The Armor

May 5, 2016

I think it is no secret I love Brene’ Brown. She is a visionary. She has changed how I view my world, particularly in relationship to how I view issues related to shame. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the message “I am bad.” “I am a mess.” The focus is on self, not behavior, with the result that we feel alone.”

Shame is, in short, painful. And, unless you are a sociopath, you feel it. And you probably don’t like to feel it. The bulk of my work with clients is getting them to recognize the feelings of shame they are having and work through them.

But we humans are a resourceful bunch. And because we don’t like the pain of shame, we have adopted various ways of shielding ourselves from it’s powerful grip. Today, I would like to write about the ways people attempt to avoid or reduce feeling shame. Brene’ refers to it as “The Amor.” Why? Well, it makes sense metaphorically. We are attempting to armor up to the feeling we don’t want to experience. Think back to your historical understanding of putting on armor. There’s metal mesh, there’s a big, clunky helmet, there are impressive, heavy weapons and breast plates, shields, footwear made of thick metal…just to name a few pieces. So let’s take a look at the armor humans use to try to protect themselves from shame.

The first piece of armor we will look at is Perfectionism. Perfectionism is something I can really relate to. It’s that need to obsess and get it just right. In some professions, perfectionism is applauded. I once heard a graduate student tell me that you can’t get through graduate school unless you are a little bit of a perfectionist. But there is a vast difference between striving for one’s best and trying to be perfect. Trying to be perfect is a part of armor because what you are really doing is trying to protect yourself from that intensely painful feeling of shame. Because you never want to deal with the ensuing shame messages that accompany the statement “OMG, Whitney, did you see this table? Your decimal points were off by one one hundredth.” Because shame says to you, in that moment, that you are stupid. You are a loser. You don’t deserve love and belonging. So, perfectionism makes you check and recheck rather than being able to say “Oh, I made a mistake. Thank you for pointing that out” and recognizing it’s an easy mistake that anyone could make.

Often, with perfectionism, when I check into this piece of armor, people say “Oh no, I am not a perfectionist. I don’t care if my house is dirty.” But I think it’s important to point out that you can be perfectionistic in some realms but not others. And this typically means you are more susceptible to shame in that area. If you don’t care if your house is dirty but you are perfectionistic about how you portray your relationship, you may have some shame messages about how relationships are supposed to look that you haven’t worked through.

The second piece of armor is what Brene’ calls “Forboding Joy.” I call it “Crapping in your Cheerios.” She’s far more of an intellect, obviously. FJ (or CiyC) is defined as that feeling people get when they are right about to feel that absolute bliss and immediately begin picturing how it could all end. Imagine thinking about how beautiful your children are as they play in the yard and then immediately imagining them being run over by a rogue truck. Another example of FJ/CiyC being called in to the boss’ office after a particularly great day and immediately assuming that you are being let go.

This armor protects us from getting caught with our pants down. I mean, how dare I stop to enjoy my beautiful life? That leaves me open to being taken advantage of or being caught unaware. When practicing forboding joy, we are telling ourselves that we must always be prepared for the worst outcome and anything less makes room for our inner shame voice to tell us that we were stupid, unprepared, or not enough.

The third piece of armor that people assume is called Numbing. People can numb themselves in a variety of ways; they can numb by overeating, overdrinking, using substances, diving into work, and staying on their electronics, just to name a few. Numbing is the attempt to feel less pain. The problem with this particular piece of armor is that when you numb the pain, you also numb the joy. I see this in the therapy room show up in the “I don’t care about anything” attitude of many youths. It’s a way to numb themselves from the pain and disappointment of shame. So they choose to disengage.

The fourth, fifth and sixth pieces of armor are called Shame Shields. People use these when they begin to feel shame slithering in. The first shield is called the People-Pleasing shield. This shield is activated when, after feeling shame, a person tries to immediately smooth things over or appease others when they feel shame. The second is called the Puffshield. This is acted out when people feeling shame engage in blame, power plays and personal put downs. Think of that puffer fish who senses danger and increases in size to scare others off. And the final shield is the Disappear shield. This occurs when a person hides, withdraws and keeps secrets as a means to manage their shame.

To use these in an example, imagine a time that I felt intense shame. A few years ago, I bought a new (to me) vehicle and was so happy about driving it. One day, I was running late and backed into my husband’s trailer he had parked behind me. I had a back up camera that I did not check. In that moment, my cheeks flushed, my ears got hot and my shame told me I was a terrible driver who did not deserve nice things.

To protect myself with the People-Pleasing shield might have looked like telling my husband about the accident while groveling and appeasing his frustration, all the while stoking the flames of my shame message. “I am so sorry. You’re right. I should have looked behind me. I am so stupid. I should have woken up earlier.” If I had brought out the Puff shield (which is my favorite, if anyone is taking note), I would have marched indoors and yelled at my husband for his own stupidity for parking his trailer there. I would have blustered, called names and blamed him and taken absolutely none of the responsibility for the accident. If I had used the Disappear shield, I would not have told my husband about the incident at all and, if he saw the damage, would have lied or changed the subject to avoid thinking about it.

I wonder if you saw yourself in any of these strategies. Chances are good that you did. This armor serves a purpose. It is to protect you. But I urge you to think about the cost of using this protection. Real armor was hot, exhausting and heavy. The armor we use as humans to protect ourselves from shame can be equally taxing to our physical strength. Learning how to put it aside in times where it isn’t needed is the true test of life.

Whitney Warren Alexander LMFT, LADC owns and operates the Warren Alexander Group in Stillwater, Oklahoma. She specializes in treating adults, teens and couples.