Shame, Fitting-in and Belonging in Student Affairs

On Tuesday I attended a mini-conference on my campus. One of the break-out sessions I chose was on shame resilience; based on Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability. The presenter did an excellent job of breaking down Brown’s research into smaller, more manageable pieces and then relating them to behaviors that are evidenced in the academy. I took copious notes. Then, yesterday I watched both of Brown’s TED talks and took more notes. It wasn’t until I attended the shame session and watched the TED talks that something clicked.

My heart is racing as I write this and my body is getting hot inside- my physiological reaction to vulnerability… But here it is….

I have been working to fit-in when I should have been striving to find places where I belong.

I have followed the appropriate career trajectories, attended the best graduate schools, earned a terminal degree, presented at conferences. I blog and tweet, blah blah blah. And, I am still spinning my wheels. I still feel as if I don’t belong here.

Shame is about: fear, blame, and disconnection

Empathy is about: courage, compassion, and connection

Shame is fitting in. Empathy is belonging.

As a strong, direct, honest, feminist, I have been shamed almost my entire career. And, many many times by other women. I have been called direct, abrasive, aggressive, sarcastic, etc., etc. I have been called these things by people who do not know me, have never worked with me, or seen me work with others.

“You’re so negative.” Not my behavior or presentation, or my style, but me personally, my character. Me. Brown says that shame is personal while guilt is behavioral. Shame- “I am bad. I am negative. I am aggressive.” Guilt- “I did something negative. I said something negative.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a lie. Words matter. Words are powerful. Who says them to us and when and why and how matters. It all matters. Those who know me well know that I have been struggling with my professional identity for some time. I can’t reconcile others’ perceptions/feedback of me with how I see myself, with who I believe that I am at my core.

Have I done or said negative things? Sure. Am I sometimes aggressive? Of course. I am human. I make mistakes. I am a learner who is still learning. I also do these things because I care. Because I am loyal and focused and driven and I want my students and our organizations to be better. My doing these sometimes negative things doesn’t make me negative or not enough. It makes my behavior not good enough (maybe).

Feedback is supposed to be about behavior, attitude, skills, performance. Not about someone’s core, their identity. Every one is important and special and valuable and they can still be all of those things even in the face of mistakes or poor performance. Feedback should employ a little guilt, but never shame. I think in the past people have shamed me when they were trying to make me feel guilty.

I have been shamed and I should not have been. We can do better. I can do better. I saw and felt it happening and I let it continue. I have seen it happen to colleagues and friends. I have witnessed it and said nothing. And, I know that in the academy we shame students.

To the students, fellow staff, parents or any others whom I may have shamed, I am sorry. To all of those who have shamed me, I forgive you.

I believe that shaming is related to student affairs “burn-out.” I’ve always thought of burn-out as running on empty, fumes. You cannot give to others what you do not have within yourself first. Perhaps we burn-out because we shame each other into thinking that who we are is not enough.

I wonder what our profession would look like if we all took a long, hard, look at ourselves and acknowledged the times when we have shamed and been shamed. What would happen if we all committed to doing better?

I will keep searching until I find where I belong. And I will be bringing all of me.