Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston College of Social Work and she has spent the past 12 years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame, which all can manifest themselves in a myriad of situations and life circumstances. The complexities of shame and vulnerability are themes that millions relate to, and became incredibly obvious when her TED Talk Brené Brown: The power of vulnerability went viral, now having been viewed more than 13 million times.
As part of our series on A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink in partnership with Center for American Progress, I wanted to ask Brené how shame and vulnerability impact, and perhaps compound, the issues that are a part of financial insecurity. As with most everything she shares, her insights were mind-stretching and eye-opening.
TSR: How does shame work and how does it impact women, and anyone living on the brink of poverty?
Brené: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. “I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.”
Shame is a universal human emotion; however, the messages and expectations that fuel shame are organized by gender. For women, shame is a web of unattainable expectations that say, “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you struggle.” For men, the primary shame mandate is, “Do not be perceived as weak.”
We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it. To combat shame we need shame resilience.
Men and women with high levels of shame resilience have four things in common – I call them the elements of shame resilience: (1) Recognizing Shame and Understanding Our Triggers, (2) Practicing Critical Awareness, (3) Reaching Out and, (4) Speaking Shame.
So when we talk shame around issues like poverty and race and gender, we can’t understand the complexity of those issues without first practicing critical awareness, reality-checking the messages and expectations driving shame, and acknowledging the real context that people live in…What is the real political, environmental, social context that we try to operate in every day?
Shame basically wipes all of that out, and says, “It’s not about the realities of the economy today, it’s not about the reality of the service industry, it’s not about the reality of benefits and healthcare. That has nothing to do with it. Something is wrong with you.”
Shame derives its power from being unspeakable and becomes self-limiting in a sense that it keeps us from building community. It keeps us from asking for help. It keeps us from seeing the sources of our struggle as being a larger issue, not just a personal character flaw.
TSR: I think what you’re saying is when you feel alone, you then don’t share your experiences so you can’t build that sense of community and you sit in your apartment by yourself and say, “Oh my God, I can’t pay my mortgage and my husband just lost his job and I must be the only one, and I don’t want anybody to know that I’m applying for food stamps.”
Brené: Right…then, “I’m not applying for food stamps, I’m cutting my kid’s formula with water and now my kid is feeling sick and now I’m a crappy mother and I’m broke.” The truth is that there are people who’ve done Herculean things that have come from nothing and that have scrapped their way to the top, but the vast majority of us have had some support, some help, some community, a soft place to land. When you feel like you don’t deserve that because you’re poor or because you’re a woman or because you’re under-educated then that absolutely assures that you’re never going to get it.
TSR: What’s the antidote to that?
Brené: Empathy is the antidote to shame. Where that’s really going to come from is community, a community of people who are facing the same struggle. It’s the only way I think change happens. Not only about organizing the community for change, but also with practical support with things like shared babysitting and grocery co-ops. But the obstacle is that we foresee any kind of dependence on other people as weakness.
Shame works like a zoom lens on a camera. So if you are financially insecure in your own life, all you see is that you are working 50, 60 hours underpaid, no benefits, kids in subsidized childcare, living in subsidized housing which may or may not be safe, you probably live in an area that is a food desert, so that’s probably really hard to get healthy food. All you see is your life and then you turn on the television and we’re force fed hours and hours of hyper wealth, and you think, “Oh my God, something is wrong with me.”
What community does is community starts to pull us out, and then it’s not just you, it’s you looking at you, and looking at five or ten other families in your housing complex. Then you’re looking at forty, fifty people in your neighborhood, and then you’re looking at 1000 families in this part of the city. Then you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of families and you’re like, “Oh my God what is wrong with this system?” And it’s not system blaming, but it’s about where do we intervene.
You know when you tell people, “work hard or have more willpower” that is not an intervention level, when people are working 50 hours a week. We’re not talking about a problem of people not willing to work, we’re talking about living wage and benefits problem – that only has a systemic answer.
TSR: If a woman that’s living on the brink is reading this and she feels ashamed, personally, for her, what’s the antidote? What’s her first step in using the community that she’s not tapped into? How does she get to that?
Brené: It doesn’t go straight from “I’m in shame and I’m reading this” to “let me become a community organizer.” It starts with, “let me share my story with one person, let me find one person in my life who has a capacity to hear my story and be with me in it.” Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot tolerate having words wrapped around it. What it craves is secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you stay quiet, you stay in a lot of self-judgment.
That’s what shame needs to grow exponentially. If on the other hand, you’re able to tell your story and own your story with a single person, that is the first step. So I think the first thing is to find someone who can hold space and listen with some compassion to your story.
TSR: Perhaps as a shared experience, they might be going through similar experiences?
Brené: I think sometimes, but I don’t even think that’s as important. You just need to find someone who can hold space with that experience.
Maybe it’s your child’s teacher and you say, “I’m really sorry but I’ve missed every single teacher parent conference but I’m working two jobs right now,” and that person looks back at you and says, “There’s nothing more important you could be doing for your kid, and your kids are really lucky to have you, and I know how tough it is. How can I partner with you on this end?” That means something.
TSR: What do you think we, as a culture, need to do to begin to address the issue of financial insecurity, specifically among women?
Brené: I think for me the issue is health benefits and a wage, as well as the availability of subsidized childcare. I think those three things are huge.
There is a kind of a bootstrap mentality in our culture that tells us, “Believe in yourself, believe in your ability to do it, pull yourself up by your bootstrap.” It’s a mentality that’s very prevalent in a lot of politics today. I don’t buy into that as much as I buy into the belief that shame can be self-limiting because it fills us with self-doubt, and pushes us away from community building and asking for help and support.
I have spent a lot of time interviewing CEOs, elite athletes, people that have by their own definitions have enormous success in their areas and what I want to tell you is 90% of those people, at least, got a hand from somebody, some support, a break. This belief that we can do this all our own, that’s not true.
I write about this in “The Gifts of Imperfection,” and I think it’s important to note, that the world is not divided up into people that need help and people that give help. We are all people that need help and we are people that have the capacity to give help. No one gets there by themselves. And those who do are not very happy. So the sooner we can let go of the idea that we shouldn’t need help, and support, that is the mind shift that needs to happen.
TSR: That’s so incredibly powerful, that we all need help and have the capacity to give help.
Brené: It comes back to the vulnerability issue, the vulnerability of needing people. You can get stuck in this cycle of thinking, “I need people and I’m not good at needing people. And the less I need people and the more I think I’m going to make more money and be more independent and I’ll be a helper of people, not a ‘need-er’ of people, the more empty and more terrible my life feels.” Because the truth is if you can’t receive without judgment, then you’re never truly giving to someone else without judgment either.
This is a condensed and edited version of a conversation between ShriverReport.org and Brené Brown.
Brené is the author of two #1 New York Times Bestsellers; Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Gotham, 2012) and The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010).
Brené is the CEO and Chief Learning Officer for The Daring Way™, a training and certification program for helping professionals who want to facilitate her work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.
Brené’s 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top ten most viewed TED talks in the world, with over 13 million viewers. Additionally, Brené gave the closing talk at the 2012 TED conference where she talked about shame, courage, and innovation.
Brené lives in Houston with her husband, Steve, and their two children, Ellen and Charlie.