Toronto People with AIDS Foundation is currently running a 12-week, psycho-educational program on shame and shame resiliency developed by popular self-help academic and speaker, Dr. Brené Brown.
Two and a half years ago, Steve Gould, volunteer at PWA, had an a-ha moment when he was introduced to Brown’s lectures during a training program.
“They used her work to help promote facilitation skills. I fell in love with her. I went home and watched her on YouTube again and again until my partner was sick of her,” Gould said.
Gould said, he felt very strongly about Brown’s workshop on shame resilience, named Connections, and forwarded the videos to Suzanne Paddock, director of programs and services at PWA.
“Steve brought it to PWA and said ‘I feel this needs to happen here, and I want to be part of it,’” Paddock said. “It was really his persistence because his volunteer role was stationed right outside my office, and every time I’d go past him, he would ask, ‘Have you watched the videos? What do you think of this idea?’”
Scott Kennelly, volunteer at PWA, found strong support among peers and facilitators in the Connections program. PHOTO BY SHAZIA ISLAM
Paddock finally did watch the videos, and she and Gould decided to participate in Brown’s workshop on shame resilience and then co-facilitate the series for other PWA volunteers free of charge.
“In Brené Brown’s work, she said, you can’t facilitate this workshop unless you’ve taken this workshop,” said Gould.
PWA purchased the workshop learning modules and resources from Brown in order to offer it to the non-profit organization’s volunteers.
Gould said, the aim of the workshop series was not to become shame-free, but for participants to develop strong coping strategies to manage negative self-judgement. “Brené Brown says, we all have shame, but no one wants to talk about shame. Unless we talk about it, the more power we give to it.”
Shame has a particular resonance in the HIV community, said Paddock. “The way that Brené defines shame is that it’s a painful experience of being flawed and unworthy of connection and support, and we think that tends to be unfortunately a lot of people’s experience when they become HIV positive.”
One of the workshop’s learning outcomes is for participants to be aware of the three ways people often respond to shame, said Gould. “Part of shame is the fight, flight, or freeze concept because shame can hit us the same way as physical pain.”
Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t, a homework resource in the workshop, states that people express shame through behaving angrily or aggressively as a defensive response to being judged by others or by themselves, through running away and isolating themselves, or through trying to appease others out of a fear of rejection.
Both Gould and Paddock underwent their own shame processing in order to help create a positive, supportive, and non-judgemental learning environment for the participants, who comprise of both people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS.
“My reaction to shame is flight,” said Gould. “I start to get nauseous, and I end up in my garage pacing. My garage doesn’t have any windows. That’s me insulating. So, what I’ve learned is to open the door, and call Suzanne or another friend when I’m feeling that shame.”
Gould said, as a man, he might be perceived by others as weak because he could not provide for his family, but after taking Brown’s workshop, he felt he could move out of the negativity a lot faster.
Paddock’s journey through shame helped her make some important discoveries in the world of dating.
“I realized my huge sense of social anxiety, and this wanting to control how people I was dating perceive me was just all-consuming,” she said. “What’s primarily come to me is my stigma and shame about my mental health, and how my anxiety and depression are some things I really try to hide from other people.”
After disclosing her mental health struggles with a new partner, and receiving a warm response, she felt more open to sharing her authentic self with others, Paddock said.
The workshop series has been offered twice at PWA, and the feedback from participants has been positive.
Connections co-facilitators, Suzanne Paddock and Steve Gould, share a moment before the next workshop class. PHOTO BY SHAZIA ISLAM
Scott Kennelly, volunteer at PWA, and alumni graduate of the pilot workshop series at the agency, said he was intrigued by the program when he too was going through a personal shame experience.
“My shame revolved around me resigning from my job over something I felt very strongly about,” Kennelly said. “You had a good-paying job, yeah? It could be hard. So what if it wasn’t the greatest. Suck it up, you’re a man, deal with it.”
But Kennelly said he had to leave the toxic workplace environment in order to be true to himself.
“It all fell into place. I didn’t know there would be a Connections class when all this was happening. I thought, wow, I really have to take this.”
He said the subject matter interested him and played a pivotal role in helping him understand his own decisions. “I’m an information-hungry person. I love learning, especially anything about people, and behaviour, relationships, empowerment, leadership, motivation, and inspiration. That turns my crank.”
Kennelly self-identifies as a person living with HIV and said Brown’s workshop could help break down barriers related to HIV stigma and shame.
“A lot of people when they’re diagnosed, their life shuts down, and that’s something I really wanted to get out of this class,” he said. “People don’t have to stop living. They can have hope, they can have friends, can have family, have relationships, aspirations, and dreams, everything that a normal person would have.”
Kennelly credited Gould and Paddock for encouraging a supportive and inclusive environment. “Suzanne and Steve made sure it was a really sacred place, welcoming space, protected space, and non-judgemental space,” he said. “That’s what Dr. Brown talks about, with empathy. It’s reaching down into that place of darkness, and shedding light on a situation, and then you’re bringing that person out.”
After the current 12-week program is finished, Gould and Paddock hope to offer it again in the community. Attendance to at least 10 out of the 12 sessions is mandatory, and participants are invited to a pre-workshop interview to help them decide if they are ready.
“We generally start with 12 [participants], and we generally lose a few. The 12-week is difficult,” said Gould. “We all have other things going on in our lives.”
Still, the experience for those who stick it out for the 12 intensive weeks is second to none.
“Shame is an overlooked emotion, common to everybody. Everyone’s going to feel shame at some point, and to teach them to be empathetic certainly opens up the world to dialogue,” said Kennelly. “And dialogue can change the world.”
About the author: Shazia Islam wears many hats. She is the PHA Support Coordinator at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, Peer Research Associate for the CHIWOS study at Women’s College Hospital, and a freelance writer and reporter. Her work has been published in Canadian Immigrant, Discorder, Humber Et Cetera, Convergence Magazine, and PositiveLite.com.