Brené Brown and Listening to Shame

If you aren’t familiar with Brené Brown, she is something of a Beyonce figure for therapists, we are all thoroughly obsessed with her. And for good reason! Her mix of wisdom and self-deprecating humor has the power to leave a person feeling more confident about their pain and insecurities. Her original TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” was amazing and really put her on the map, but today I want to dive into another TED Talk she did two years later, called “Listening to Shame”. It may be eight years old, but it is still pure gold. Here’s the link, take a 20 minute listen, and come back.

TED Talk Link:

Image Source: Screenshot from video

Shame is an emotion that serves a pretty powerful motivator. It will have us shoving down other emotions or thoughts that we are embarrassed of, running away, going into fix-it mode, self-medicating, or just make us feel like we are walking on eggshells with life all the time. “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders…”. Shame is universal emotion in that, no matter what culture on Earth we come from, there is always something that can trigger shame. The bottom line is, us humans want to be loved, accepted, be seen in a positive life and be proud of ourselves, which makes shame very hard to just “sit with”. Shame is an emotion that tends to hover over us a little bit more strongly than some other emotions, and may feel a little more permanent than other emotions.

So what is shame? Shame is the sense that something about us is not acceptable. Brené breaks it down simply in comparing it to guilt: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is I am bad, guilt is I did something bad”. Taking it a step further, shame is the bully that doesn’t let go: Brené describes it as “…the gremlin that says you’re not good enough… the critic that we see pointing and laughing 99% of the time is who? Us. Shame drives two big tapes, never good enough and if you can talk it out of that one, who do you think you are?”. Shame inherently puts an emotional wall between us and the people we are trying to connect with, when we are worrying as to how others will look at us because of whatever it is that is driving our shame. Unfortunately, shame can also frequently lead to even more isolation when others don’t know how to support someone through their shaming situation: “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially- secrecy, silence and judgement.”.

It seems like shame can be tied to just about anything we tie to our sense of self worth. But we can find vast sources of shame in our culture by just looking at the expectations we place on people. Shame is what can happen when we feel like we are not meeting the standards placed on us by society, culture, or our loved ones. An example of this is through our traditional gender expectations: “For women shame is: do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat… this web of unattainable conflicting competing expectations about who we are supposed to be… For men shame is not a bunch of competing conflicting expectations, shame is one: do no be perceived as what? Weak.”. Not meeting whatever norm or expectation can make us feel less than if we feel enough pressure on us to meet the norms. Brené doesn’t address the LGBTQ+ community in this talk, but shame is something that all to frequently accompanies an LGBTQ+ identity when we see the LGBTQ+ person straying from these gender norms, religious norms, or other societal norms without the support of their loved ones or community.

A big part in this puzzle piece that Brené talks about, is the importance of connecting with our vulnerability to not allow shame to “win”. “I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty… our most accurate measurement of courage… to let ourselves to be seen, be honest”. We as a society seem to fear failure of all sorts, as we seem to feel that a failure will permanently define us somehow. That societal fear of failure makes us also fear what fuels the risk to fail, which is vulnerability. And for that, vulnerability has be slapped with a bad reputation: “vulnerability is not weakness, and that myth is profoundly dangerous”, when in fact, willingness to risk failure and show vulnerability is the only way our race ever grows: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change”. But I think as a culture, we still want to see that innovation, creativity and change, so when other people are willing to be vulnerable or risk failure, we are curious as to how it will go. Sometimes we tend to see our own vulnerability as weakness, but others’ vulnerability as courage. Or maybe we need to see someone else show their vulnerability and survive it, to know that we can show our vulnerability too.

So how do we move away from shame, and keep it from creating the destruction in our lives that it is capable of? Let’s look at the second half of that petri dish quote from above: “If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: “Me Too”.

Empathy. Think about it, if you have a source of shame, it means you are worried about how someone else will react to something about you. But if you are surrounded by relationships where there is no expectation of “being” anything in particular, that worry doesn’t need to exist. That empathy will send shame away and allow vulnerability to thrive.

When looking at the benefits of vulnerability, It’s really fascinating to look at the careers or lives of people who are successful in some way. I think sometimes we forget to recognize that many times success is preceded by vulnerability, pain and failure and somehow just focus on the end product or “the destination”. Brené gives a nod to the speakers at TED “You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one that gets on this stage so far that I’ve seen has not failed, I have failed miserably… I don’t think the world understands that because of shame… and that’s what this conference to me is about… daring greatly”.

As a society, how much more could we accomplish if we were not afraid? If empathy was available to all in excess, vulnerability was cherished, and shame didn’t have to exist? At the very least, it would allow us to be kinder to ourselves and the people around us.