Listening to Shame

This may be one of the most profound and best TED talks I have ever seen. Brené Brown talks about the part inside of us that is working very hard at staying small and staying right under the radar.

Some notes that I made for myself:

Vulnerability is not Weakness

According to Brown this is a dangerous myth, because it is emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty that fuels our daily lives. After 12 years of profound research in this area, Brown is confident to say that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.

Turns out that vulnerability and shame are the number one topics all organizations and public speaking events shy away from. Nowadays we look for the holy trinity of creativity, innovation and change. Brown is formal on this and she hits a home-run when she states that:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.

  • to create is to make something that has never existed before;
  • adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

We Have to Talk About Shame

Brown nicknames the TED conference as the ‘failure conference’ because the one thing that ties all the people on stage together is that there are very few people who are afraid to fail. In this respect she reminds us of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910. A quote that is known as ‘the man in the arena’:

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 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 and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

Shame is the gremlin inside of us that says ‘you are not good enough’ just as we are about to step into the arena. But when we can walk into the arena, do what we are there for and look the critic in the face, we will discover that the critic is us. Shame drives two big tapes:

  • Never good enough
  • Who do you think you are?

The Difference between Guilt and Shame

There is a huge difference between guilt and shame. The distinction between guilt and shame is that the first is focused on behavior (‘I did something bad’), and the second is focused on the self (‘I am bad’). It’s the difference between “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake”.

Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely correlated with these things. The ability to hold something we have done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive.

Bringing Mars and Venus Together

Finally, Brown brings up another uncomfortable topic: the fact that shame is organized by gender. Although shame feels the same for men and woman, it is acted out differently.

  • For woman shame is “Do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat”.
  • For men shame is not this bunch of competing conflicting expectations that woman are confronted with. Shame is one thing for men: “Do not be perceived as weak.”

Shame is an epidemic in our culture and we need to understand how it affects us and how it gets acted out. The key to fighting this epidemic is to watch out for secrecy, silence and judgement. The only remedy against these accelerators of shame is empathy.