Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly” and the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist

Because I write so much about the topic of shame on my website, I’m often asked if I’m familiar with the work of Brené Brown, the noted shame researcher from the University of Houston. I’ve known about Dr. Brown for quite some time now and have watched both of her TED Talk videos several times, but until recently, I hadn’t read any of her books. With the release of Daring Greatly and its climb up the bestseller lists, I decided it was time I acquainted myself more deeply with her work, especially as I’ve begun the background research for my book on shame in earnest.

Dr. Brown is an entertaining, enormously likable woman, which accounts in part for the nearly 1.5 million hits each one of her TED Talks has received. The authenticity and warmth she radiates in those videos also come across in her prose. She has a folksy style, and reading this book feels very much like listening to her speak. While so many inspirational/motivational writers strike me as hucksters, there’s no doubt that Brené Brown is passionately sincere about her subject matter. By making herself vulnerable to the viewing and reading public, she also models the kind of courage needed to challenge shame and the way it can shut us down. Unlike most experts in the field, she doesn’t address her readers as a distant authority, but rather as a comrade-in-arms. Everyone has shame. I have my own shame and here is how I deal with it. I feel a kinship with her in this sense.

Because I admire Brown and share some of her methods, I struggled a bit while reading her new book as objections began to surface. It’s about more than social pressure and ideals, I found myself thinking. Aren’t there times when the shame has a deeper intra-psychic explanation? In the end, I was able to resolve my conflicted feelings when I realized that she’s talking about an altogether different variety of shame from the type I discuss. It helped me to realize that I’ll need to differentiate at least three types of shame in my next book: Social Shame (what Dr. Brown describes), Toxic Shame (John Bradshaw’s contribution to the subject) and Basic Shame as I frequently discuss it here on my website. I’m still thinking about the issue of “appropriate” shame and how to address it.

Dr. Brown very accurately identifies the noxious social messages that instill a sense of shame in all of us: ideals about masculinity and femininity, appearing successful and without needs, demonstrating strength and invulnerability, etc. She takes aim at our culture of narcissism, where ideals of celebrity dominate, and to be “ordinary” is to be a loser. As a counter to those ideals, she advocates “shame resilience”: a method by which we may resist the perfectionism of those social messages, embrace our vulnerability as an inevitable part of the human condition and allow ourselves to be truly “seen.” If most of us followed her example, it would no doubt make the world a more humane and emotionally satisfying place to live.

Sometimes she over-generalizes her own message, however, and that’s when I begin to feel that her theoretical views would benefit from a deeper understanding of narcissism. For example, in discussing the subject of “worthiness” and our need to belong, she tells two parallel stories — one where her daughter Ellen felt unworthy for always being among “the others,” rather than among the first picks when choosing up sides for team sports; the other, about her own feelings of disappointment when a poster for an upcoming “star-studded” conference listed her as “among others.” Brown had greatly anticipated the arrival of this poster, hoping to see her own photo alongside “movie stars” to be featured. According to her own interpretation, the letdown she felt when she saw herself relegated to the “others” reflected a sense of unworthiness related to the experience of “not belonging,” but I think it had more to do with unconscious narcissism and grandiosity: she wanted to see herself as one of those amazing celebrities, a movie star in her own right, and when reality brought her back down to earth, she felt shame as a result.

An understanding of the relationship between shame and gradiosity would have helped this book go deeper: despite the fact that Dr. Brown is an academic and frequently makes reference to other researchers, she doesn’t mention the many important thinkers on the subject of shame, beginning with Darwin. I kept wondering if she’d read Tomkins or Nathanson, and I do think a nod to John Bradshaw was in order, given that he’s the one who brought shame into public focus almost 25 years ago with Healing the Shame that Binds You. I kept wanting to say to her, “If everyone has shame, as you say, doesn’t that mean it’s in our genes and serves some evolutionary purpose?” In other words, what is the value of shame for our species?

Instead, Dr. Brown treats shame as the enemy, an experience imposed on us from the outside through cultural images of the ideal or what it means to be “normal.” She’s part of the zeitgest, where Lady Gaga challenges shame as a toxic imposition by an intolerant society, and movements such as Gay Pride embody a refusal to accept the shame others try to inflict upon gays and lesbians. Don’t get me wrong — helping oppressed individuals to break free of social shame in order to accept themselves and lead more fulfilling lives is a very worthy cause. Taken too far, however, it sounds to me a bit like — “Just say ‘no’ to shame.”

