We've all felt the power of shame. We feel exposed, totally flawed, and hopeless to do anything about it. Shame can be so devastating that all we want to do is hide.
And watching a friend suffer a shame experience or listening to a friend share how ashamed they feel about a failure, a broken relationship, or a terrible mistake they've made can trigger shame in us, too. That's one of the paradoxes of shame: it's contagious.
The immense power of shame can make us try to ward it off by saying the wrong things.
If a friend tells you she feels ugly, don't say, "But you're so beautiful!"
If a friend says they feel like a failure, don't tally their successes for them.
If a friend shares a humiliating mistake, don't counter with all the right choices they've made.
When your friends are suffering, contradicting them isn't helpful, even if you mean well. What may seem to you like being helpful can have feel like emotional bullying or obtuseness. That sort of response can come across as denying what your friends are feeling, not understanding the depth of their misery, and perhaps even not caring enough.
Be warm, be sympathetic, listen, empathize, ask how you can help. Don't rush to deny what they're feeling, or turn into a mindless cheerleader. That's never the most helpful move.
It's harder to experience someone's shame along with them than it is to rush to try and "fix it" -- but the first option is the best one. Maybe they'll want a hug, maybe not. Listening and understanding without judgment or trying to make it go away is enough.
Lev Raphael is the author of Edith Wharton's Prisoners of Shame and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon.