By Adam J. Pearson
Shame and Vulnerability
In her amazingly insightful book Daring Greatly, social worker and shame researcher Brene Brown explores the power of vulnerability, the nature of shame, and the secrets of shame-resilience. You may be thinking: “shame doesn’t apply to me!” To that, Dr. Brown has this to say:
1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we
experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy
and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that
you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good
2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
If we all experience shame, then what is it exactly? Brene Brown defines it as follows:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are flawed or “not ______ enough” (e.g. good enough, attractive enough, wealthy enough, etc.) and therefore, unworthy of love and belonging.
Shame cuts so deeply into us because our deepest and most fundamental emotional need is to be worthy of love and to belong. When we are feeling shame, we feel small, hurt, and vulnerable.
Vulnerability, as Brene Brown defines it, is the state of feeling uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Is vulnerability a bad thing? Most of us have been raised to see vulnerability as a sign of weakness, of not being able to “keep it together,” or of putting ourselves at risk of being exploited by others with bad intentions. I know I felt this way for the longest time.
As a man, I was taught that failing, appearing weak, and indeed feeling anything negative at all (except perhaps anger) was inherently shameful. I was taught not to talk about feelings and to repress them in order to appear Stoic and tough. Of course, I quickly realized that this way of thinking about feelings is tremendously dysfunctional and leads to neuroses and serious psychological problems. We may only want to numb our unpleasant feelings, but the psychological truth is that we can’t selectively numb emotions; when we numb the unpleasant ones, we numb all the pleasant ones too.
In short, I had been raised by my culture to see vulnerability as weakness. However, the view of vulnerability that Brene Brown presents in Daring Greatly is totally the opposite of this conventional view: to be centered and present in our vulnerability, she argues, is a sign, not of weakness, but of strength and courage. In her words:
1. Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re
hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence
of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.
2. If you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups—those who
feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it—there’s only one
variable that separates the groups: Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience
belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They don’t have better or
easier lives, they don’t have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they
haven’t survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but in the midst of all of these
struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they
are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.
3. A strong belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen—it’s cultivated when we understand
the guideposts as choices and daily practices.
4. The main concern of Wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage,
compassion, and connection.
5. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and
connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value
shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They
attribute everything—from their professional success to be vulnerable. (…)
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. (37)
Common Reactions to Shame
How do people tend to respond to shame and vulnerability? Brene Brown found in her research that people tend to put up “shame screens” to protect themselves from having to face their shame either because they do not recognize the triggers that brought it up or because they do not want to face their raw feelings. In her words:
Shame screens are stories we use “when we are in shame” and “are often overcome with the need to hide or protect ourselves by any means possible…When we experience shame, our first layer of defense often occurs involuntarily.It goes back to our primal flight, fight, and freeze responses. (…)
After our physical fight, flight, or freeze response, ‘strategies of disconnection’ provide is with a more complex layer of shame screens. (…)
In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding,silencing ourselves and keeping secrets.
Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please.
And, some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, being aggressive and using shame to fight shame.
However, the truth is that shame screens don’t work. They are methods of escapism, avoidance, and denial. They don’t speak to the feeling itself. They push us into maladaptive and dysfunctional behaviours that don’t help, they prevent us from facing the reality of what we are really feeling, and far from liberating us from shame, they can actually deepen it. How, then, can we best we respond to shame when we find ourselves in the middle of it?
“Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy — the real antidote to shame.”
~ Brene Brown
Before I read Daring Greatly, I had often felt shame and vulnerability, but I didn’t have words to describe them. I couldn’t name what I was feeling. However, I did know that I was not very good at handling vulnerability in a healthy way. I needed to learn a healthier way of relating to vulnerability and shame. And I found this “healthier way” in shame-resilience. According to Brene Brown, shame-resilience has four components:
1. Recognizing Shame & Triggers
2. Practicing Critical Awareness
3. Reaching Out
4. Speaking Shame
In short, we first recognize that we’re in the midst of a shame storm and notice what triggered it. We then reality-check the message that shame is sending us about ourselves. We reach out to someone we trust. And then we put the shame we are feeling into words. We “speak our shame,” as Brene Brown puts it.
