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Dr. Darcy Sterling Headshot

Shame Less

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Shame is not welcome in my office. Still, it manages to sneak in, and when it does, it makes my job significantly more difficult.

Psychology is a soft science, and as a result, I cannot run lab tests on my patients to gather the data that I need to relieve their symptoms. I rely on the spoken word, on my client's ability to disclose, and when shame is present, that process becomes unnecessarily more complicated. At times, it becomes impossible.

I'm obsessed with Brene Brown, shame researcher, and soon to be the next super star in the field of personal development. Brown's legacy will show her to be the whistle-blower on the relevance of shame and the importance of creating a movement in shame resilience. Nowhere is the gravity of her work more clearly illuminated than in the therapist's office.

Shame is a gag. It is an internal mechanism of oppression. It relies on secrecy to exist, and so it quite literally shames its victims into keeping quiet. Let's be clear: In the absence of shame, my work is difficult enough. When a client has the courage to share with me a personal story of pain, making sense of that story, reorganizing it and reframing it in an empowering way takes enormous work. But when that same client is ashamed of her story, her fear of my judgment is what will keep her quiet, which will extend her pain because I don't have the data that I need to help her heal.

In her silence, my client will feel alone. She will believe that her pain is not a common human experience but that is uniquely hers. And that belief will fuel a vicious cycle of isolation. It is exactly that which shame relies on to thrive.

Expose shame to the light of day and it is like algae exposed to sunlight. It dies. The sunlight is my client's ability to take a leap of faith and share her story. In my office, she is guaranteed to be met with compassion. As she test drives this again and again, sharing story after story, she will begin compiling evidence that it is safe for her to be vulnerable, and eventually she will do this with people outside of my office. This is shame resilience. This is therapy.

Here's what you need to know: We've all experienced emotions, both positive and negative. Most of us have battled depression or anxiety, whether officially diagnosed or not. You are not alone in your struggles, but your failure to share your story will certainly make you feel as though you are.

We live in a culture where independence and self-reliance constitute bragging rights. The American adage of pull yourself up by your bootstraps is largely responsible for our epidemic of shame. That's not to say that every interpersonal problem should send you hunting for a shrink. But don't let your stoicism stop you from seeking the support of a trusted friend, family member or colleague. Because we've all been there. And the truth is, we are honored when we are called upon to support someone who has the courage to seek us out. So take a chance. Tell your story. Odds are, your courage will open the door for your confidant to tell you hers. And then you'll both be on your way to being shame less.

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