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Self-esteem and Shame

Self-esteem and Shame

Self-esteem is difficult to define but a lack of it is one of the most common reasons people come for counselling. There is a close link between self-esteem and perfectionism, between self-esteem and shame and between self-esteem and vulnerability- and between all these issues and difficulties with anxiety, depression and addiction.

This is the second blog in a series which focus on the work of Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Her two TEDtalks are among the most-viewed on  (2010) and  (2012)

As a counsellor I highly recommend listening to her to my clients – she is a funny and engaging speaker who is willing to talk about challenges in her own life as well as her research findings. I also recommend her books to many of my clients – whether they are struggling with anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. I can honestly say that of all the psychology / self-help books I’ve read over the years, they are far and away the best. Apart from the fact that she is an excellent writer, she bases everything she says on her twelve years of interviewing many thousands of men and women of all ages on issues such as self- esteem and perfectionism, shame and vulnerability.

Why do we never feel we are good enough?

“I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power” looks at the topic of shame and how it relates so closely to how we feel about ourselves.  Brené says that our quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting. She says that “we spend too much precious time and energy managing perception and creating carefully edited versions of ourselves to show to the world. As hard as we try, we can’t seem to turn off the tapes that fill our heads with messages like, ‘Never good enough!’ and ‘What will people think?’

She asks why we do this – is it because we just really love perfection? But no, apparently not – “we are actually the most attracted to people we consider to be authentic and down-to-earth. We love people who are ‘real’ – we’re drawn to those who both embrace their imperfections and radiate self-acceptance. There is a constant barrage of social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate. Everywhere we turn, there are messages that tell us who, what and how we’re supposed to be. So, we learn to hide our struggles and protect ourselves from shame, judgment, criticism and blame by seeking safety in pretending and perfection.”

Imperfections are what connect us to each other

Far from wanting and needing to be perfect all the time, in fact our imperfections are what connect us to each other and to our humanity:

She says “Our vulnerabilities are not weaknesses; they are powerful reminders to keep our hearts and minds open to the reality that we’re all in this together….Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light…We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying.”

Shame as Disconnection from Others

In her book she writes that when she started off researching she had absolutely no intention of studying shame, probably the most complex and multifaceted emotion that we experience. She describes it as “a topic that not only took me six years to understand, but an emotion that is so powerful that the mere mention of the word shame triggers discomfort and avoidance in people.”

She planned to study human connection – and how it gives purpose and meaning to our lives. She found that the fear of disconnection, that something we’ve done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection, is our biggest fear:

“I learned that we resolve this concern by understanding our vulnerabilities and cultivating empathy, courage, and compassion— what I call shame resilience. I know how people experience and move through shame, but what are people feeling, doing, and thinking when shame doesn’t constantly have a knife to their throats, threatening them with being unworthy of connection? How are some people living right alongside us in this culture of scarcity and still holding on to the belief that they are enough? I knew these people existed because I had interviewed them and used some of the incidents from their data to inform my work on empathy and shame resilience.”

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with low self-esteem and would like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!


Reference: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. Brown, B (2007) Penguin

See also my blogs on: Self -Esteem, Perfectionism and Self-Esteem, Shame and Recovery