Banishing Shame: Vulnerability, Courage & Brené Brown

Artwork by Trevor Currie ( @trevorcurrieart )

I am no stranger to shame. I mean, unless you are a sociopath or worse, neither are you. Shame is that little voice inside your head that whispers your worst memories. It is the critic who eats you from the inside.

Shame spreads far and wide. It is present in culture, the media, and every inch of our online lives. Social media is a portal of shame as much as it is an advertising tool for living your ‘best life’. Trolling has become so commonplace that anyone who peeks over the parapet is likely to get smeared. Hell, even our favourite shows capitalize on notions of shame—the lengths people will go to hide theirs or expose others.



In the broadest terms, shame has become deeply political. It is the grandest weapon in the struggle for power. Public figures come unstuck by finger-pointers who wish to steal the power for themselves. On a personal level, it is damning, dividing us from each other and fuelling negativity.

But amongst us, there are warriors. Those who wish to end the cycles of shaming and guide others to living a more wholehearted life.

I first watched Brené Brown’s TEDx talk ‘The Power Of Vulnerability’ several years ago. It was transformative. But as life goes, I moved on and forgot about it. Until she appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, discussing her Netflix special ‘A Call To Courage’. The full gamut of her work spans first vulnerability, shame, courage and “daring greatly”. Her work was meant to understand and contain vulnerability. She got much more than was bargained for.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that vulnerability and shame are deeply connected. But there is more to the story than this. Shame is a nebulous entity that few feel comfortable talking about. When defining it in relation to guilt, she succinctly notes:

“Guilt is I have done something bad, shame is I am bad.”

This is an important definition. Guilt is a normal emotion, allowing us to grow and make better choices. Be better people. Shame is the belief that core parts of us are bad, and will not be accepted by others. We deem ourselves unworthy, fear disconnection. In shame, we deny our authentic self in order to ‘fit in’.

As deeply social creatures, loss of connection is a huge and valid fear. Trying to fit in at the expense of our authenticity, to stay safe in a crowd, leads to the denial of our vulnerability.

Take a moment to think about what vulnerability means to you. How does it feel to be vulnerable? The chances are, you have intertwined vulnerability with weakness many times in your life. Asking someone out, initiating a difficult conversation, asking for help. It can feel painful. And yet, through the data Brown has compiled, she has posited vulnerability as one of the key tenets of living “wholeheartedly”. A mode of living that gets the best out of life.

These tenets are:

  • Courage (from root ‘cor’ in Latin means heart. “To tell the story of yourself with your whole heart”)
  • Compassion (for yourself and others)
  • Connection (through authenticity)
  • Vulnerability

It is important to note that, coming from a background in Social Work as a Qualitative Researcher, Brené confessed to wanting to “knock discomfort upside the head”, beating vulnerability back “with her measuring stick”. The discovery that vulnerability is such a core feature was a shock.

So who are these wholehearted people? Brown defines them as those who “believe they are worthy of love and belonging”. That’s it. To understand that no one is perfect, and what you are at your core is as worthy as the next person. It takes courage and vulnerability to allow yourself to be seen, and believe that you are worthy of love and connection, just as you are.

Brown cites the talk she gave to the US army, asking “who can name a single act of courage that didn’t require vulnerability?” In response, a young man stood up and said: “Two tours ma’am. There is no courage without vulnerability.”

Often, when we feel shame, we ‘protect’ ourselves with psychological armour or addiction. We perceive threats, we numb, we control. In doing so, we forego our capacity to feel joy. Brown is not alone in thinking this. In her amazing book ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’, Clarissa Pinkola Estes notes:

“Repressing secret material surrounded by shame, fear, anger, guilt, or humiliation effectively shuts down all other parts of the unconscious that are near the site of the secret.” (Women Who Run With The Wolves, p412)

The great Simon Sinek has talked at length about how smartphones and social media similarly affect us. Social Media and Technology gives us little dopamine hits, which have a numbing effect similar to alcohol or drugs. Whilst access to these devices and platforms is supposed to connect us to each other, it can divide far more. In reality, many are silently falling apart whilst maintaining a perfectly constructed online image. The ideation of perfection is what keeps us ashamed. Advertising makes us buy things we don’t need, believing it will make us happier or more attractive. We have been raised by society at large to believe perfection is the goal. It is a con. We will spend our lives falling short of perfection and hating ourselves for it.

