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Shame Resilience Theory Explained:

The grounded theory of Shame Resilience by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW

consists of four elements. As Dr. Brown discusses, these elements are not
necessarily linear but for the sake of format and easy discussion they will be
presented in a linear way.

1. Recognizing Shame & Triggers

2. Practicing Critical Awareness
3. Reaching Out
4. Speaking Shame

Each part of the process is indispensable but does not necessarily happen in this

Each step in the shame resilience model is placed on a continuum with dualities
represented on each end of the continuum.

Presented below are the four elements of the S.R. Model:

Recognizing Shame & Triggers Practicing Critical Awareness

Reaching Out Speaking Shame

Recognizing Shame & Triggers:

Recognizing Shame & Triggers

Using Awareness
Shame Screens
0 1 2 3 Understanding

In this step we have a continuum ranging from 0-3. On the zero end we have
“Using Shame Screens” and on the three end we have “Awareness &

In this step we have a continuum ranging from 0-3. On the zero end we have
“Using Shame Screens” and on the three end we have “Awareness &

According to Shelly Wiechelt (2007, pg403),

“There is evidence suggesting that individuals who have substance use
problems have higher levels of shame than either individuals with other
mental health problems or the general population (O’Connor, Berry,
Inaba, Weiss, and Morrison, 1994) and that individuals with higher levels
of shame are prone to more addiction problems (Cook, 1987). Also,
higher levels of shame are associated with relapse for women who are
members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) (Wiechelt and Sales, 2001).
Finally, children in the fifth grade who were shame prone were more
likely to use drugs at age 18 than less shame-prone peers”.

In order for us to recognize our physical reaction to shame, Dr. Brown (2007,
pg70) provides the following exercise:

I physically feel shame in/on my:

It feels like:
I know I’m in shame when I feel:
If I could taste shame, it would taste like:
If I could smell shame it would smell like:
If I could touch shame, it would feel like:

We all experience shame around multiple aspects of our lives. Dr. Brown (2007,
pg 71) writes, “Recognizing our shame allows us to find the space we need to
process the experience and gain some clarity before we act out or shut down”.
According to Shelly Wiechelt (2007, pg403), “An individual that is shame based
discovers that using a substance sedates their pain to an extent. They continue
to use the substance and develop an addiction to it. In the process of developing
the addiction, the individual feels increasing shame and humiliation associated
with their loss of control. They again attempt to sedate their shame, thus a cycle
of addiction and increasing shame emerges”. The above exercise can help us to
recognize shame as we experience certain physical symptoms such as tightness
in the stomach, tunnel vision, feeling hot, tasting vomit, smelling sulfur, etc.

Dr. Brown (2007, pg 72) lists twelve categories where women struggle the most
with feelings of shame. “These categories are appearance and body image,
motherhood, family, parenting, money and work, mental and physical health, sex,
aging, religion, being stereotyped and labeled, speaking out and surviving
trauma” (Brown, 2007, pg73). According to Dr. Brown (2007, pg, 73), “To start the
process of recognizing our shame triggers, we need to look at the concept of
unwanted identities… What makes us vulnerable to shame in these areas are the
“unwanted identities” associated with each of these topics”. Dr. Brown (2007, pg
74) explains, our family of origin provides us with the most powerful messages
and stereotypes regarding identities and values. According to Shelly Wiechelt
(2007, pg403), “two sources of shame that stand out among individuals with
substance use problems for inquiry are family of origin and trauma. Individuals
with substance use problems often report that they have grown up in an addicted
or otherwise dysfunctional family system”. Both Shelly Wiechelt and Dr. Brown
state other influential people and significant experiences shape our thinking as

In order to recognize our shame triggers, Dr. Brown (2007, pg 82-83) asks us to
provide at least for examples of the following statements for each of the twelve
shame categories:

I want to be perceived as:

I do not want to be perceived as:

“The next step is to try and uncover the source of these triggers…If we look at
out unwanted identities, three questions that can help us start to uncover the
sources are:

1. What do these perceptions mean to us?

2. Why are they so unwanted?
3. Where did the messages that fuel these identities come from?

Dr. Brown (2007, pg 87) asks us examine our list of unwanted identities and to
ask ourselves, “If people reduce me to this list, what important and wonderful
things will they miss about me?”
Dr. Brown (2007, pg 86) asks us to look at the issues surrounding these
assessments and writes, “First, we are very hard on ourselves. When we identify
these desired and unwanted identities, we give ourselves very little room to be
human. Second, we cannot deny the power of the messages we heard growing
up. Last, most of us judge others whom we perceive as having the traits we
dislike in ourselves”.

