Brene Brown’s Writing on Shame Influences Business, too

I.  The writing of American  social worker and researcher Brene Brown has influenced business people for some time. Seth Godin prominently praised Brown’s study, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (NY: Penguin, 2012). Most recently, in her latest study, All In: You, Your Business, Your Life (2013), (which I recently discussed, in this blog), Arlene Dickinson cites Brown and the importance of freeing oneself from shame in order to live courageously. Brown is a social worker (and former TED lecturer), who describes herself as a shame researcher. What has she brought to the conversation about the psychology of marketing, so that entrepreneurs/marketers like Godin and Dickinson take notice?

First, I think that everyone (whatever their field) has at some point felt shame. I recall a personal memory, fifteen years ago, when I attended a professional symposium, as a young guest and observer. Professionals from around the world were present and I thought the opportunity to hear the particular keynote speaker was a valuable one. But when I arrived, I had hastily written my (required) name tag and placed it on the blazer of my suit. In doing so, I had (unnoticed by me, due to the throngs of folk around) smudged the writing of my name and then not put the badge on straight.  For the next few minutes, unaware of my faux pas, I moved around cliques of professionals—people standing in tightly maintained circles, who were unwilling to acknowledge a newcomer’s presence in the reception room, much less to have the empathy to point out to me my botched name tag. When I realized my gaff, I cringed with shame. Still no one spoke to me. When I entered the auditorium, I did so alone. The irony that the meeting was to discuss psychological issues was not lost on me, and I knew that the politics I was witnessing were many years in the making, and had little to do with me. The tone of the audience was caustic and defensive.  Based the behaviour that I’d witnessed, I considered leaving, but figured that I had already paid and was entitled at least to hear the keynote.

Fast forward four years and I was sitting in an archive and reading room of a small university in Europe, where laptops groaned under the high summer heat (and lack of an air conditioner). After a morning’s work, my computer failed and I panicked as I suddenly was unable to retrieve pages (hours of transcriptions) of my observations, based on viewing archival documents that I had only temporary access to, and by travel and appointment. The loss was terrible and I felt ashamed about my technology malfunction, stung by disappointment and loss. I was considering giving up the whole project I was preparing. Unlike in the previous scenario, however, an acquaintance at the next table in this archive had witnessed my panic  and reached out to assist me, by salvaging memory onto a portable disk (prior to memory sticks and the “cloud”). That moment of empathy and grace has stayed with me, ever since. The surge of relief I felt with this friend’s support calmed me and helped me to cope and strategize. (With her help, by the way, I recovered most of the lost data.)

One memory recalls shame in all its isolating power and the other, release from it, by a good and kind friend.  Empathy acknowledges that no one is alone, when shame is isolating from others.

II.  Brown defines shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  Shame often occurs in business and at home, as her anecdotes attest.

In Daring Greatly, she writes about the need we all have  to “lean in” to the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty of our lives to open an empathic space for creation and connection with others. (Recall Jonathon Fields’ book Uncertainty on this concept, that I blogged on, years ago.) Brown says that people who grow up in shame fear ridicule, belittling, low self-worth and that all of these things are tied to their achievements. They feel that they are “never enough,” and so cannot admit to being “vulnerable”—Brown’s keyword for the ability to tolerate uncertainty, accept shortcomings, take risks and expose one’s emotional life that are necessary for life, work—and of course, this includes business.

She writes: “If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame” (61). By contrast, she says that obsessing about being “perfect” by attaching self-worth to what we produce results in “disengagement [with others], blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism and a total death of creativity and innovation.” (65).

In a wide-ranging study of the influence of shame and negative emotions in contemporary society, Brown takes as her title  a reference to the late US President Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote in his speech “Citizenship in a Republic” (delivered in Paris, April 23, 1910), that “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better . . . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly” (emphasis Brown’s).

Roosevelt and Brown after him recommends “daring greatly,” as the courageous act of embracing vulnerability and fear and acting anyways, to put oneself “out there” despite the risk of feeling hurt. Brown says that the far greater hurt or pain is that of one looking in and wondering “what it’d be like to have had the courage to show up and let myself be seen” (294).

In what ways are you resisting shame in your professional life, as I tried to do, at that ridiculous lecture? How can you “lean in” and allow yourself to be seen? And when you witness others’ shame, what can you do to lend a rope out of it, or to help them  to transcend it?

“There can be no effort without error and shortcoming. And no triumph without vulnerability” (Brown).

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