In this connection, I struggled with another anecdote. Daughter Ellen came home one day in tears because her swimming coach had entered her to compete in the breast stroke for an upcoming meet. Ellen knew that she lacked the skill to compete effectively in this event and feared humiliating herself. Brown and her husband Steve handled this fear by encouraging her to show up anyway, and then applauding wildly from the bleachers as Ellen completed her laps minutes after the other competitors had left the swim platform. In Brown’s view, it was important not to protect Ellen from the experience and to leave her room enough to find her own strength. Merely showing up was a courageous act from Brown’s point of view, and in the end, I came to agree. The self-respect one might feel for having the courage to “show up” mitigates the humiliation that comes from finishing last. Repeated experiences of finding the courage and weathering such painful experiences during childhood will help us in later life to deal with the pain of losing out on a job promotion, getting a rejection letter from the university of our choice or finding that no publisher wants to publish our book.

Brown is strongest when she advocates for having the courage to let yourself be truly seen, to let your vulnerability show so that others can feel safe enough to do the same. She has many moving stories to tell, of men and women who continually feel they are “not enough” in one way or another but who nonetheless take the risk to be real. Her explanation for how to develop shame resilience will be liberating and useful for many people who read this book. As a public speaker, Brown both entertains and encourages her audience to be brave by emulating her own example of what it means to be vulnerable. This book does the same and offers an inspirational message for all of us trapped by cultural images of the ideal, and the endless messages we receive that we are “never enough.”

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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38 comments

    Great post. I’ve also come away with a desire for more of a “depth” perspective after reading Dr. Brown’s other books. In thinking about your different categories of shame, do you think it is possible for certain social expectations or events to trigger a more basic sense of deficiency? I think about some situations in my own life and it seems hard to make a clear separation between the two, to tell what is “in my head” and what is a reaction to real pressure coming from “out there.”

    Yes, I do think that social expectations or events that are shaming can tap into a deeper level of basic shame. It’s why some people are less able to shrug off or recover from certain embarrassing experiences than others. The social shame triggers something much deeper.

    I think the whole subject of shame would be better handled, at least theoretically, in the filed of cultural theory. I would also say that shame, like narcissism, while a sometimes useful defense for the child is something the adult needs to do battle with. I would say that shame is a function within ideology. When we feel ashamed, are we not in some way measuring the symbolic lag between how we are, and perceived ideals of how we should be?

    In a child, this may be necessary, when one is a powerless agent who needs to conform at least in such a way to guarantee food, shelter and love. Thereafter, I see no need to theorize an organic hard wiring of shame in adults. Indeed, as we become agents under our own power, we must learn not to even measure how we are, with how we, or society perceive how we should be.

    The Slovenian psychoanalyst and philosopher Slavoj Zizek said about ideology, ‘not only are their wrong answers, there are also wrong questions. As a gay man, ‘gay pride’ is something I find wholly shameful in a different sense. When I live, Durham City, North East England, gay pride is itself an ideological response in which gay men become parodies of an existing ideological view of how they should be ( a wrong answer to a wrong question). Do we get a celebration of gay: writers, intellectuals, artists, thinkers et al? No, we get theatre and hedonism. The stupid with nothing to say dress flamboyantly and listen to music that celebrates hedonism, sex, youth and it’s mediated products in a free market.

    I find few are able to distinguish between the function of guilt and shame. The narcissist coverts shame over one’s actions, because shame exposes the symbolic lag of ideological presentation which is insufferable to the narcissist. Whereas guilt, at one’s actions, is a legitimate precipitation towards self revision which doesn’t necessarily destruct one’s self esteem- ergo, self love in this instance (discounting the neurotic who internalizes abstract guilt, which itself I believe is an ideological function).

    If these ideas are of any interest to anyone see Zizek and Lacan.

    Thank you for the fair criticism of Brown’s perspective on shame. I have not read Daring Greatly but did read her book, I thought it was just me. Her work is important–especially as it is popular–in bringing shame out of the shadows, but I agree that there are others, some whom you mentioned, whose work adds more depth and greater perspective to her more limited view. You mentioned Silvan Tomkins–his work references shame as a basic emotion. These e-motions, whose task is to move us in certain directions, I believe are neutral and necessary. Shame can be a “signal” that the course we have chosen deviates from what is socially acceptable. This is not always necessarily something to be done away with, it can serve the function of “good information” for us especially in the area of ethics, in which I include how we behave towards one another in everyday interactions. Its been a while since I read Bradshaw, but seem to recall that this was the gist of his well-known book, that not all shame is bad, that it sometimes serves as a signal. He differentiates this shame from “toxic shame,” which is a more pervasive sense of identity, a sense of being inherently bad. I won’t say more about this because I have read some of your entries on shame and know you have commented on this subject.

