Lately I’ve been reading from several books by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, a well-known shame researcher who gave an amazing talk on shame and vulnerability via the TedXTalks two years ago. If you haven’t seen the short video, I highly recommend it.
In her newest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown highlights how revealing vulnerability can feel scary or uncomfortable to all of us. It seems natural that we might all flee many risks of exposure, of being fully seen with all of our “warts” or shortcomings, either real or imagined, especially living in a society, family unit, or mental space where we feel that we never “measure up,” that we’re never good enough. At its most basic definition, shame is the fear of disconnection from others, the feeling that we are inherently flawed and thus inherently unlovable to others. Let that sink in for a minute. Can you relate to these words at all? Have you ever had an experience when you thought or felt on some level, “This is it. I’ve been found out – every dark, icky, horrible part of me has been revealed, and now I’ll be all alone.” For many of us, feelings of shame can activate all kinds of self-destructive behaviors, including “emotional” over-eating, drinking, withdrawal, or harsh outbursts toward ourselves or others. It’s just so hard to tolerate, especially if we didn’t grow up with family members who courageously modeled expression and acceptance of vulnerability in its many forms.
Yet Brown argues – and backs up her statements with references to her own research, and that of her colleagues – that the antidote to the sense of shame, this fear of disconnection, which permeates our culture, is Courage….to reveal ourselves to each other, to approach our own struggles (and those of others) with greater compassion, perhaps even with a little gentle humor. To acknowledge – even if it is painfully so – “Yes, I am flawed. I have vulnerability. And I still matter. I’m of value, and deserve to belong.”
To close, I’d like to share the opening quote from Chapter 3 (“Understanding and Combating Shame, aka Gremlin Ninja Warrior Training”) of Brown’s book:
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”