In June 2010, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, gave a TEDx talk in Houston on “the power of vulnerability,” condensing six years of research on shame resilience into a spare 20 minutes. Disarmingly hesitant at first, she didn’t so much address the audience as she seemed to confide in it, telling two interwoven stories: one about her academic research into shame and vulnerability, the other about the spiritual and psychological crisis the work precipitated in her, leading to a much deeper experience of authenticity and human connection.
The thesis of her talk went something like this: a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why the shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough . . . not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape.
The personal and social costs of this strategy, however, are great. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history,” she told audiences, with shopping, food, drugs, and alcohol being well-tested means for numbing out unpleasant emotions. Besides that, the whole shame/vulnerability-avoidance game backfires: by dodging emotional risks, we miss out on the genuine human connection we’re so terrified of losing in the first place.
But Brown’s research had shown that some people have escaped the shame trap. How? They let themselves be vulnerable. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful,” as Brown puts it. They somehow have developed a profound sense of inner worthiness. Rather than always thinking, I’m not good enough, they live in the belief I’m enough. Grounded in this rock-bottom sense of their fundamental acceptability as human beings, for whom being good enough is plenty good, they can take hold of their courage and accept their vulnerability, live “wholeheartedly” (a basic concept for Brown), loving without reservation or guarantees, living with the courage to be imperfect (unafraid to let others see their imperfections), opening themselves fully to whatever life brings, good or bad, pain or joy. In short, Brown said, “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were—which you have to absolutely do for connection.” Their mantra, so to speak, was “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”
Almost immediately, the number of viewers who’d seen the video online took off, and then within less than two years, grew to nearly six million people. (Since then, this talk has garnered a staggering 25.5 million views, making it one of the top-10 TED talks ever.) Unsurprisingly, Brown was asked to give another TED talk in March 2012, this one at the so-called flagship TED conference in Long Beach, California. The 2010 conference had been one of hundreds of modest, locally planned and sourced one-day community affairs (though licensed by the central TED organization), held all over the globe every year. The annual flagship conference, what we might call Big TED, is a five-day brainy extravaganza, costing attendees many thousands of dollars, and featuring as many famous or semifamous or wannabe famous thinkers, shakers, movers, doers, leaders, and “creatives” as can be assembled in one place at one time.
By any measure, Brené Brown is a phenomenon. And yet, notwithstanding her talents as a teacher and speaker or the surprising appeal that the subject of shame apparently holds for millions of people, it’s not immediately clear why she should be such a runaway hit. Haven’t therapists and pop psychologists and self-help gurus been talking and writing about shame and its malign effects—and possible antidotes—for decades? John Bradshaw, the famous counselor and motivational speaker par excellence first shot to fame nearly 30 years ago with his concept of “toxic shame,” popularized in his workshops and bestselling book Healing the Shame that Binds You (1988), and shame as an issue in both psychotherapy and pop psychology has been on a roll ever since. So why has Brené Brown made such a splash, and why now?
It might have something to do with the internet, which has made people more aware of the vast reach that shame has in our culture. While public shaming has always been a popular sport, the advent of online shaming—did it originate in 2004 with Facebook or 2006 with Twitter?—took it to unprecedented levels. Nowadays, the mass shaming of just about anybody for just about any reason, however trivial, is much easier, longer lasting, and possibly more poisonous than at any time in human history. It isn’t just the local villagers who jeer at the shamed person in the stocks for a day, but the increasing thousands and then millions who watch and revel in someone’s downfall and maybe tweet a few punches themselves, increasing the virulence of the attack and keeping it alive, often for months.
But you don’t have to be prey to a million snarling digital curs to experience the kind of shame that, in Brown’s view, suffuses our society, and perhaps always has. After all, a society that glorifies rugged individualism and makes a fetish of the self-made man or woman—the idea that anybody who genuinely tries hard enough can make it—will look with suspicion on people who haven’t made it. The usual suspects are the poor, the old, the unbeautiful, the powerless. But, Brown suggests, the list of those not quite making it also includes millions of us who simply believe we are “never good enough, never perfect enough, never thin enough, never powerful enough, never successful enough, never smart enough, never certain enough, never safe enough, never extraordinary enough”—a self-assessment chronically internalized as shame.
In a startling feat of semantic legerdemain, Brown has taken the concepts of shame and vulnerability and turned them completely on their heads. As she sees it, shame is universal and normal and, far from being something to hide and avoid, can be a kind of goad—however unpleasant—to making changes in our lives for the better. In short, she subversively makes shame less shameful, a part of the ordinary human condition. So the question isn’t why shame, but what to do about it. Can we really turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse?
The Power of Vulnerability
In a way, yes—which brings us yet again to vulnerability. Far from being the quintessential expression of weakness, signaling a regression into emotional infantilism, vulnerability (which, remember, leaves us exposed to the possibility of shame), when faced and accepted and fruitfully used, is a thoroughly adult form of personal and moral strength, the embodiment of what used to be called character. To allow ourselves to be vulnerable, Brown writes in Rising Strong, requires in us “the courage to show up and be seen, even if it means risking failure, hurt, shame, and possibly even heartbreak.” To willingly inhabit the vulnerability that’s truly the lot of all humans is the key to living authentically, or what she maintains in The Gifts of Imperfection is “the choice to show up and be real . . . the choice to be honest . . . the choice to let our true selves be seen.” That means, paradoxically, “leaning in” (a favorite Brown expression) to the feelings that most of us want to avoid.
In this muscular vision of the good life, the fear of shame—that bane of all human existence—must not be an excuse for going to the ground, but an uncomfortable prod to living as wholeheartedly as possible. In short, don’t bury your shame or hide your vulnerability, but bring them out into the light of day—suitably clothed, of course, since Brown isn’t an advocate of runaway confessionalism or baring your shame-wounds indiscriminately, but of sharing with discernment. “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust,” she writes in Daring Greatly. “It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.”
Brown can be funny and engaging, but at bottom she’s profoundly serious about what she calls “the work,” which seems to be as much a spiritual as psychological quest. In one interview, she talks about “leaning into what you cannot see, knowing somehow you will come out the other side okay.” A member of the Episcopal Church (she joined at the height of her own emotional crisis), she described her research—and in fact, life itself—as a constant “tension between qualitative and quantitative, what’s measurable and not measurable, what’s known and what’s mystery. . . . It is a dance, and sometimes the dance is choreographed steps and to know them is beautiful. But sometimes you just shut your eyes and twirl.” Brown seems to be trying to help us live less choreographed lives and do a little more wholehearted twirling.
This blog is excerpted from "Living Brave" by Mary Sykes Wylie. The full version is available in the September/October 2016 issue, Courage in Everyday Life: An Interview with Brené Brown.
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