Why do social-community expectations have such an influence over us? Dr. Brown believes that a sense of belonging and group membership are especially important in the lives of mothers
when we feel rejected or even threatened with rejection by a group we value, we are very vulnerable to shame (Brown, 2004).
How do mothers get the group connection they crave without experiencing the shame that often accompanies it? Dr. Brown thinks the answer lies in being vulnerable and practicing critical awareness; “if we want to belong to groups that offer us connection, power and a sense of freedom, we must choose our groups with some level of acknowledged vulnerability and critical awareness. We need to understand why group membership is important to us (acknowledging vulnerability) and how the groups really work (critical awareness)” (Brown, 2004). Dr. Brown refers to this as shame resilience.
Dr. Brown’s Shame Resilience Theory involves four key elements; understanding shame, acknowledging our vulnerabilities, developing critical awareness and sharing our stories. The opposite of shame is empathy (Brown, 2012).
Shame resilience and redefining ideal self through coaching
People with shame resilience display four common characteristics:
- They know what shame is. They know it is not embarrassment or guilt. They talk about their feelings
- They understand their shame triggers. This is different for everyone.
- They practice critical awareness. They reality check any assumptions that come up with shame. Is it really true?
- They reach out and speak their shame to a trusted friend (Brown, 2012)
Coaching can help a client to identify and name their emotions. The process of talking through an intensely painful episode can help the client to understand that what they are experiencing is actually shame. This is especially important for mothers who often confuse shame for guilt. Guilt is when we think we have done something bad; shame is when we think we are bad. For example, a new mother is struggling to breastfeed her newborn baby, the baby will not latch on and the mother has developed mastitis. She claims to feel guilt about giving the baby a bottle, that is makes her a bad mother. After some discussion with the coach she realizes that she doesn’t believe that the act of giving her baby a bottle is a bad thing but she does believe she will be perceived as a bad mother if she does. She realizes that what she is experiencing is in fact shame not guilt. Now that the emotion has been identified the client is better able to talk about the emotion and more able to recognize it in the future.
Coaching can assist clients to get to know their shame triggers. Unfortunately the only way to do this is to experience them over and over again. Because the mother in our example now knows what shame feels like for her she is able to identify the situations where she is most likely to experience it. It may be around breastfeeding, when her child is crying in public or when her pre-maternity clothes still don’t fit after six months post-partum. By being aware of when shame is likely to strike we are better able to prepare for it and head it off at the pass through positive self-talk, gratitude and critical awareness.
Critical awareness examines how groups work and the influence this has on us. Through coaching mothers can develop a better understanding of the social-community expectations surrounding motherhood as well as their own. Some coaching questions that can help develop critical awareness are:
- Who benefits from these expectations?
- How realistic are these expectations?
- Can I be all of these things all of the time?
- Do my expectations conflict with each other?
- Am I describing who I want to be or who others want me to be?
- If someone sees me this way what will happen?
- Can I control how others see me? How do I try?
The ability to speak our shame is critical to shame resilience and coaching offers the perfect setting in which to do this. The coaching relationship is safe, confidential and non-judgmental. A client can share thoughts and feelings with a coach that can often be too painful to share with their loved ones. If shame is met with empathy from a coach it cannot survive. Through the coaching relationship the client is able to contextualize (see the big picture), normalize (“it’s not just me”) and demystify (share with others) their experience of shame.
Coaching can also help a client define their core values and how these relate to motherhood. Using our previous example, our mother, through coaching, discovers that the underlying belief that “good” mothers breastfeed exclusively is at odds with her core values of self-nurturing, flexibility and her own happiness. She is able to see that lovingly giving her newborn a bottle of formula for a few weeks while her mastitis heals and trying again if she wishes is in line with her core values and will be a better solution for her as a mother.
By developing resilience to shame clients can be returned to a position of power over their mothering decisions. They are free to create an ideal self based on their core values not social-community expectations. This ideal self is much more likely to be congruent with their actual self according to Rogers’ model of self-concept. As discussed earlier, congruence between actual and ideal self enables clients to self-actualize and achieve greater levels of happiness.
The use of coaching to create greater shame resilience in mothers experiencing issues with self-concept is promising. Telephone coaching is particularly accessible for mothers who have limited scheduling flexibility. An effort should be made to ensure that affordable life coaching is available to mothers and this is an area that Maternal Health Centres could explore perhaps providing referrals during the post-natal health nurse visits which are offered in many countries.
The exploratory and non-judgmental nature of coaching lends itself very well to working with mothers experiencing incongruence of actual and ideal self due to social-community expectations and further research into its efficacy would be beneficial both to mothers and the coaching community. One area worth is exploring is the use of group coaching with mothers. Properly conducted group coaching would provide all the benefits of coaching but also create a group where the dynamic is based on being non-judgmental, supportive and the group norms and values would reflect this. This would be a welcome respite from the group dynamics most mothers are exposed to. However, if not properly managed, group coaching could merely reinforce the social-community expectations mothers are already railing against. This would be an interesting area for future research.
As no one else can know how we perceive, we are the best experts on ourselves. Carl Rogers (1959)
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