from others in order to avoid additional shame. But I’ve learned that when you look at shame and shame-making experiences in a social context, something amazing happens— shame turns into collective vulnerability and people realize that they are not alone.

You can’t look at shame as strictly a social issue, but if you look at it through both a social lens and a personal lens, you strip away most of its power. When we try to understand shame strictly as a “personal issue” we seek only personal and highly individualized solutions, which leaves the layers of competing and conflicting expectations that drive shame intact and unchanged.

if shame doesn’t do the things we expect it to do, why is it so pervasive?

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