Making it safe to feel again

Today's post is about the work of Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work -- and the presenter of one of the top 10 most watched Ted talks of all time.

In fact, I'm going to link to all three of her Ted talks (plus a subsequent appearance, post stardom, on Oprah's OWN Network), and hope that you decide to watch them all.

Brown's subject is shame and vulnerability.  Not particularly sexy topics.  Not something you'd think would go viral.  Yet it has.

Shame?  Not my problem.

So, if you're thinking, "Shame?  Not my problem," read on because if feel that your life has recently blown up in your face, chances are that part of the backstory is shame. 

Exactly what is shame, anyway?  According to Brown, it's feelings of "I'm not _____________ enough" (good enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough), and if these feelings don't change, then your life experiences are likely to prove you right.  (That's my assessment, not Brown's, but stay with me for a moment.)

Brown posits that the one thing that completely unravels connection to others (family, friends, and romantic partners) is shame.  And she draws a distinction between shame and guilt.

Guilt says, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake."

Shame says, "I'm sorry, I am a mistake."

The sense of being inherently flawed in some way "makes it nearly impossible to allow oneself to be vulnerable, and without vulnerability, there is no way to experience deep connection," says Brown.

It's an inside job.

Not only this but, 99% of the time, it's not the outside world that tells us we're inherently flawed.  Insidiously, it's an inside job.  We're the ones who give ourselves shaming internal messages.

But our culture does play a role as well, when it casts vulnerability as weakness.  According to Brown, fear of being out of control of our lives means that:

  • Joy becomes foreboding.  (We want to beat tragedy to the punch.)
  • We don't get excited because we're afraid the thing we're looking forward to won't happen.   It is easier to live a life where the default emotion is disappointment rather than to hope and be disappointed.
  • We use perfection as a shield.  (If I have an absolutely perfect, uncrackable exterior, no one can get me.)
  • We stay so perpetually busy that the sad truth of our lives and its emptiness can't catch up with us. 

Brown found, through 12 years of research on this subject, that there was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who don't.  Those who feel they belong believe they're worthy of love and belonging.  Brown's research also shows that shame is directly correlated with depression, addiction, and anger issues.

Vampire in daylight

Brown offers a bunch of suggestions on how to move from shame to worthiness.  Here are a few that I felt were worth repeating:

  • Have the courage to be imperfect.  Be willing to let go of who you think you should be in order to be who you are.  (My addition to this thought:  It takes so much time and effort to create and maintain the facade of perfection that there's not much time for anything else -- like relaxation, pleasure, or joy.)
  • Be kind to yourself first, and then be kind to others.  (I say:  Convince yourself of your inherent worth by treating yourself as if you're worthy and valuable.  It's a process.  The more you do it, the more you'll believe it.)
  • Embrace vulnerability.  Come to believe that your imperfections and vulnerability are what make you beautiful.  Brown gives a few examples of vulnerability:  the willingness to say I love you first, the willingness to do something that offers no guarantee, the willingness to breathe through uncomfortable situations. 
  • My take:  Especially after divorce, we try to protect ourselves and shield ourselves from further trauma, but part of recovery is accepting that, no matter what we do, we are vulnerable.  So let's unlink vulnerability = tragedy.  You've just survived one of life's worst events.  You survived it!  You're still here!  And, if you've learned and become wiser from the experience, you can protect yourself through wiser choices.  So you don't have to protect yourself by shutting down.
  • Brown says that shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment.  The objective is not to be perfect and bullet-proof.  I say:  Practice sharing with a friend the emotions or experiences that you feel are too shameful to express.  Let the shameful feelings see the light of day.  Just like a vampire in daylight, you can see these painful emotions lose their hold on you.

Watch Brown's talks to hear lots more about this -- including the confessions of her own panic attacks and emotional breakdowns.  And how her own from-the-stage confessions didn't destroy her career as she had feared, but blasted her into bestselling-author, Oprah-guesting stardom.

Here's her TedX talk (Kansas City) on "The price of vulnerability":

Here's her subsequent TedX talk (Houston) on "The power of vulnerability":

And, here's her Ted talk (Long Beach) two years later, in which she gets vulnerable herself about how she feared her Houston Ted talk would destroy her academic career:

And, finally, the no-longer-playing-small, newly glamorous Dr. Brown appears on Oprah in 2013: