An Aha! Moment

In today’s reading of my current book, I Thought It Was Just Me by Brené Brown, I started in on the chapter of shame resilience. This is a topic that I’ve written about previously, as the concept is introduced in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, which I’ve recently finished reading. However, this is an entire chapter on the subject, not just a few pages, and therefore it covers the concept in greater detail.

In today’s reading, it discusses how shame and its by-products fear, blame, and disconnection, are on one end of what she calls the Shame Resilience Continuum. On the other end is empathy, with its by-products courage, compassion, and connection. In helping explain how the women she interviewed overcame their shame and built resilience to it (remember, her research was limited to women only, but the concepts are applicable to anyone), she wrote the following:

When I asked women to share examples of how they recovered from shame, they described situations in which they were able to talk about their shame with someone who expressed empathy. Women talked about the power of hearing someone say:

  • “I understand – I’ve been there.”
  • “That’s happened to me too.”
  • “It’s OK, you’re normal.”
  • “I understand what that’s like.”

When I read these words, I realized that I had read words like this before, and that I’ve been familiar with this concept for years. In fact, I’ve written about it before in this very blog, not quite five months ago.

Back on January 14, when I was lamenting the back-to-back losses of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, I wrote about something called the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, a concept introduced in a series of short stories by Spider Robinson compiled into a novel called Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon. For the full background on the book, I refer you back to my original post, linked above, but I want to quote the relevant part of what I wrote back then.

… but the overarcing principle of Callahan’s is the Law of Conservation of Pain and Joy, or more simply put, Callahan’s Law.

Callahan’s Law states that “shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased – thus do we refute entropy.” Alternately, it’s worded to say that “Just as there are Laws of Conservation of Matter and Energy, so there are in fact Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy. Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”

When I read the phrases that these women that Brown interviewed for her research above, I had a moment where everything clicked. Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Their recovery from shame began when they shared the pain of their shame with others – “shared pain is lessened.” It’s the same principle that I’ve known about literally my entire adult life.

Up to this point in my life I’ve hidden away my greatest shame for so long that I’ve blocked most of it out. I remember bits and pieces of it here and there, but for the most part it’s lost to time – but there’s still enough to trigger me whenever I see others experiencing what I did. In time I’m going to discuss this with my therapist – every little detail I remember – and once and for all share that pain that triggered by PTSD and subsequent perpetuation of my shame throughout my teenage years and into the greatest part of my adulthood. There are some that know parts of the story. I’ve only ever told the entire thing to my wife, and she can sympathize but not empathize, because she hasn’t experienced what I did. This is going to be an extremely difficult thing to process, but I’m hopeful that when I do, I will start to recover from my own deeply rooted shame.

I suddenly cannot wait to get deeper into this book.

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