Brene talks about this in relation to raising children. She notes the approach should be to say to these kids:

“ ‘you are imperfect and wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging ‘ – show me a generation of children raised like that and that will go some way to ending the cycles [of shame] we see now.”

Simon Sinek mirrors this sentiment when he talks about the ‘millenial issue’ on Inside Quest. He notes that as Millenial babies were raised, the focus was on everyone being ‘special’. They could achieve anything, have anything they want, and everyone gets a prize for participating.

In brief, Sinek states that technology, impatience, environment and parenting have created an impossible situation. Millenials have been raised around this amazing technology, creating instant gratification, perhaps a sense of entitlement. Entering the working world is a stark reality check. Ostensibly it “shatters their self-image” and depletes self-confidence.

Throughout Brown’s data, it’s easy to see how a generation raised like this would find it suddenly very uncomfortable to show vulnerability and act with courage. If the real world shatters the foundation of your identity and ideals, the entire generation will develop lower self-esteem. Coupled with our unfettered access to technology, Facebook and Instagram are a quick fix. People build online lives with followers and friends that make them feel instantly more liked, loved, regarded. But this is the fast-food version. These dopamine hits are the same as you would get with alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc. Social media masks our vulnerability, whilst simultaneously forming chasms between us.

“Everything you want you can have instantaneously. Except for job satisfaction and strength of relationships. There ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes.”

-Simon Sinek (Inside Quest)

His worry here is that, through this, too many young people are struggling to create meaningful relationships in the real world, and forge their way in work. Sinek notes that a lack of good leadership in the corporate world leads to this disconnect from the younger workforce. There is so little room for error in the corporate world. In a culture of shame and blame, it is no wonder we are all holding our cards so close.

Brown talks about blame as “a way to discharge pain and discomfort”. In tough times, the world is always looking for a scapegoat. Yet finger-pointing doesn’t fix the problem. Blame is essentially pushing pain on others to negate your sense of unworthiness.

In politics, this is rife. The climate of blame and shame, the denial of vulnerability (every politician acts as though they’re bulletproof), means that there is no chance for discourse anymore. The more afraid we are, the more we look for certainty in the world. To force or construct certainty is to remove vulnerability. This is where our leaders attempt to make us buy their words entirely. There can be no discussion when every politician is holding policies like armour.

If you are reading this, I’m sure you can call on memories where shame has provoked a negative reaction in you. We have all hidden our vulnerability by making others feel small, through jokes or some meanness. No one is perfect.

Vulnerability is uncomfortable, often painful. It takes work.

So how do we break with these cycles of shame and blame? And how do we begin to detach vulnerability from it? Shame is so pervasive. For many, it is as natural as drawing breath. To break with societal norms is a daunting feat. Through seminars and her published books, Brene Brown has set out a guide that can be summarised as this:

Choose courage over comfort

Choosing the path of least resistance is a standard part of evolution. Yet with our consciousness and capacity for spiritual growth, we cannot continue avoiding discomfort. Choosing courage over comfort looks different to everyone. I do not know what it looks like for you. But I do know that when you do not take small risks that make your heart beat faster, you are not challenging yourself or discovering more about what makes you tick. You cannot learn and grow if you constantly retreat into your safe zone, addiction or that personal armour.

On a grander scale, Brown cites the need to have difficult conversations around gender, race, and equality throughout the world. These conversations can make us feel uncomfortable.

“Not having these conversations because you are uncomfortable is the definition of privilege. Your comfort is not at the centre of this.”

Feeling like you cannot get into difficult conversations because you are not prepared enough, do not know enough, will only stop you from having these conversations. If you show up with a willingness to meet others from where they are, and with a wholehearted approach, proper discourse can take place. Your world will begin to change and flourish.

 Practice Gratitude

There has been much talk about journaling in the past decade. More and more successful people talk about starting their day with journaling. Greta Soloman recently released a book titled ‘Heart, Sass, Soul’, about how this practice can get you on the road to loving yourself, and living the best life you can.

Within this is the rule of ‘practising gratitude’. Noticing the good in your life, rather than focusing on negatives. As you focus on positive aspects, the negatives become smaller. Practising gratitude is like amassing a battalion for your psyche—the first line of defence against dark thoughts and depression. As gratitude becomes a habit, you begin to live more from this space. Start small. Start today. You won’t look back. You can never overdose on gratitude.