When I first read this, I thought: “That sounds perfect!” But I wasn’t sure what this process actually looked like in practice. I had to try it out a bit at a time and struggle my way through it. I hadn’t seen a full example of what it looks like from the inside of a shame storm. For the sake of people who are trying to learn this process, though, I’ll be vulnerable and share a story of shame-resilience from my own life.
A Real-Life Example of Shame-Resilience in Practice
Here’s what caused the shame storm. I saw a video of myself and I immediately had the all-too common reaction of “ugh, I look horrible!” Specifically, though, I felt that my nose looked unattractively huge in the video. As soon as I felt that, I noticed a wave of sadness wash over me. My tongue pressed against my teeth, my heart rate changed, I felt pressure behind my eyes like tears, and that heavy sadness feeling in the heart region. Previously, I would have simply joked this feeling off, denied and repressed it, or shut down as I got sucked into it. However, I was determined not to do that today. I was in shame, and so I had a wonderful opportunity to practice shame-resilience.
So, I remained present with the feeling without clinging to it or pushing it away, but simply noticing it and being fully in the midst of it. Then I worked myself through the four steps. Here’s what the process looked like as I moved through the four steps.
1. Recognizing shame and its triggers: I saw the judgment of my nose as too “big” as an attack on my attractiveness. My mind translated this feeling of unattractiveness into a judgment of my overall unworthiness. It came up as shame and the unconscious message in the feeling was: “my nose is too big, so I am unattractive. I am unattractive, so I’m not good enough, not worthy of love.” This shame message felt very visceral. This was an old thought pattern for me, many years old, so it had a certain force to it. It hit me hard.
I began to practice compassionate self-talk and addressed myself like this:
“Hey, I’m really feeling shame right now. It hurts and it’s hard, but I’m not alone in feeling this. It’s a normal feeling to have. Yes, this feeling is coming up, and that’s okay. I accept it and acknowledge that it is here. I don’t need to hold on to it and I don’t need to push it away. I don’t need to be afraid of it. The fact that I’m feeling this doesn’t mean that I’m weak. I can have the courage and strength to stay present with it and work through it. I’m breathing into the feeling now and meeting it with an unconditionally intimate “yes!” not rejecting it, not denying it, not trying to escape it. I’m not offering any resistance, only presence. I don’t need to argue with this shame feeling or buy into its message as true. I can meet this feeling like a visitor. I can welcome it to stay as long as feels natural and fade away naturally on its own.”
2. Practice critical awareness and reality-check the shame message: I began to test the shame message against reality, to meet it with critical awareness.
My self-talk at this stage looked something like this:
“Am I really alone in having this feeling? It sounds silly to think this, but isn’t it true that my nose functions really well? I’m lucky to have developed a great sense of smell. It serves me well when I’m cooking. Funny enough, didn’t Socrates also feel some anxiety about his own nose? He talks about it in Plato’s dialogues after all. He had an interesting and amusing point to make about it too. Because he saw beauty as excellence of function, he believed that his own nose, which was unattractive by ancient Greek standards, was one of the most beautiful of all, because it worked so well. I don’t know about that, but I do know that if the wisest man in Athens had this same feeling, then it can’t be so strange. I’m not alone. It’s a common feeling.
Is this shame message that “my nose is too big, so I’m unattractive, deficient and unworthy of love” true? The truth is that I have dated beautiful women who have found me attractive in the past and am lucky to be with an amazing and wonderful girl now. Lori has told me before that she likes my nose and has called me handsome. So is it true that my nose makes me unattractive? Of course not. It’s unique to me, part of my own unique look. Maybe my nose isn’t a flaw; maybe it’s a feature. Maybe it’s wonderful just as it is.
