Combatting the dirty little secret of infertility: Shame

If there’s one thing I know for sure is that being diagnosed with and struggling through infertility can bring up a whole slew of unwanted negative emotions. One of the toughest to deal with is SHAME. When we try to conceive, and bear our own biological children and have difficulty, we start to think thoughts such as “I’m no good. My body is busted. What will my parents and friends think if I get IVF? What if I’m barren?” …It’s awful. It’s debilitating. And it just plain hurts.

I’m currently reading a book called Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. I’ve mentioned her before shortly after I was lucky enough to see her speak live. She is a research professor who specializes in analyzing and speaking about shame, vulnerability, and courage. She has devoted an entire chapter to shame and developing shame resilience. Wow, is it ever eye-opening! I wish I had read this years ago as it would have helped me greatly! Now, I would like to take time to impart what I’m learning to help you.

As many of us go through infertility, often we don’t talk about it very much or at all. I was recently at a party where an old friend of mine, who now has a two year old, said to me: “I heard that you went through infertility and IVF and all of that. I’m so sorry to hear that. I never knew. That’s awful!” It felt very validating to hear him say that. And yes, I didn’t talk about my struggles with every single friend because, hey, it’s embarrassing… and can bring about feelings of shame. I asked him if he had any troubles conceiving at a late age with his wife. “Nope.” Yeah, shame triggered. My reproductive parts are crappy, I guess.

But, here’s what I learned about shame: “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. If we speak about shame, it begins to wither. Language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”

She goes on to call this work:

“Gremlin Ninja Warrior Training”


… because the creatures from the movie “Gremlins” were destroyed when they were exposed to light. Let’s do that with shame in our lives!

Or if you prefer a Harry Potter metaphor: Sirius Black tells Harry “You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. We’ve all got both good light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” We ALL experience shame in our lives, thus it behooves all of us to learn to manage it well. Instead of thinking of ourselves as bad or defective people, think of yourself as a hero of your own life, on your own hero’s journey, remembering that vulnerability and love are the truest marks of courage.

The Bad News

So, in a nutshell, we ALL experience shame, but no one wants to talk about it – yet, the less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives. Hmmmm, that’s not good! Let’s deconstruct this a bit. Again, from the Daring Greatly book: “Shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection) is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection – it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. ‘I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection.’ I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Examples of how shame can manifest with infertility struggles:

Shame is not being able to get pregnant.

Shame is finding out you have a low sperm count.

Shame is hiding the fact that you are going through IVF.

Shame is telling your parents that they’ll never be grandparents.

Shame is infertility.

The emotion of shame can hurt and cause real pain. It’s human nature to fear social rejection, and long for social acceptance and a sense of self-worth. There is real pain that can result from infertility through fear of not “having something in common” anymore and the potential resulting disconnection and feelings of worthlessness. Shame is also highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression and eating disorders. Yuck!

The Good News

It is possible to move through the experience of shame in one piece, with our values in tact and with more courage, compassion, and connection then we had before. The antidote to shame as it turns out is empathy and developing tools to help build shame resilience. The book goes on to say: “Shame is a social concept – it happens between people – it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect and experience empathy.”

The four elements of shame resilience that can lead to empathy and healing are as follows:

1) Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers – Are you able to tell the physical signs in your body when you are experiencing shame? Can you let the initial wave move through you? And are you able to figure out what messages or thoughts triggered the emotion in the first place?

2) Practicing Critical Awareness – Ask yourself when you have negative self-talk: “Is this really true? How do I know it’s true?” (such as “My body is broken” or “I’m not good enough.”) Give yourself a reality check about what messages and expectations you have for yourself or others have for you.

3) Reaching Out – Connecting with others is part of the way out of shame. It’s impossible to experience the healing effects of empathy if you are not connecting with others and sharing your story.

4) Speaking Shame – Say the word out loud. Take its power away. Tell others how you feel and ask for what you need to help you work through feelings of shame to disempower it.

Shame resilience is a tool in our infertility toolbox that helps us heal us from the pain and protect connection – our connection with ourselves and our connections with the people that we care about. Like strengthening a muscle through repeated work, you can become more adept at managing and working through ­­tough emotions like shame. But we can’t do it alone – we need each other. Remembering that we are not alone is half of the battle. We are always here for you. And know that we understand. You can get through this!

Please join me next week to hear more about my personal journey down the infertility path. I look forward to speaking with you. I wish you the best on your journey.

Warm regards,

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