Sunday, December 6, 2015

Shame and vulnerability

A dear friend recently sent me a link to watch this long-format (90-minute) interview with Dr. Brené Brown:

I've been a fan of Dr. Brown and her work for a number of years. She's a researcher-storyteller who studies human connection, shame, vulnerability and wholeheartedness. I've written about her on my blog before because her work was the inspiration for me giving my tiny house its name: Wholehearted House.

I've mostly come in contact with Dr. Brown's work on-line, in the form of TED talks and podcasts, but watching the long-form interview with Chase Jarvis inspired me dig deeper into her work by reading the books she has written. So, I put in requests for all four of them at the library.

Her books, in order of publication, are 1. I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), 2. The Gifts of Imperfection, 3. Daring Greatly and 4. Rising Strong. The first book is about shame, the second about vulnerability, the third about courage and connection and the fourth is about the process of using shame resilience strategies to work through shame triggers and build greater connection.

My personal journey with shame

I grew up with a legacy of shame in my family that came down from my very staunchly Victorian, Methodist great-great-grandparents on one side and equally staunch Roman Catholic great-great-grandparents on the other side (all of whom were no doubt only bringing their beliefs forward from their parents and they from theirs, etc.) Expectations were high in my family – for intelligence, achievement, post-secondary education, morality, etc. And the punishment for failing to always conform to those high ideals (i.e. being human), was often shame.

I'm not pointing any fingers here. I don't think the shame in my family was malicious in its intent, it was just the way things were, the way they have been for generations. As Brené Brown points out, shame is a universal phenomenon, experienced by every human who isn't a sociopath. In North American culture, I would say that shame has grown to be a basic operating principle in a majority of contexts. I have definitely worked in offices/for clients and had friendships and intimate relationships that functioned predominantly in a culture of shame.

Shame is a fear of disconnection, of not being worthy of love and belonging, and as such it strikes at the core of us. Love and belonging are two of our most basic human needs.

The cultures of shame I have experienced have included messages and feelings like the following.

You're no good/not good enough and therefore:
  • this is all your fault, or 
  • you should feel ashamed of making this mistake, or
  • I am better/more important/more powerful/more entitled than you are, or
  • you're not getting a raise/not worth the same salary as your equivalent colleagues, or 
  • I'm not going to talk to you anymore, or 
  • I'm going to say bad things about you behind your back, or 
  • I am telling you on your Facebook wall that I despise you/your beliefs, or
  • I am withholding love/sex/connection from you.
Shame tends to get around.

Sometimes I have been the one shaming (I include judging and feeling contemptuous here) other people and sometimes other people have been the ones shaming me.

I have often found myself in "shame loops" – where my shame has gotten stirred up and my response is self-righteousness or judgment which I hope will trigger someone else's shame and protect me from my own. The loop part happens when the other person in the dynamic turns around and shames me right back. And so on. And so on.

Shame – and the vulnerability it stirs up – are deeply painful and difficult to bear. Because of this, they are highly transferable. Too painful to accept and process, we tend to act them out and try to get them off our plates – like hot potatoes. It seems easier to pass shame on than to work shame and vulnerability through.

When I am not successful passing shame and vulnerability on, I tend to armour up against them in an attempt to wall them off. Brené Brown outlines three main forms of armour that people put on to protect against the vulnerability of shame: foreboding joy, perfectionism and numbing.

The booby prize of perfectionism

For roughly the first three-quarters of my life, I lived very deep in the realm of perfectionism. For me, the thinking was: only perfect people are worthy of love and connection. Of course, I knew I wasn't perfect, but I sure was trying. (Very trying, as we sometimes joke in my family). I wanted to be worthy of love and connection – and I thought that being perfect was the only way to achieve that.

After a whole lot of therapy, at some point in my thirties I was able to gradually let go of trying to be perfect, most of the time. I learned how to cut myself some slack, but I think I simultaneously gave up on the hope that I would ever be worthy of love and belonging. I changed my behaviour, but I didn't change my thinking. I still believed that only perfect people are worthy of love and belonging. And since I finally understood that perfection is impossible, that I was not perfect and never would be, I did not deserve love and belonging. Plain and simple.

