Vulnerability and Shame


In case you’re the one person left on earth who hasn’t watched Brené Brown’s “Ted Talk,” do yourself a favor and go check it out. I’ll wait…Ok, now let’s talk about it.

Since June of 2010, her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has been viewed over 34 million times. Go ahead and add yourself to that tally. Brené Brown is a research professor who studies vulnerability, shame, courage, and authenticity and has authored four books with another due to release in the fall of 2018.

Her foundational theory is that connection with others gives purpose and meaning to life, and fear of losing this connection inevitably leads to shame.

In a sense, the things that make us feel vulnerable trigger the fear of losing connection with others. The “I’m not good enoughs” that we all tell ourselves is actually shame. The fear of rejection can lead us to hide or protect who we really are, which further exacerbates that shame.

Let’s stop and define shame as it often gets confused with guilt. Guilt is: I did something bad. Shame is: I am bad. Guilt is: “Oops, I stepped on your foot. I’m sorry.” Shame is: “I stepped on your foot; I’m such an idiot!” Guilt is pro social; it teaches us about right and wrong. Shame is debilitating.

Brown officially defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Brown further explains that her research led her to categorize people into two camps: those with a deep sense of worthiness and belonging and those without. Those who have a sense of being worthy of love and belonging actually do have it. In other words, if you think you deserve love and belonging, you tend to experience it. Those who struggle for it tend not to believe they are worthy, that they don’t deserve it.

Additionally, Brown suggests that those with a strong sense of worthiness and belonging tend to have more courage, most importantly, the courage to be who they are. They have the courage to let their vulnerabilities or perceived weaknesses be seen by others. They also tend to have more compassion for themselves which then translates to compassion for others.

Lastly, those with a strong sense of worthiness tend to be more authentic in who they are. This authenticity is what allows true connections to happen.

When you’re hiding who you are, you aren’t allowing yourself to fully connect with others.

Now, back to that “V” word. Brown found that those who believed they were worthy of love and connection were also able to be vulnerable with both themselves and others. Vulnerability tends to get a bad rap. We fear it. We think it makes us weak. Brown would argue that vulnerability is actually what makes us strong. It’s what makes us courageous.

This is not to say that being vulnerable is super easy and that you should go around sharing your deepest, darkest secrets to the random barista at your coffee shop. No, keep your boundaries. You have to be a little thoughtful with your vulnerability. Share your shame with a therapist or safe, trusted people in your life. Being vulnerable is part of having a well-rounded life.

You need to be courageous and willing to take risks in order to experience that well-rounded life.

You can’t pick your feelings in life. You weren’t born with a given checklist of all the emotions and feelings you are or aren’t willing to experience. You have to go through all of them to live a whole, balanced, life.

When you sit on shame, it eats at you. It can lead to addiction, overeating, over-controlling behavior, depression, violence, and avoidance. We numb shame so we don’t have to feel vulnerable. Yet, when you numb vulnerability, you also numb all emotions and experiences, especially the ones we crave such as love, happiness, and connection.

Brown also believes that being vulnerable and sharing our shame takes empathy, kindness, and compassion from both others and ourselves. Empathy is the antidote to shame. When we share our vulnerabilities, we realize that we aren’t alone in our shame. Our experiences tend to be universal. Someone else always has the same insecurities as we do.

Now, ask yourself, would you rather always play it safe and protect yourself from emotions and experiences that you perceive to be negative thus numbing all positive emotions? Or are you willing to take risks in life and be your true, authentic self if it means that you sometimes get hurt or rejected? Brown would argue that taking risks and being authentic is a fundamental element in a whole-hearted life. It’s what leads to joy, creativity, love, and belonging.

You aren’t perfect, but you are worthy of love and belonging. You are enough.

Dare greatly.

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