and introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
You believe it’s important for women to recognize
shame as both a social and personal issue. Why?
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.