When Encouragement Doesn’t Work: A Story of Shame


 If you follow our blog, then you’ve heard about the transition we’re currently walking through at Body Oak Cliff. (If you missed it – read about Joel’s departure here.) As you can probably imagine, this change has stirred up a lot for me – grief about not working as closely with Joel, insecurity about my ability to continue forward, and much more. In the spirit of our work, I want to share some of these things with you as authentically as I can. Specifically, I want to share about a day a few weeks back where I was overwhelmed by shame and experienced a breakthrough. My hope is that my story will give you some insight into your own experience of shame, and that it will help you embody love to anyone you encounter who is weighed down by shame.

Part 1: The Ambush

It was a Monday, and Joel and I needed to make progress on the giving statements. The problem was that we needed to tell our donors about the change in leadership, but I didn’t yet feel ready to declare my decision to go forward. Everything still felt very fragile. I felt fragile. And small. And unsure of myself. Over the preceding week, my confidence was intermittent and unpredictable at best. One day I would think, Maybe I can do this, only to find myself a weepy mess the next day. This particular day was one of the “weepy” days, and no amount of encouragement from Joel could change that.

In fact, I was beginning to realize that his encouragement might be making things worse. I would say, “I can’t do this. I don’t think I can do this.” And he would say, “Deborah, I believe in you. You’ve got this,” and then go on to highlight everything about me that made me a great fit for the job. But I was impervious to logic. It didn’t matter that everything Joel was saying “made sense.” Everything probably would be fine, but I didn’t feel fine. I felt broken. I felt pathetic. I felt like a failure.

After spending most of the day this way, I finally called for a “time out.” I went to the bathroom and imagined that I was a coach and that this weary, weepy person looking at me in the mirror was my coachee. The conversation went something like this:

Coach Deborah: What are you aware of right now?

Coachee Deborah: I’m feeling a lot of feelings.

Coach: Great, ok, what else?

Coachee: That’s it. Seriously. I can’t…I don’t…I feel…it’s a lot. I’m not…man, this is messed up. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Coach: It’s ok. Pause for a moment, take a deep breath.

Coachee: Ok.

Coach: Is there one more thing you can say about what you’re experiencing?

Coachee: I’m crying a lot. And I can’t think clearly. Whenever I start to think a thought, I can’t get to the end of it.

Coach: Great. That’s really good. Now, a minute ago you said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” What does it usually mean when that thought goes through your head?

Coachee: It means I’m experiencing shame. That’s my shame voice.

And in that moment, something changed. It wasn’t everything I needed, but it was a start. Because even though it’s a big part of my work to help other people identify and work through shame, it can still ambush me. That’s part of what makes shame so insidious – it floods your body with chemicals that prevent clear thinking. Realizing that you’re “in shame” is a little like realizing you’re in a dream. You have to reach that conclusion without the help of your usual mental faculties. Which is why being able to say, “I’m experiencing shame right now,” simple as it may seem, is actually a huge accomplishment. It represents at least the halfway point on the road back to sanity. So the next time you think, “This is shame,” be encouraged! You’ve found your way back to your thinking faculties, and the rest of your journey will be easier for it.

Shame 101

What is shame? Shame is an experience that involves a combination of thoughts, feelings, and physical/behavioral cues. These symptoms emerge from a belief (conscious or unconscious) that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. There’s something about me – my basic, true, core self – that isn’t ok. As Brené Brown says, it’s “the intensely painful feeling that I am unworthy of love and belonging.”

Common symptoms:

  • Physical/behavioral: heaviness, tears, numbness, aversion to eye contact, covering face/neck with hands, trying to make yourself smaller, inability to complete thoughts
  • Feelings: sadness, insecurity, anxiety, despair, worthlessness, failure
  • Thoughts: What’s wrong with me? / I’m not ok / I’m not enough / I’m a mess / You idiot / You worthless piece of s*** / I don’t…I can’t…Why is…aaaarrghgh / etc

Further Study:

Acknowledging Shame

This past summer, Joel and I helped lead a class on emotional maturity at Mercy Street’s summer internship program. This meant we got to translate our materials into language high schoolers could understand. One of our simplest mantras from that class provides an excellent framework for what to do when you’re stuck in shame (or any other emotion you might be feeling). It goes like this: Notice, Name it, Speak it out.