With that kind of thinking at my core, it is no surprise that the relationship I had been in for a many years collapsed. Looking back now through this lens of Dr. Brown's shame research, I can see how that relationship fell apart largely because of shaming and blaming. Brené has a great line: "If blame is driving, shame is riding shotgun." (Daring Greatly, p. 195) I can see how I wasn't happy and couldn't accept that that was my own responsibility. I needed to work through my own vulnerability and make my own peace with myself and my life. I needed to believe that I was worthy of love and belonging. And I believe my partner needed to figure out similar things for himself. Because we weren't yet able to work through the things we needed to, we resorted to passing shame back and forth between us, stomping on one other's vulnerability, and getting angry and frustrated with each other for not being able to solve/remove each others' difficult feelings. Shame and blame were fundamental to the way we related to ourselves and to one another. And that dynamic went from uncomfortable to intolerable to impossible.

The difference between shame and guilt

Perfectionism is a both an armour against feeling shame and a major re-enforcer of shame. The thinking runs like this: If I am not perfect, I am a flawed/bad person. This is where Dr. Brown's distinction between shame and guilt – between one's essence and one's behaviour – comes in. Brené Brown distinguishes shame from guilt by explaining that shame is experienced as I AM bad in contrast to guilt which is experienced as I DID something bad.

Guilt holds the possibility of change, hope, agency. If I have done something bad, I can make amends, seek forgiveness and strive not to do that bad thing again.

Shame, on the other hand, robs us of agency. If I am a bad person, there is no point in trying to make amends and seek forgiveness. I am simply doomed to a life of being bad, and therefore unacceptable,  unworthy of love and connection.

Framing an incident as I DID a bad thing and am still WORTHY of love and belonging creates a very different experience from I AM a bad person and am fundamentally UNWORTHY of love and belonging. (In the language of perfectionism, this can translate to I MADE A MISTAKE and am still WORTHY of love and belonging versus I AM A MISTAKE and am fundamentally UNWORTHY of love and belonging.)

When people frame their experiences through the lens of guilt, there is hope for a positive outcome. An experience can be turned around.  Something "bad" that threatened disconnection can transform into closer connection.

When people frame their experiences through the lens of shame, the opportunity to transform disconnection to connection is lost. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, and a number of other behaviours that can cause a great deal of damage to individuals and their connections with others. It seems to me that these are essentially manifestations of the main armour tactics Brené Brown lays out: foreboding joy, perfectionism and numbing.

Shame resilience

Since shame is a universal experience, it is not something that can be eliminated or "cured". However, what we can do is develop shame resilience – ways of using courage, critical awareness, reality-checking and vulnerability to work with the shame we experience and move through it more smoothly. We can transform shame from a weapon we use against ourselves and others to a tool/educator that we use to grow into greater connection with ourselves and others.

Dr. Brown lays out a number of tools for building shame resilience that she has identified through her research. These are ways in which people go from thinking I am flawed and therefore unworthy of love and connection to I am flawed and also worthy of love and connection — and not worthy despite being flawed, but because of being flawed and because of finding the courage to accept being flawed and the vulnerability that comes with that.

In our culture of blaming and shaming, we are all faced with the struggle of shame and "shame hangovers". We can deflect, we can wallow, we can resist. Or we can lean in with our vulnerability, accept ourselves, learn how to be ourselves and to have more grace around our humanness and our shame.

I am not going to try to explain Dr. Brown's tools for shame resilience here. I couldn't possibly do them justice in a blog post. If you are interested in knowing more, I urge you to read Daring Greatly. After getting this book from the library, I've decided that I want to own a copy so I can have it on hand while I continue to do work developing greater shame resilience (I feel the need to give a shout-out here to my awesome local booksellers at Lexicon Books – thank you for ordering a copy of Daring Greatly for me to buy).

A postcript about parenting:

I am not a parent, but I have been parented. And so while I hesitate to put this forward because I fear that some people might tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about and that this is none of my business, I'm going to put this forward anyway: I think Dr. Brown's writing about parenting is amazing. She doesn't give specific advice about how to parent – she describes a path to becoming an engaged and vulnerable parent raising children in a family that is committed to creating shame resilience in every member of the family. Even if shame is not a major issue inside a given family, it is so prevalent in North American culture that it is very often an issue from a very young age in schools, on sports teams and on playgrounds (manifesting as bullying, clique-y-ness, shaming power trips – yes, with that last I am thinking of one of my junior high school gym teachers). With this in mind, having an eye to shame-resilience as a parent strikes me as a very valuable thing for children, parents and our culture as a whole. If you want a quick sample to see if Brené Brown's approach to parenting appeals to you, check this out:


  1. Thank you, Alex. This is wonderfully helpful synopsis. I'm reading book number one, "I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't)" and it is touching my heart on every page. Wow!