Dr. Brown refers to the illustration above and writes(2007, pg 88), “when we don’t
recognize shame and understand the messages and expectations that trigger our
shame, we often rely on shame screens to protect us…not only is relying on
shame screens ineffective, it can be shame-inducing in itself”. Dr. Brown’s (2007,
pg88) definition of shame screens are, “when we are in shame we are often
overcome with the need to hide or protect ourselves by any means possible…
When we experience shame, our first layer of defense often occurs involuntarily.
It goes back to our primal flight, fight, and freeze responses.”

“After our physical fight, flight, or freeze response, ‘strategies of

disconnection’ provide is with a more complex layer of shame screens…in
order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding,
silencing ourselves and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by
seeking to appease and please. And, some of us move against by trying
to gain power over others, being aggressive and using shame to fight
shame...most of us can relate to all three strategies for disconnection.”
(Brown, 2007, pg 89-90)

According to Shelly Wiechelt (2007, pg405), “Clinicians also need to be aware of

their own experience of shame, what triggers it, and how they tend to manage it
(Kaufman, 1996). Clinicians who can tolerate their own shame and manage it are
more likely to be able to help others learn to manage their shame. Clinicians who
deny or repress their own shame will be likely to miss it in their clients and may
experience problems in the therapeutic relationship”. “The results from these
studies suggest that individuals who have had substance use problems may
need treatment aimed at reducing shame in order to improve their quality of life
and increase the likelihood that they will be able to maintain their recovery.”
(Shelly Wiechelt, 2007, pg 403) More research surrounding the relationship
between shame, substance misuse, and mental health is needed in order to
improve the outcomes for clients.

Brown, B., (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Telling the Truth About
Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. Gotham Books, New York, NY.

Wiechelt, S. A., (2007). The Specter of Shame in Substance Misuse. Informa

Healthcare. Substance Use & Misuse, 42:399–409.
Practicing Critical Awareness:

Practicing Critical Awareness

Reinforcing Demystifying
Individualizing Contextualizing
Pathologizing 0 1 2 3 Normalizing

Pathologizing Normalizing

I am bad. I did something bad.

Something is wrong I’m not the only one.

with me.

I always screw I made a mistake in

things up. this situation.

When we are able to draw conclusions that our own shame triggers are
not just about us and that the shaming messages we often times buy into are
from social and cultural expecations, we are practicing critical awareness. When
we allow ourselves to move away from individualizing (I am the only one),
pathologizing (something is wrong with me), and reinforcing (I should be
ashamed) our shame triggers, we are practicing critical awareness. When we
instead begin asking why social/community expectations exist, and how these
expectations shape the shame we so often feel, we are practicing critical
awareness. Learning how to see the big picture (contextualizing), not view
ourselves as the only one (normalizing), and learn to share our experiences with
others (demystifying), we increase our critical awareness. When we take our own
personal experiences and consider global expectations we move closer to
building shame resilience and empathy.
Example of Practicing Critical Awareness:
Tina, a 17-year-old female living in San Diego, California with her mother
and two younger brothers, has been addicted to prescription pain pills since she
was 14 yrs old. She reports stealing pills from her mother’s prescription cabinet
when she was young and currently buys pills from dealers at school. When Tina’s
mother found out about her addiction, she made her go to a support group for
teenagers suffering from addiction. At first, Tina was resistant to the idea of a
support group because she felt as if no one in the group would understand her
specific situation.

After several groups, Tina began to realize that she was not alone. She
learned that prescription pill addictions are a growing problem around the country
and that many teenagers had learned to manage their addiction. She heard
many teenager share similar stories as her own, and in turn began to share her
story and her experiences. Tina began to normalize her day to day struggles and
learned how to better cope with these struggles. Tina began to understand that
she was not a bad person but instead had just made some bad mistakes. Tina
felt less ashamed of herself but instead felt as if her experiences had made her a
stronger person.

*Please note that all visual aids and text were adapted from Brene’ Brown, Ph.D.,
LMSW and her book: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Telling the Truth
About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power.

Brown, B., (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Telling the Truth About
Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. Gotham Books, New York, NY.
Reaching Out:

Reaching Out
Separating Share our story

Insulating 0 1 2 3 Create Change

Reaching out is a way of forming a connection or a link to another person. It

gives voice to the shame being felt which in turns weakens the shame. When you
reach out you move from separating and insulating to sharing your story and
creating change. Separating and insulating means that there is an us and a
them. And we are not the same as them.

Separating and insulating allows you to believe that what is affecting others could
never affect you and what’s affecting you could never affect anyone else. No one
else has been through, seen or experienced what you have, or you will never go
through, see or experience what someone else has. This type of thinking creates
walls and shuts down communication and relationships.