    What you say is still important and valuable. Right now, I’m trying to get clear on Tomkins and shame as an affect. A long way to go in getting clarity about this complex subject. Thanks!

    Tompkins does call shame an “affect” and not an emotion. The difference-in some camps–between an affect and an emotion are important, with the learning or “nurture” aspect being part of an emotion. I am curious what you will do with this. As an intuition–I wonder about the role shame (as affect initially) plays in the development of identity–not just in Bradshaw’s sense, but in the sense of the development of what Jung calls “shadow” aspects of self (unwanted identities) vs. more acceptable parts of self.

    All the discussions on shame help me with the profound shame i have felt,

    i have also read that Shame has the lowest and densest energy in the body and this really helped me, as it helped me have less shame about the struggle i have had in letting go of shame!!

    John Bradshaw helped me in differentiating a normal shame at limitations of humans and the Toxic Shame,

    Brene Brown has helped cos she just makes it normal and has helped me in building the courage to be more vulnerable and for that to be more ok

    I really do sense such a physical presence of shame and depersonalising it is helping me, seeing it as an emotion in my body that wants to be expressed and felt but can then move through me and leave me, rather than being so terrified of it that i cling on it, this is a work in progress for me,

    out of interest how would you simply define shame, could it be something like:
    a fear response to the consequences of being a finite being with edges, therefore limits?

    thanks again for another prompting subject, brings stuff up good for self developing and Nudging to great freedom!!

    Defining shame is so difficult and I’m just now trying to pin it down. It is, first of all, a built-in affect, one of the basic nine identified by Tompkins, and it’s universal. I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on.

    I think that the problem with defining “shame” again is that this word which is already saddled with too many ambiguous or partially overlapping definitions, and so the effort necessary to make a clear distinction between your “basic shame” and all other confusing meanings of “shame” is overwhelming. And even if you succeeded at that, you would have to explain it over and over and over again because people reading or listening to you would stumble on the other definitions.
    On the other hand, I think that you have a very clear idea of what is actually behind your expression “basic shame”. You already made an exceptional job defining and explaining it on this blog.
    To me the problem is not the definition, it’s the homonymy.
    May I suggest that you try this as an exercise? Pick any nonsensical word (e.g. “snafuness”) and define it as what you mean by “basic shame”, without making references or allusions to other definitions of “shame”. See if it works better.

    Thanks, I’ll give that some thought. The thing is, as I wade into Tomkins, it becomes more and more clear that what I’m writing about IS a variety of shame, the very earliest form.

    “Brown had greatly anticipated the arrival of this poster, hoping to see her own photo alongside “movie stars” to be featured. According to her own interpretation, the letdown she felt when she saw herself relegated to the “others” reflected a sense of unworthiness related to the experience of “not belonging,” but I think it had more to do with unconscious narcissism and grandiosity: she wanted to see herself as one of those amazing celebrities, a movie star in her own right, and when reality brought her back down to earth, she felt shame as a result.”

    Do you think that some sort of what is called “narcissism” or “grandiosity” is necessary to become one of the “celebrities” these days? What do you consider to be “narccissim”? Research shows that a majority of CEOs have personality traits that psychologists consider pathological, and we’ve all heard the stories about entertainment celebrity divas. Even people who are normal, generally have a less accurate (and more positive) perception of the world than those who are depressed. Perhaps what some think is narcissism is necessary for success.

    No doubt you’re right, that a degree of narcissism comes in very handy. The question is: to what degree is it pathological? Believing in yourself and having confidence in your strengths is a healthy form of narcissism, in my view (not all narcissism is pathological); but when you have an inflated sense of yourself — for example, viewing yourself as a movie star when you’re not — that kind of grandiosity links up to shame and isn’t terribly healthy.

    what is the opposite of narcissism? I absolutely am jazzed about this site. Very much iterested in how the ‘feeling not too valued’ can contibute. SI, anorexic and unsure…looking forward to a post on these issues. you actallly sound trustworthy.

    Well, I’m not sure how to answer that question. There’s healthy and pathological narcissism, first of all. And I guess I’m thrown by the word “opposite.” I think of it this way — pathological narcissism is the flip-side of shame (i.e., a defense against it). It’s a subject I’ve written about quite a bit and you might start with this post.

    very crucial point. I have also noticed that narcissists, as they are extremely self-focused people, are more successful than the regular man.

    Wow..Warren good read. I was about to write that shame like anger is a human emotion that could help us delve deeper into our personalities by having us ask some questions surrounding these emotions. You pointed out that we could because of certain wrong ideologies ask the wrong question. I will look up Kizek and Lacan.

