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.”