Brené Brown studies an uncomfortable subject. An inconvenient truth.
Vulnerability is uncomfortable, but Brown has discovered something hidden behind it. It’s something that as a society we keep under wraps.
It’s so hidden that we don’t realize it’s the cause of our broken relationships.
Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who studies vulnerability, which brought her to the hidden gremlin no one wants to admit or talk about: shame.
Her first TED Talk on the power of vulnerability went viral and is one of the top five most viewed TED Talks.
In her second TED Talk (see below) she explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. To begin with, she used a very clever ruse to let the audience realize that vulnerability is not weakness.
She asked the audience: “How many of you think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously?” The majority of people put up their hands.
Then she asked: “This past week at TED, how many of you, when you saw vulnerability up here, thought it was pure courage?” The entire audience put up their hands.
“And that’s what this conference, to me, is about. Life is about daring greatly.” When a speaker is about to walk onto the stage and thinks: “I’m going in and I’m going to try this” shame is the gremlin who says: “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty, smart, talented or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.
And when you manage to quiet shame down, and you go ahead anyway, you discover who that critic is: it’s you.
Brown explains: Shame drives two big tapes: “never good enough” and “who do you think you are?”
Ah… who doesn’t relate to this secret screaming loudly inside?
Brown goes on to explain that shame is not guilt. “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is ‘I am bad.’ Guilt is ‘I did something bad.’”
She hits the nail on the head with this insightful answer to having done something wrong and apologizing for it.
Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
Here’s what we need to realize
Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. The more shame there is about these behaviors, the greater their hold on a person.
Guilt is inversely correlated with these behaviors. If we can hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be and see it as a mistake, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive. There can be reconciliation and resolution is possible.
As an example of shame hiding in society Brown refers to the call around the world to have a conversation about race and says we cannot have that conversation without shame. “Because you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.”
Towards a solution
Shame is an epidemic in our society and we need to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other, says Brown. And she comes back a full circle to her original TED Talk: “If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.”