On International Women’s Day, kitchen table wisdom on shame, from Brene Brown

American social psychologist Brene Brown has developed a professional speaking and consulting career (rooted in her psychological research), that shares everyday (what I term “kitchen table”) wisdom that nonetheless strikes listeners to their core.

Recently, on International Women’s Day (March 8th), while doing research for another project, I happened upon one of Brown’s TEDTalks that I had not heard before, on how shame affects women and men (and she implies, young and old, Western and Eastern cultures, newcomers and lifelong citizens)—a no-holds barred insight that in shame, the worst (most unempathetic) critic is ourselves. It will have started outside ourselves, with someone likely in our early lives. But we have internalized it by necessity and now incorporate it as part of ourselves.

When charting a path toward shame, Brown earlier contends that human “vulnerability is not weakness,” but instead involves “risk, exposure, uncertainty, [and] fuels our daily lives.” She says that vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. To let ourselves be seen, to be honest.” Vulnerability is “the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

But when trying to understand the relationship between our vulnerability and the courage we need to act on it, Brown rightly stipulates that we have to talk about shame.

“We learn about the deepest emotions not from studying vulnerability, but from studying shame,” what Carl Jung called “the swampland of the soul.”

We can’t have a conversation about sexism, racism (or other -isms), Brown asserts, without talking about shame. When people start talking about privilege or success, they get paralyzed by shame.

Yet, “no one who gets on a stage never fails,” she insists. “I have failed miserably many times. I don’t think the world understands that.”

She famously cites the US President Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena” speech: “It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points how the doer of deeds could have done things better, how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best, he wins. And at worst, he loses. But when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”

Life is about “daring greatly,” about “being in the arena,” Brown contends: “When you’re striving to dare greatly, shame is the gremlin that stops you when you’re about to walk on stage, that says, ‘Uh-oh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your spouse left you. Your Dad wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things happened to you, growing up. I know that you don’t think that you’re pretty enough, or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.’”

Shame is what stops us. “And if we can quiet it down and walk in [to the arena] and say, ‘I’m going to do this,’ we look up and the critic that we see pointing and laughing, 99% of the time is who? It’s us.”

Shame drives two big tapes: “never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?”

Shame is not guilt. Guilt is a focus on behaviour (“I did something bad”). Shame is a focus on self (“I am bad.”)

Brown asserts that “shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. You need to know even more that guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”

“Shame feels the same for women and for men,” but it is also calibrated by gender. (Shame for women is “Do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat.” ) Shame is a “web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket. For men, shame is not a web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations. Shame is one: Do not be perceived as weak.”

Shame is an epidemic in our culture and underlies many kinds of brokenness.   “[T]o get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other.”

“Empathy” is shame’s  antidote. “Shame grows on secrecy, silence and judgment. But if you . . . douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

When we feel ashamed, Brown says, the two most powerful words when we can use are “’Me too’” (cited before many women used to term to disgrace perpetrators like Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein). Brown says: “If we are going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. It’s seductive to think that we’ll go out into the arena and ‘kick some ass’ when we’re bulletproof and when we’re perfect. But the truth is that never happens.”

And “even if you enter the arena “as ‘perfect’ as you can muster, what your listeners [clients/ students/colleagues] want is not for you to be perfect when you go in there. That’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with–we just want [you, as Roosevelt said] to dare greatly.”

As Brown has since commented in other talks and books, “Braving the Wilderness,” often a landscape of shame, is what each of us must do. She says: “The whole idea of the wilderness being those times when we stand alone and those times when we go out on a limb, the times we walk away from what we know, our ideological bunkers and our beliefs, braving is the tool to help us manage the wilderness. . .

There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Our shame for past mistakes can creep in on us, on all sides. Someone somewhere will say, ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’  This is when you reach deep into your wild heart and remind yourself, ‘ I am the wilderness.’”

We must get past ourselves, with all of the shame and related baggage we carry, to reach the sky above.

This is a truth for men as well as for women, and for those who experience themselves in-between, everywhere—a truth for every day and not only for one nominated as “International Women’s Day.”