    You ARE going against the zeitgeist in talking about shame-awareness as a useful TOOL. Everybody else is the field of psychology talks about shame exclusively as a weapon wielded by bad guys (including oneself) who’ve gotta be stopped so the good guys can prevail. People just lap up this kind of splitting! Yick!

    Just say ‘no’ to shame.”

    In this connection, I struggled with another anecdote. Daughter Ellen came home one day in tears because her swimming coach had entered her to compete in the breast stroke for an upcoming meet. Ellen knew that she lacked the skill to compete effectively in this event and feared humiliating herself. Brown and her husband Steve handled this fear by encouraging her to show up anyway, and then applauding wildly from the bleachers as Ellen completed her laps minutes after the other competitors had left the swim platform. In Brown’s view, it was important not to protect Ellen from the experience and to leave her room enough to find her own strength. Merely showing up was a courageous act from Brown’s point of view, and in the end, I came to agree. The self-respect one might feel for having the courage to “show up” mitigates the humiliation that comes from finishing last. Repeated experiences of finding the courage and weathering such painful experiences during childhood will help us in later life to deal with the pain of losing out on a job promotion, getting a rejection letter from the university of our choice or finding that no publisher wants to publish our book.

    I struggle with the swimming coach anecdote too. I can’t help wondering what I would do if my daughter presented me with a similar scenario (quite possible). My instinct would be to respect her feelings (decision?) on not having the skills to compete effectively. Perhaps check by encouraging her to talk to her coach about it. I would be interested to know why she had been entered, maybe her coach felt she had potential that could be brought out or maybe a more practical reason (not as helpful) such as to make up numbers for the event. If she still did not want to show I would support that, I think because it is not me that is entering a competition with ‘realistic’ fears of being last and public shame. It is her. Perhaps that is to do with my underlying assumptions about shame that there is always going to be external situations that bring humiliation or shame so why go out of your way? if you are going out of your way to ‘overcome’ hurdles of ‘shame’ why is that? Also, is this type of shame universal ie the shame of messing up in front of everybody (I can’t imagine many people do not have some of those fears) rather than the specific reason for why ‘this’ person is feeling shame. If for example my daughter had fears of competing and coming last that were not really related to her abilities I might wonder what else was going on for her.
    I can see the usefulness of facing up to fears and learning to cope with failing for later life but encouraging an almost inevitable ‘fail’, to learn strikes me as being a bit driven, are there other more covert needs at play? ie ‘you need to overcome your shame to be successful because (ironically?) it is shameful not to be succesful. If that makes any sense.

    All of this makes sense and I had many of the same thoughts. I wondered whether there might be some effort to avoid the shame that would come if they challenged the coach’s authority and then Ellen was ostracized in some way. Brown talks about the “hyper-competitive” sports environment in their community; I’m sure you know about those kinds of team sports and how toxic they can be. Why not swim for personal pleasure instead? And isn’t the goal of competition to try to win? Re-characterizing the goal as simply “showing up” seems a bit naive and sentimental to me. It reminded me of my son’s elementary school that held a Halloween costume contest but refused to announce any winners because some of the children might feel bad about losing. A contest where everyone wins! Just exactly like the real world.

    But I can be too cynical about these things and I was trying very hard to see the positive aspects of the Browns’ decision. There is something to be said for facing your fear and simply showing up when you really really don’t want to.

    I’m puzzling about the differences between shame, vulnerability and self-esteem and how they relate to each other.

    I sense a whole nest of issues but don’t have any clarity.

    I’m sure you know about those kinds of team sports and how toxic they can be.

    Ahh, thanks. That gave me a thoughtful nudge, perhaps my response was coloured by my background where I do not have any experience of this type of super competitiveness. I guess there is going to be a social currency in that environment that I am not familiar with. Perhaps they knew their daughter would get respect for showing and competing and maybe that helps as an antidote to shame. I also wondered at the theme of competitiveness, bearing in mind my’ I would do it this way… ahem.

    Hello Dr. Burgo,
    Shame really is complex. I think it is helpful to dissect the word and the different meanings of the word and the layers and dimensions of it. It is helpful to discuss how we all deal with it. At least putting it on the intellectual level and also having some understanding of where all the different shades of shame are born helps me dissolve some of the great emotional pain associated with it. I can say for myself that I can differentiate “levels” of shame inside me much better after reading these posts and therefore work through the pain a little better. How much shame permeates my life is even part of this Blog. Every time I reply to something on this site I feel really afraid that I am going to be ashamed and after I push send I am almost always ashamed that I wrote something. Considering it is an anonymous setting you can imagine how real life can be exhausting for me!
    I am also conflicted about the swimming competition analogy. It took lots of guts to go to the meet and lose but yeah….why? Another aspect is that Ellen had her parents there to cheer her to the end. I imagine with parents like that, she probably avoided the huge damage of basic shame and that her parents loved her and nurtured her when she was a newborn and infant. After the meet her parents were proud of her courage and she probably learned a great lesson about life. A person with big basic shame may have incurred emotional damage instead of a great lesson from the same situation.

