How to Build Resilience to Shame
Today’s hustle culture claims “unearned” pleasure is shameful. But there are ways to resist this cultural response.
“I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure.”
“Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure? It’s to see my dividends coming in.”
I note the above quotes, which are—perhaps apocryphally—attributed to John D. Rockefeller, not so much for their supposed source, but more for how they inform the working person’s relationship to pleasure today. In just 30 words, these quotes summarize the entrepreneurial mindset that now pervades, well, everything: You shouldn’t pursue pleasure, but it sure feels good to make money.
In other words, you’re allowed to feel pleasure as long as you deserve it.
The flip side of this is that if you pursue “unearned” pleasure, you should feel shame. Luckily, there are ways to build resilience to this cultural response, and experts like Brené Brown are paving the way to normalize the concept. Moreover, pursuing pleasure without shame helps avoid burnout.
In the context of Western capitalism, pleasure is a luxury reserved only for people who are actively trying to make money. After all, getting dressed up for cocktails is OK as long as you’re exchanging business cards at the end. Having a hobby is OK as long as you’re monetizing it through YouTube or a podcast.
It’s no coincidence that, throughout U.S. history, media and politicians have unfairly and inaccurately stereotyped immigrants, racial minorities, and other oppressed people (in order to justify their disproportionate poverty levels) as alcoholic, drug-addicted hedonists who refuse to get jobs. Irish immigrants were depicted as violent, Mexicans have been stereotyped as lazy, Native Americans as alcoholic, and African Americans as unintelligent. Meanwhile, recreational drug use among wealthy elites seems to be either ignored altogether or is trivialized in our pop culture, like in the film The Wolf of Wall Street.
One can even argue that the relationship that marginalized people have with pleasure is structurally codified through drug testing in employment, which has been shown to disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic workers in the United States. Further, surveys have found that African American and Asian American workers are disproportionately reprimanded for failing drug tests. This is despite extensive research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration confirming that there are no clear patterns in illicit drug use among different races, ethnicities, employment groups, or levels of education. One distinction that does stand out is wealth. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs shows that young adults who come from higher-income backgrounds are more likely to use alcohol or marijuana.
While we may logically tell ourselves that racial stereotypes around drug use are harmful and untrue, societal messaging like this inevitably warps our relationship with pleasure. Working people may feel shame about not having worked hard enough or earned enough money to really “deserve” feeling pleasure, even to the point that, as discussed in a 2021 study on work ethic, part of their motivation to work may be to avoid feeling such shame.
Psychologists have found that shame is a “predominantly moral emotion” that should not be conflated with guilt. Whereas guilt involves feeling bad for something you did, shame involves feeling bad about who you are, according to an influential definition by Helen Lewis in a study published by the American Psychological Association.
Tendencies to feel shame are even associated with increased depression and increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Some research has specifically touched on how shame can affect our relationship with pleasure. For example, a 2009 case study discussed how shame associated with body dysmorphic disorder caused an individual to avoid pleasurable social and intimate experiences, while a 2021 study discussed how some patients with complex dissociative disorders felt shameful or “non-deserving” after positive experiences.
While shame can bar us from pursuing our own pleasure, we can overcome it by building resilience. In a 2018 meta-analysis of literature on mental health and resilience, scientists Francesca Färber and Jenny Rosendahl defined resilience as “an individual’s positive adaptation in the face of adversity.” Author and researcher Brené Brown introduced what she called “Shame Resilience Theory” (SRT) in her seminal 2006 paper, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Understand your personal vulnerabilities related to your shame.
2. Gain critical awareness of the social and cultural expectations that affect your feelings of shame.
3. Form mutually empathetic relationships and reach out to others.
4. Learn to speak about your shame and therefore deconstruct it.
Resilience has been shown to have various benefits beyond helping us pursue pleasure. For example, Färber and Rosendahl showed that resilience was associated with better mental health outcomes in people with physical illnesses. Other studies have also shown that increased resilience factors are associated with higher quality of life among both community-dwelling older adults and Syrian refugee youth resettled in Norway.
It turns out that the key to shame resilience is empathy. In a grounded theory approach (which simply means a theory that is grounded in scientifically collected data), Brown developed SRT based on interviews with 215 women. Overall, the respondents defined shame as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging” that’s mostly related to “feelings of being trapped, powerless, and isolated.”
Notably, the women Brown spoke with defined “experiencing empathy” as the clear opposite of “experiencing shame.” These women “rarely identified psychotherapy or individual counseling as an effective tool” for reducing shame specifically, instead emphasizing the importance of “being with others who have had similar experiences” and “talking with people who’ve been there.”
As a trained neuroscientist and research psychologist, I have the following takeaways: Repeatedly denying ourselves pleasure in the pursuit of some impossible ideal—whether it involves our careers, our families, or our bodies—can lead to burnout. Although the world may tell us that every second not spent “bettering ourselves” is time wasted, it is important to try to tune out the nonsense and simply connect with the people around us who get what we’re going through.
To see an example of the shame resilience process in action, we can look to a public example from Brown’s own life. In 2011, Brown gave a TED Talk on vulnerability that drew heavily on her shame research and her own experiences that led to a “breakdown.”
In another TED Talk the following year—where she further described her personal experience with shame, vulnerability, and resilience—she described waking up after the first talk with “the worst vulnerability hangover of [her] life” despite having received an overwhelmingly positive response.
Brown recommends understanding your shame, which means being vulnerable or engaging with the personal aspects of your shame. She realized that this was an important part of accepting her newfound identity after her first talk as “the shame researcher who had the breakdown.”
Brown further recommends understanding the social and cultural expectations affecting your shame. Women in particular are shamed by the cultural expectations to “do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat.” The act of opening up to an audience of strangers, as she did in her first TED Talk, directly conflicted with these ideals of perfection and effortlessness, and in the second talk she discussed how explicitly engaging with the unfair burdens stemming from these expectations was an important step in overcoming her negative feelings.
Another important step in overcoming shame, according to Brown, is to form mutually empathetic relationships. She says she did not leave her house for about three days after her first talk, and that it was not until she met a friend for lunch that she was able to start talking about why she felt so bad. By confiding in a friend, Brown was able to begin rebounding from her negative spiral and engage with all the people who were now familiar with her work.
Finally, Brown urges people to “speak your shame.” In giving her second talk, Brown was able to deconstruct her shame in a very public forum, further letting go of her own shame and helping the audience better understand their own shame.
Brown notes that if we can move beyond shame and vulnerability, we can open up to joy, creativity, love, feelings of belonging, innovation, and adaptability. In other words, while shame can stop us from feeling pleasure, engaging with our shame through the shame resilience process can ultimately help us feel more pleasure in the long run.
Research suggests that this approach works. A 2020 paper tested SRT using self-reported data from participants. The study found that increased shame resilience is associated with increased subjective well-being.
While feeling shame is an intensely personal experience, it is important to remember that there are many others who can relate, and it is particularly helpful to reach out to those people if possible. We may never completely avoid the shame that comes with prioritizing our own pleasure and relaxation, but by building resilience we should eventually find it easier to ignore so we can live our lives with joy.