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 BrenÃ© 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 BrenÃ© 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.
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.”