    I think you’e right about the difference being about those loving, supportive parents there to back her up. How many people actually get that?

    I’ve been trying to think about why this coach would have placed Ellen in the that event, given that he must have known she wasn’t very good at it; yesterday, a friend of mine who used to swim competitively at the same age gave me the explanation. Apparently, in these kinds of competitive sports, the team is penalized if they don’t have an entrant in a particular race. You lose points if no one is entered and it’s worse for the team than having an entrant who finishes last. It’s designed this way to discourage teams from only entering in the races they think they’ll win.

    I think that this would have been an important lesson for Ellen, that you sometimes have to sacrifice for the good of the team. I wish Brown had explained this as part of the anecdote, because putting Ellen in that race just seemed cruel on the Coach’s part.

    I appreciate your bringing so much focus and discussion to this taboo topic, as well as offering some different perspectives and authors to explore. I haven’t read much on the subject of shame, but it is making sense from another perspective that I do know a bit about; trauma.

    I wonder about your thoughts on the idea that shame may be a functional dissociative response. For example and as you probably know, trauma researchers such as Bruce Perry describe two ways in which our central nervous system reacts to threats. If it seems like we can do something about the danger (e.g. run away, fight back) our sympathetic nervous system switches on to help with that. Adrenaline, increased heart rate, blood to skeletal muscles, etc. If things seem too overwhelming, or that we may place ourselves in more danger, we may “leave our body” as our systems shut down to weather the storm. You see this in the animal world (e.g. on the Nature Channel) when an antelope goes limp after being caught by a cheetah. The animal is not dead or even mortally wounded. It is hoping the cheetah may incorrectly assume so, though, leave its fresh kill to get her cubs for a meal, giving the antelope a window to spring back to life and scamper away.

    Some evolutionary psychologists (and counselors) suggest that dissociation in humans during rape or as children are subject to abuse is functional in that it helps the victims endure this atrocity. A limp body reduces the chances of further harm that might be inflicted if victims continued to fight back. Mentally, the process of dissociation places its participant elsewhere, through amazing mechanisms such as depersonalization. In further support of this argument is the idea that the dissociative response can include a natural opioid-like chemical production, a natural numbing (which Brown believes we replicate in intentional behaviors such a drugs/alcohol use, shopping, food, medication, etc.).

    Is the experience of shame historically helpful in that it allowed us to hide social transgressions from our Paleolithic clan so that we wouldn’t get kicked out of the group and left to fend for ourselves (a threat that would have been deadly in that period)?

    Again, thanks for your discussion on these hard topics! I look forward to reading your book.

    All of those points you make about our response to trauma are very helpful, and my experience certainly supports them. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of dissociation/depersonalization as a means to shift attention (self-awareness) away from the bodily places where we register pain/affects so that they never reach the conscious level of “emotion.” It is truly fascinating. As for your final evolutionary point, I think you’re probably right. It makes perfect sense to me that shame must have some kind of survival value, and that would certainly be an example.

    This may sound silly but shame does exist in dogs too. Guilt and shame are so interlaced together. You come home and your dog has misbehaved. You chastise him, he feels guilty. When he goes off in a corner to “sulk”, the guilt becomes shame. As if he had time to reflect that he will lose the love of his owners if he misbehaves…Just a thought.

    I came across Brene Brown about a year ago but it wasn’t until now that I decided to read one of her books. I’ve been reading books on shame for quite sometime ever since I became aware of how it operates in my life. Without doubt, John Bradshaw has been the preeminent individual to bring to public awareness the topic of shame. I’ve been somewhat frustrated that Brene Brown in her books and videos never gives him credit for the work he did to popularize shame. Shame on her! (just kidding). In my own research on shame I have read many books. In trying to source books in history that discuss the topic I have compiled a list of readings organized by publishing date and have put them on my website. I found that before psychology shame was a topic discussed primarily by theologians and religious authorities. It wasn’t until the 1950s that psychology books began discussing the topic with books like Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study and On Shame and the Search for Identity. Since then there have been many authors who have discussed the topic. I think it would be appropriate and honorable for Brene to credit those before her, particularity Bradshaw. You can get the list of books from here if you wish.

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