Certainly, it’s true that I deserve love and belonging no matter what. Everyone does. We’re all worthy at our core. And regardless of how they look, everyone deserves to feel worthy. I’m not any different. When I hold this message up to the light of reality, I have to conclude that the truth is that this shame message is not the truth. It hurts and it feels like it has a kind of saliently hypnotizing allure that draws me in, but it’s not reality. It’s a thought that evokes a feeling. And I don’t have to buy into what I know to be false. I can take my stand in what I know to be true.”
3. Reaching out to someone who has earned the right to hear your story: At this point, I turned to a close friend who has earned the right to hear my story, someone I could trust. I told them what I was feeling and they told me that I wasn’t alone. They had felt similar things and knew what I was going through. They had seen pictures of themselves in which they thought they looked “horrible” and had felt similar gut reactions. In short, they offered me empathy and understanding. As Brene Brown writes:
“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredible healing message of “You’re not alone.”
Brene Brown sometimes refers to shame as the “fear of disconnection.” And we certainly can feel disconnected while we are in the midst of it. This is why it’s important to reach out to someone who can offer us empathy; they make us feel connected and end up dissolving the shame in the process.
After reaching out, my self-talk looked like this:
I am feeling shame right now, and that’s okay. As I just saw, I’m not alone. It is fine that I’m feeling this. In a way, I’m even happy that it is here; it is showing me some old conditioning that I innocently came to believe to be true. This belief only came up to try to protect me from feeling hurt or disappointed. But it isn’t serving me. I don’t need it. And I know it’s not true. So I can let this shame message go.
4. Speak shame, articulate it: This is the final step. I did it in the way I spoke to myself and I did it in the way I spoke to my friend. After having recognized the shame feeling, recognized its trigger, reality-checked its message, reached out to a friend to feel connected and seen that I am not alone in feeling this way, I could come to let it rest in a positive way.
My self-talk in this final step went something like this:
I see this shame response coming up and I acknowledge it. Yes, I am feeling shame, yes I am feeling this nose is a flaw even if I am not thinking it. Even if I know this message isn’t true. And that’s okay. I’m still worthy of love and belonging anyway. I won’t die from this feeling; it won’t kill me. I can only grow from working through this feeling with patience and compassion.
I meet this shame with loving acceptance. It is not bad and I am not bad. I feel a little goofy doing this, but I say yes to you shame, without conditions. Thank you for coming up and showing me how this old pattern is no longer functional or needed anymore. It’s okay for you to go. I don’t need to form an identity out of you. You don’t need to be a part of my story anymore. I know that you arose in innocence and really only wanted to protect me from being hurt by being let down. But it’s okay. I don’t need that protection. I feel loved and worthy of loving and being loved just as I am. I am good enough and attractive just as I am.
After going through these simple four steps, I felt a sense of tremendous relief. The shame feeling slowly faded out and was replaced by a sense of lightness and loving self-acceptance. It felt healthy to be present with the vulnerable feeling of shame without running, shutting down, or getting swept up in it. Keeping critical distance, relating to myself with empathy, kindness and compassion and reaching out to someone I trusted made a huge difference. Brene Brown offers three simple pointers to keep in mind about this process. When in the midst of vulnerability, I need to:
- Practice courage and reach out!
- Talk to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown:
- Own the story! Don’t bury it and let it fester or define me.
These steps offer us a view of shame-resilience in a nutshell, that is, as a way of healthily handling vulnerable feelings like shame and responding to them with clarity, presence, compassionate self-talk, and patience within the comfort of empathy. It is simple, but powerful. I hope that you will feel inspired by my own embarrassing and somewhat silly tale of nose shame to try the four steps of shame-resilience out for yourself. It was certainly a transformative practice in my own life. I hope it can do some good for you as well and reveal to you, as it did to me, that you are worthy, strong, courageous, and capable of healthily handling your own emotions. Shame-resilience is, in closing, a formidable key with the power to unlock a way of relating to the complex world of feelings. It can bring healing and integration to places within us that were previously dysfunctional and fragmented. In short, it can empower us to feel more whole and give us entry into the calm within the storm of shame.