Separating and insulating allows shame to fester and grow. To move past this
you must share your story and create change. You must believe first that a
change can occur. You must believe that in reaching out and sharing your story,
you will be changing the tides of your shame. It is important that when you share
your story, you do so with someone you trust. It can do more damage than good
when you when you reach out to someone to share your story and are met with
judgement, impatience, or disapproval.

When you reach out, you create a connection. This connection helps you to beat
the shame bully. You have someone on your side that can say “You are not
alone”. Reaching out and speaking your story can also create knowing laughter.
In Brene Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) she defines knowing
laughter as laughter that results from recognizing the universality of our shared
experiences, both positive and negative. She goes on to say that it embodies the
relief and connection we experience when we realize the power of sharing our
Reaching out is an important part of shame resiliency. It requires that you choose
sharing your story and creating change over separating and insulating. In doing
so, connections are built and we start to see that we really are all the same.

Darlene is a methamphetamine addict. She uses daily. She lives by herself and
spends much of her free time alone. She has been addicted to meth for 7 years.
She has sores on her face and body and her teeth are rotting and falling out. She
used to be close to her family, but since she started using meth, rarely speaks to
any family members. No one in her family uses drugs and as a child she was
taught that drugs are bad and anyone who uses them is bad. She feels a
tremendous amount of guilt around her drug use and knows that her family would
be disappointed and let down if they knew the truth.

What Darlene doesn’t know is that her family is already aware that she uses.
Darlene maintained a relationship with her childhood best friend, Denise. Denise
updates the family on Darlene. Darlene’s family is extremely concerned.
However, they respect her privacy. They decided that they will not interfere with
Darlene but wish she would stop using.

In the course of one week, Darlene lost her job and her apartment. She came to
work high and it was one time too many. Darlene was living in assisted housing
that requires she maintain employment. Her employer called her landlord and
informed her that Darlene had been terminated. Darlene was given 7 days to find
a new job, or she would have to vacate her apartment. She was unable to find a
job, and forced to move out.

Darlene’s shame mounted. Now her addiction had cost her family, job and home.
She had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. With nowhere else to turn, she
called her mother and asked her to meet her for lunch.

At lunch, she told her mother that she was a meth addict and was too ashamed
to face her family. Her mother cried and told her she would do whatever she
could to help her. Darlene went into an inpatient drug treatment center and her
family visited her every chance they could. Had Darlene not reached out to her
family, she might still be living on the street.
Speaking Shame:

Speaking Shame
Shutting Down Express how we
Acting Out 0 1 2 3
Ask for what we

This construct identifies perhaps the most elusive concept we face when we deal
with shame. The idea of wrapping language and a clear definition around the
experience of shame is challenging for most people. Often time people may find
themselves at the zero end of this continuum. This is usually the result of not
being able to identify their shame and in turn ask for what they need. When
someone does not speak their shame they often times turn to a compulsive
behavior to check out of the painful feelings they are experiencing.

Example of Speaking Shame:

Eric is a 35-year-old man that has been married for 7 years to a woman
named Catherine who is the same age. They met in college and dated on and off
for several years before finally getting married. Their relationship was
characterized by struggles with emotional intimacy, although Eric didn’t think so!
He was happy with the level of intimacy he and Catherine shared, but his
definition of intimacy was confined to physicality in the relationship. This was not
much of an issue for either of them early on in the relationship, but as the years
progressed Catherine found herself desiring more connection with Eric. Eric in
turn distanced himself from Catherine as she tried to develop more connection
with him.
Their once relatively stable relationship began getting very rocky once it
surfaced that Eric had been viewing Internet pornography on their home
computer. Catherine was shocked and deeply hurt by this discovery. She asked
Eric to stop on several occasions but his behavior not only continued, it
escalated. Catherine felt such shame about Eric looking at pornography, because
she felt that if she looked differently he would not feel the need to act out.
Without having any awareness about her shame she was unable to “speak
shame” and express her needs to Eric. She turned to shaming Eric each time
she caught him and since he already felt immense shame about his continued
acting out, he only spiraled further into acting out and still more painful shame.
They both became so entangled in webs of shame that they felt they had
to divorce or reach out for help. They sought couples therapy and it was there
that they were given the tools to recognize shame. Eric began participating in a
12-step program for his compulsive sexual behavior and maintained abstinence
from pornography. Both Catherine and Eric continued their couples work and
quickly learned the idea of “speaking shame.” They were able to identify their
feelings of shame and ask for specific needs so that they did not spiral back into
the shame web.