The Hidden Motivation: Shame Part 2: How to Use It to Chart Character Growth

In my October 1st article, I defined shame and described how it shows up. I outlined the shame spiral, which makes explicable characters acting in inexplicable ways. Now we move on to how to use this tool to craft character arcs.

Shame is a powerful way to show character growth. Dr. Brené Brown, who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for over a decade, outlines three steps to follow to break the cycle of shame. Starting with a character lost in shame (as outlined in Part 1), chart a character’s recognition and use of them to chart growth:

  1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. “I would say to myself, ‘God, you’re so stupid, Brené,’” Brown says. “I would never talk to my kids that way.” Show a character’s self-talk shifting.
  2. Reach out to someone you trust. Show a character moving from isolation to increasing levels of vulnerability with others.
  3. Tell your story. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says. The ultimate level of vulnerability is sharing a shame story. This could complete a growth arc as a character finally shares her/his deepest secrets.
  4. Secrecy, silence and judgment: those are the three things shame needs to grow exponentially in our lives. The antidote? Empathy. [Shame] cannot survive being spoken and being met with empathy.” [1]Your character will need to find someone who has empathy for them in order for these steps to be possible. [Italicized comments mine.]


These are not easy steps to follow, so don’t show them as easy in your story. It’s a hard truth that “the greater the humiliation, the more strength of character will be required to overcome it.”[2] Please don’t show a character overcoming such a challenge alone. It’s unrealistic, and it sends the shaming message that asking for help is weak. As someone who has suffered from a crippling level of shame her whole life, I can tell you with authority and from personal experience that it’s not until you ask for help that anything can really begin to shift. But asking for help is as difficult as living in the prison of shame.

There are three reasons overcoming shame so difficult to do. “We change from a place of self-worth, not a place of shame, powerlessness and isolation.”[3] So first a character must deal with powerlessness and isolation; only then can they shift their self-worth.

Powerlessness: “Shame often produces overwhelming and painful feelings of confusion, fear, anger, judgment and/or the need to escape or hide from the situation. It’s difficult to identify shame as the core issue when we’re trying to manage all these very intense feelings. It would be highly unusual to be in the middle of a shaming experience and think, “Oh, I’m aware of what’s happening—this is shame. What are my choices and how can I change this?” Even when we recognize it, the silencing and secret nature of shame makes it very difficult for us to identify and act on the choices that could actually facilitate change or free us from the shame trap. This is what I mean by powerlessness.”[4] A character is powerless to change in the face of shame because they can’t necessarily recognize it’s in control. The first step is to recognize what is making them feel powerless—the secret they can’t bear to share with anyone for fear of the isolation threatened if they do.


Isolation: “Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Relational-Cultural theorists from the Stone Center at Wellesley College, have beautifully captured the overwhelming nature of isolation. They write, “We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness.”[5] As awful as this feeling of isolation is, because of the secretive nature of shame, sufferers feel trapped in it. Why? Because it is combined with powerlessness.

isolation_8_by_jessica_art-d6tz9dvThen they must deal with the issue of self-worth. “It’s no easy feat to admit to flaws, because that means they’re real and we have to confront them. Accepting our mistakes or shortcomings—choices that may not have served us well, unflattering ways others may perceive us, or subtle imperfections that gnaw away at us—is uncomfortable….”[6] To put it mildly. Empathy from another character is both how your character develops trust and a big part in how they begin to change their self-talk, which reveals self-worth. “[S]elf-talk is essential in breaking free from the shame spiral.”[7] When a shamed person recognizes another’s empathy, the hold shame has on them begins to lessen, and there is room for their self-talk to shift, as well. Showing our character’s inner voice is how we chart this shift.

These reasons are why it is so terribly difficult to move beyond shame. To do it, a character must reveal the very thing they believe will make them isolated outcasts forever. The arc must follow a) recognition of the secret being kept and/or the power of fear it has over them; b) the ability to develop a trusting relationship with someone based on empathy; and c) the ability to overcome the fear inherent in revealing that very secret, which can’t be done until the character’s self-worth is stronger than their fear. This happens when the character realizes a very important distinction: “[W]ho she is [is] distinct from the things she’s done.”[8] Again, this cannot be done alone. Please don’t show it being done in isolation.

You can also use the reverse of this process of moving closer to show setbacks in your character’s growth arc. The reverse involves moving away, moving toward, and moving against. “In order to deal with shame, we have learned to move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and secret-keeping. We have also learned the strategy of moving toward. This can be seen when we attempt to earn connection by appeasing and pleasing. Last, we develop ways to move against. These include trying to gain power over others, using shame to fight shame, and aggression.”[9]

The back-and-forth nature of this struggle is tailor-made for the romance genre, or any genre which features a relationship. We add power to our stories when we understand the underlying reasons why we’re adding events to a character’s arc. Shame, and the ways I’ve shown we can use it as writers, makes our job easier and adds such depth and sympathy to our characters—and draws empathy from our readers.

There is so much more I could write about this very important subject and its connection to deep characterization and growth. Please, if you’re interested, start by reading Brené Brown’s Women & Shame: Reaching Out, Speaking Truths and Building Connection (3C Press, 2004).

As I said at the end of Part 1, this is a tough article. Unlike most writing on our craft, this has the potential for you to recognize much of what I’ve written about in yourself, as well. I know it was hard for me to research and write. Please know that, wherever you are in relation to this subject, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. As Dr. Brown says, if you are able, grab those people you trust the most and “reach out and tell your story. You’ve got to speak your shame.” If you are struggling, please—help is both available and necessary. Take good care of yourself.

[1] Brené Brown’s 3 Steps to Break the Cycle of Shame,

[2] David Corbett, The Art of Character, Penguin Books, 2013, p.148. This book has several excellent discussions on shame and exercises to explore it in a character.

[3] Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society,, August, 2004.

[4] Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society,, August, 2004.

[5] Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver, Motherhood, Shame, and Society,, August, 2004.

[6] Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014.

[7] Dr. Brené Brown quoted by Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014

[8] Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014

[9] Karen Horney (pioneering psychologist who disputed Freud and explained the differences between men and women through culture and society instead of through inherent differences) via Dr. Brené Brown, Motherhood, Shame, and Society,, August, 2004.

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