Understand You Will Know Failure

Perhaps the most poignant part of Brown’s talk ‘Listening To Shame’ is where she discovered the Teddy Roosevelt quote. This quote brought her back to the fight after a pretty big shame spiral following her first Ted Talk. Her uncharacteristic open-heartedness within the talk led her to feel extremely vulnerable, especially given the comments on the internet from (you guessed it) trolls. The quote that bolstered her was this:

“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 them 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 errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; 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”

Theodore Roosevelt, April 23rd 1910

This is a necessary part of our lives. Everyone will know failure at some point. Protecting ourselves from failure only means we decrease our capacity to be daring. It narrows avenues of possibility. Often, when thinking about doing something out of our comfort zone, we think of what others will think of us. Yet often we are our own worst critics. This is where shame comes into full force. We hear the niggling doubts because we believe we are not enough.

“I will go in there and kick some ass when I am perfect and I am bulletproof.”

If we think like this, we are destined to live on the sidelines. You will never be perfect, someone will always offer negative feedback. The more you live out in the open, voices will be heard that either raise you up or crush you. The only defence against this is just to feel that you are worthy. Imperfect, battle-scarred, and worthy. We all are.

 Belonging vs. Fitting In

Understand the difference between the two is incredibly important. Belonging does not mean changing who you are to feel accepted. The people who love you and want you around will do so because you are authentic. In fact, knowing the difference is as much external as internal. You must be able to detect the moments when you are not being your honest self, and also detect the people in your life who make you feel like you must deny who you are.

Apart from the fact that it is exhausting constantly trying to guess what others want you to be, it can take you so far down a path that you never wished to go. It can take years and lots of energy to get back to the right path. Not that you shouldn’t explore varied avenues of possibility. It can be very rewarding, but only if it’s what you want. It should never be for anyone else! There will always be small-minded people who make you feel judged. That’s their deal, rise above it and know that even if you jumped through hoops of fire and dance naked on hot coals, they would still find fault. It is their way of feeling superior. In reality, they are weak ones. Living your own honest life is the way to feel emancipated.

Choose Wisely

It is not our job to be completely open with every person we meet. Brene notes that this is another form of addiction. We must elect our trusted tribe. Those who meet us with courage and vulnerability. Her discussion with Oprah on one Super Soul Sunday projects the need to have at least one person who will have your back, and give you the truth. Even when painful. Clarissa matches her perfectly in this direct quote:

“When a secret is finally told, the soul needs more response than ‘hmmmm, oh really, that’s too bad’, or ‘oh well, life is tough’, from both the teller and the listener…. And it is a blessing if the listener can listen with a full heart and can wince, shiver, and feel a ray of pain cross his or her own heart and not collapse”

– Women Who Run With the Wolves, P413-414

It is these bonds between people that are truly the path to healing and becoming more authentic. Brown herself has astutely commented; “vulnerability is the path back to each other, but we are so afraid to get on it.” (A Call To Courage)

I would urge anyone who has read this far and is interested to know more about this topic, to seek out Brown’s work. To read the books of Clarissa Pinkola Estes. For these women truly understand what it means to live life fully, and understand the eternal processes. We must do the work, show up in the arena and fight for the life that we want.

In a spiritual sense, it is the most evolutionary thing we can do to start seeing vulnerability as the root of our interconnectedness. When we choose it, we begin to open our eyes and see that people are coming from their own shit. We peek past the small outrage caused to see the vulnerable person within. It has taken us so long to realize, seemingly, that the only thing we can really do is try to be authentic and live our best, most interconnected lives. There are more and more people waking up to the idea that vulnerability and courage in our approach to each other is the most important thing. To choose the people we love that love us because of our flaws, not in spite of.

Brown, for all that she is a researcher and scientifically minded, is a beautiful example of the fact that it is not simply ‘nice’ to live a more wholehearted existence, based in truth, vulnerability, courage and compassion. It is also beneficial to our entire existence. When you shut out vulnerability, you shut out joy and numb your existence. For you can’t have one without the other. The proof of data in formulated studies is perfect. What it did was give her a scientific basis for which to start spilling some spiritual truths.

“What is data but stories with a soul.”

– Brené Brown

It sends shivers down my spine to know this, to hear this and understand it. It allows us to be daring, and know we are walking the path of thousands of people who dared and failed, yet paved the way for others who would dare and succeed. You had better believe that every route is littered with daring moves that tip both sides of the scale. And that is such a joy to know. For, ultimately, we are in this together. In vulnerability and courage, ‘til death do us part.



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