Are you the kind of friend, partner, or family member who others turn to, to share a story about how they felt ashamed? What I mean is, do you provide a sounding board of understanding and compassion when a loved one feels humilated, shamed, or embarrassed? Or does your reaction to their shame further accentuate their pain and discomfort? This can be a tough situation to know how to respond to properly, because we can feel very uncomfortable ourselves.
Consider this situation: a close friend or relationship partner calls to tell you about how their boss talked down to them during a meeting and they started crying. They tell you that they feel humilated by how their boss spoke to them in front of others and feel ashamed that they cried publicly. Brene Brown, in her wonderful book, The Gifts of Imperfection, writes about six ways that are NOT supportive responses. See if you find yourself in here:
1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel so sorry for you) rather than empathy (I get it, I feel with you, and I've been there)....
3. The friend who needs you to the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can't help because she's too disappointed in your imperfections. You've let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: "How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?" Or she looks for someone to blame: "Who was that guy? We'll kick his ass."
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be 'crazy' and make terrible choices: "You're exaggerating. It's wasn't that bad. You rock. You're perfect. Everyone loves you."
6. The friend who confuses "connection" with the opportunity to one-up you. "That's nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!"
Did you recogize yourself in any of these? Or did you think of a loved one with whom you shared a shameful story, only to have them respond in such a way that wasn't comforting? It's an act of courage when we share an embarrassing story, or when someone shares with us, but few of us learn how to provide a space of compassion and support. Brene Brown writes that speaking out about shameful experiences keeps them from growing and becoming even worse inside of us.
So what's the best way to respond? Listen deeply. Express empathy. Don't blame the person but also don't try to fix the situation. Make it clear that you are standing with them and let them talk. It may require heightened awareness to manage your response, but I believe it's worth the effort.
~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sexologist, Sexuality & Relationship Speaker