  1. Notice: Pay attention to what’s going on inside of you. What are you aware of physically? What thoughts are going through you head?
  2. Name It: Try to name the feeling you are experiencing. Say to yourself, “I’m feeling shame right now.”
  3. Speak it out: Acknowledging the feeling to yourself is powerful, but it’s immensely more powerful to speak that awareness out to someone else. Find a safe, trusted person and say, “I’m feeling shame right now.”

I don’t mean to suggest that these steps are as easy as they look on paper, but try this the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and I think you may find that it helps.


Part 2: Please Stop Encouraging Me

Awhile back, I was meeting with a group of friends and one person shared that he had been feeling really worthless lately. He went on to describe the circumstances he was facing, and as he spoke I could see the heaviness on his face. He was feeling shame. Unfortunately, the others in the group began to tell him why he shouldn’t feel the way he was feeling. “But you’re not worthless,” they told him, “Can’t you see all the ways you make the world a better place?"

Now, this is a very common response to shame, because it helps relieve the anxiety of the person listening. When we hear someone express shame, we sense their pain and our anxiety rises. We want to fix it! We want to make the pain go away! And if their pain is coming from the beliefs they’re sharing (e.g. that they’re worthless), then we need to counter with “correct” beliefs. But more often than not, this simply makes the person feel unsafe and alone. They begin to shut down and withdraw, because they’re essentially being told that what they’re feeling is wrong. That may not be the intention of the person saying those things, but that’s often how it’s heard by the person in shame.

As I stood in the bathroom that day talking to my “inner coach,” I began to get more clarity around what was going on. Two giant things were happening at once: 1) I was trying to accept, process, and grieve Joel’s departure from Body, and 2) I was being invited to take on leadership of our organization. The emotions of the first experience were a huge obstacle to the second, because it’s almost impossible to feel sadness and strength at the same time. I wanted to feel confident, but instead I felt sad, which made me feel weak, which led to frustration at not feeling what I wanted to feel, which is the path down into shame. And shame tends to beget shame until something interrupts the downward spiral.

Coach Deborah: What do you need right now?

Coachee Deborah: I need someone to tell me that’s it’s ok to feel what I’m feeling. That it’s ok for me to feel overwhelmed at the thought of leading Body by myself. When people tell me that they believe in me and that I can do it, it doesn’t feel real to me. Something about my emotional state right now won’t let me receive that encouragement. So instead of making me feel better, it makes me feel worse. I think, Great, everybody thinks I should be able to do this. Everybody thinks this isn’t as hard as it feels right now.

Coach: But it is hard, isn’t it?

Coachee: Yes! It is! I’ve never done this work without Joel before, and I don’t know what I don’t know about running an organization, which is terrifying.

Coach: That makes sense. What if it were ok to feel what you’re feeling?

Coachee: That would be a relief. I can feel my anxiety lowering when I think about that. I can think more clearly.

Coach: So what do you want to do now?

I told Joel about my brilliant self-coaching. He looked a little confused, “You…don’t want me to encourage you anymore?” I assured him that normally his encouragement is very welcome, but that I can’t receive it in moments of intense shame. The more stuck I am, the more encouragement feels like an eviction notice for my heavier emotions. “Sorry, sadness, times up! Move on out!” This, of course, creates anxiety and exacerbates shame. But as I gave myself permission to feel what I was feeling, I found myself in a safer space where I could start to receive Joel’s encouragement. I felt a sense of strength and confidence rising up. I thought, Everything’s going to be ok. I think I can do this.

So while it might feel counter-intuitive, the next time you’re with someone stuck in shame, don’t tell them how great they are or that things are going to be fine. Listen deeply and let them know that it’s ok to feel what they’re feeling. Try to imagine how painful it must be to feel broken and unworthy of love. In this way, you’ll give them what they need the most – companionship in their suffering. They’ll know they aren’t alone, which is the beginning of the end of shame.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Think of a time you felt shame. What was the experience like? What thoughts were going through your head? What were you feeling in your body? What did you need (from yourself, from others, from God) in that moment?
  2. How would you want to respond to someone who is stuck in shame? What about this response would come naturally? What about this response would be challenging for you?