My first encounter with shame was as an 11-year-old returning home from a weekend at Girl Scout camp. Our group leader, the mother of one of my friends, was driving several of us home on a Sunday afternoon.
As we approached my house, panic struck. A voice inside me said, "You can't let your friends see where you live." I was ashamed of my home with the chipping paint, sagging foundation and yard full of sandspurs.
Even at this young age I had carefully crafted my image as a happy, academically talented middle-class girl. My real home, I thought, didn't fit the image I had created in order to fit in.
In desperation I pointed to the house across the street with the manicured lawn.
Life invites an abundance of ways for us to feel shame. From the circumstances in which we are born, to how we are raised, to how we look and what we experience, shame can come to us through no fault of our own.
As we get older, we may experience shame over common circumstances within and outside our control like infertility, bankruptcy, getting laid off or getting a DUI.
Shame does not discriminate. It is found in every socioeconomic group and culture.
When we are hurting we may reach for a quick fix to ease the pain. Alcohol and drugs are typical coping mechanisms to numb the intense feelings associated with shame. Some of us put on the armor of perfectionism in hopes that no one will suspect we are flawed. Others adopt an exhausting work schedule to keep from facing the ghosts of the past. Sometimes people develop sexual addictions to satisfy their longing for love and acceptance. These unhealthy coping mechanisms may work for a time, but ultimately they eat away at self-esteem like wood-destroying termites.
Shame can even be deadly. Research shows that shame is highly correlated with suicide, homicide, mass shootings and gang-related activities.
Paradoxically, what's really needed to conquer shame is to take down those walls of self-protection.
That's the theme of a recent book by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work whose work you may know from her previous books or TV appearances, including a PBS special.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead pulls together 12 years of research she has done in vulnerability, courage and, yes, shame.
"Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity," she writes. Shame, meanwhile, is linked with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying.
Yet there is a way out.
"Connection is why we are here,'' she writes. "We are hardwired to connect with others, it's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering."
Shame makes us disconnect, and that disengagement shines the light on our greatest fears — the fears of being abandoned, unworthy and unlovable. So how can we stop this insidious cycle of shame and despair?
In her book, Brown outlines a four-step process to help overcome shame and heal from its negative effects. It starts with recognizing shame and understanding its triggers, and culminates in reaching out for help and talking about things we once thought too horrible to speak of.
Shame thrives in a cloak of secrecy. It derives its power from being unspeakable. The first step in becoming resilient to shame is to confide in someone you trust to listen without judgment — someone like a pastor, mental health counselor or certified professional coach.
Understand that no one has been brought up in a perfect home or comes through life unscathed. The next step is to accept and love yourself for having the courage to be vulnerable. What has happened to you does not have to define who you are.
I will be forever grateful to teachers, counselors, pastors and other professionals who helped me to believe in my worthiness, and to help others do the same.
How about you? Are you ready to let go of shame and open yourself up to wholehearted living? What if you decided to dare greatly? Would you leave a toxic relationship? Go back to school? Change careers? Get a gastric bypass? Seek help for drug or alcohol abuse?
Might the hope of love, joy, self-compassion and creativity be worth taking the risk of failure?
The book title Daring Greatly comes from Theodore Roosevelt, who famously noted that people who criticize and point out flaws in others don't matter. What matters are people who participate fully in their lives, who work hard for happiness and success. And if they fail, at least they know they did it not while cowering in shame but while "daring greatly.''
Yvonne Ulmer is a certified professional coach and the owner of Coaching by Design in St. Petersburg. She can be reached at yvonneulmer.com.