About The Author:
Brené Brown, Ph.D., is an awarded and renowned research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and has been researching the topic of shame and vulnerability for more than a decade. Her former work includes other books related to the topic, such as I Thought It Was Just Me (2007) and The Gift of Imperfection (2010)
What’s it about?
Daring Greatly traverses how embracing one’s vulnerability, and imperfection is crucial for attaining real engagement and social connection. Through explaining our deep-seated reasons for shame and showing how to embrace our vulnerability, the author tries to present guidance for a greater private and professional life and to launch a fundamental transformation in our shame-based society, which, according to the author, lacks a new culture of vulnerability.
The fear of social disconnection, however, is shameful; it is only human but harmful:
We all felt shameful. And most of us know that our perception of what others think of us triggers disgrace.
But to really understand how shame and embarrassment work, we must examine a fundamental human need for connection, love, and belonging.
As “social animals,” we are wired to find other people; it was always important to belong to our survival group. For example, in the Stone Age, group members attacked intruders to protect one another.
This need is so strong that a social disconnection causes genuine pain – one that is reinforced by our brain chemistry in neuroscience.
So what is behind our shameful feelings? The belief that we do not deserve to survive in our love, connection, and belonging.
And whatever we do or achieve in our lives will not suffice to meet that fundamental need if we feel this way.
For example, when we show something that we have created for others – like an essay that we have written or a painting that we have made – the relationship between shame and dignity can be observed.
We frequently attach our value to the way others react to our creations. The outcome? We fear that they will be criticized or even refused.
Shame is bad for us. It prevents us from trying and causes us to get people out of our lives. Shame makes us shy of standing out, whether it is to show off our work, to express our feelings, or to try something new. However, if we feel our unconditional dignity, we are brave to take the opportunity.
The author discovered in her research that shame weakens our ability to believe that we can improve. Other researchers have also found that shame only leads to negativity and destruction; shame, in short, has no positive effect.
Thus, while it is human to feel shame only occasionally, we worry that we take shameful behavior in our society.
Shame forms part of our current culture and fosters a fear of indignity – not having enough or being insufficient:
We constantly present ourselves and our lives to the public in a world dominated by social media. For everyone to see – and envy – we share our photographs of holidays, the number of ‘friends.’ We also share our achievements.
This kind of envy often leads to a sense of scarcity that everyone occasionally feels, perhaps by listening to an exotic friend’s adventures or looking at things that we could never afford longingly.
This is our “never-sufficient” culture: we are in constant fear of being insufficient or not.
Recent traumatic events – such as 9/11 – have shaped today’s never-ending culture and its impact not only in society but in our families, workplaces, and schools. The random acts of violence and natural catastrophes have shaped our history.
If we can’t heal, the function of ‘post-traumatic stress’ is taken over by fear of lack. Instead of overcoming the trauma through processing – which requires vulnerability – we try to numb fear and get more.
The misconception that accumulating things or improving oneself continuously will protect us from the uncontrollable misfortunes of life that led to this behavior.
This never enough thinking begins a cycle of comparison, disgrace, and disengagement.
For example, we compare ourselves, even in a romantic past, with Hollywood stars, models, and millionaires. These comparisons are usually based on standards that we cannot meet.
The comparison causes shame; we fear that we are not enough and therefore unworthy of human relationships. Shame leads to our disengagement: we stop trying to improve because we think we can’t be good enough.
Thus in our society, there are widespread and harmful feelings of disappointment.
However, how can we leave this path of destruction? Next, you will learn how to overcome shame by embracing vulnerability.
The core of all emotions is vulnerability and by no means a sign of weakness:
If you asked people what they thought about vulnerability, very few of them would probably think it was positive. We have come up in a world where being vulnerable is associated with disappointment and failure. Simultaneously, success and strength are considered to be more important than being connected to our feelings.
But if we analyze what vulnerability is, we come to entirely different conclusions.
First, there is no good or bad vulnerability. Instead, being exposed means that you have the emotional ability.
And while vulnerability is often associated with dark emotions, such as fear or grief, the root of our positive emotions is vulnerability: Love, happiness, empathy, and so on.
Vulnerability means insecurity, risk, and emotional exposure for the author. For example, you may love somebody, but you can never be sure they will reciprocate and thus risk being rejected. You can never be sure of being emotional. Love involves vulnerability, just as with any other feeling.
In the second place, it shows strength and courage to be vulnerable – not weakness.
It means that we become vulnerable if we expose ourselves. This also means that we are courageous; all possibilities of failure can be avoided much easier than a risk taken.
For example, the author was very afraid to talk about her research openly and fears that she would be exposed to the audience. but she was brave doing it regardless.
In our lives, we all want love and connection. What we need to understand fully is that these positive sentiments are rooted in our vulnerability. We can use this fact to our advantage in our private and professional lives if we can accept this fact and embrace our vulnerability.
We should take it to improve ourselves and our relationships, rather than ignore our vulnerability:
It is usually understood that vulnerability is a negative quality, yet it is a vital quality of humanity – an integral part of who we are.
So how do we deal positively and constructively with our inherent vulnerability?
Easy: own it. Using our vulnerability can help us both professionally and socially to learn and develop.
Regarding our social development, the ability to address vulnerability allows us both to authenticate and empathize with our emotions so that we connect with others. Just as you would value other people being honest and open to you, you will be welcomed for your vulnerability and willingness to share your feelings and thoughts. The most important moments we feel are often those when we opened up to someone and experienced empathy.
On the subject of professional development, our work and ideas can only be improved by taking risks and daring to expose them to external criticism. You can avoid the chance of failure, but you also fail to experience a potentially new experience if you do what you know to be good at. Failure means something new is learned.
But what if you don’t want your vulnerability to be shown? You may end up increasing your vulnerability if you ignore it, or you’d be unaware of it, which even worse. As one study showed, people who felt themselves unaffected by the convincing power of advertising were the most susceptible; those who claimed not to be affected by advertising responded more than those who admitted their suggestibility.
Clearly, we do not need to fight vulnerability, but rather it is a key element of our emotional lives. Vulnerability can become a positive tool if we recognize its existence. On the other hand, shame is a common way of tackling our vulnerability. So we must first learn how to get rid of shame to embrace vulnerability.
We develop resilience to it and feel empathy for others by understanding and verbalizing our shame:
Since shame is a fear of self-exposition, it isn’t a feeling we usually easily share with others.
We all wished the ground to open and swallow us up sometimes, to protect us from judgment and to suppress others’ laughter. More often than anything, we’re ashamed about the feeling of shame because it is more painful to us.
Surely shame may be horrible. How can we solve it, then?
We often diminish the power to talk about our feelings of shame. We try our best shame-resilient.
When we resist shame, we could instead feel other people’s empathy in situations where we would typically feel shame.
We can become resilient by reaching out and verbalizing it since we are only shy when we fear other people’s views. This allows others to understand our fears and emotions and empathize with us to substitute any shame for empathy.
We have all experienced the relief to be open to others, and as we feel understood, our problems melt away. It’s a very powerful weapon against shame. The first step on our path to embracing vulnerability and to living a more engaged and connected life is resilience to shame.
We’ll wage to stop hiding our vulnerability when we feel satisfied with what we are and what we have:
It’s natural and common to want to get better or get more. Not only does this desire to be generalized by competition, but also by the need to protect ourselves from harm.
“We would be immune to pain and disappointment if only we were rich/successful/popular,” we say ourselves. In other words, our hope that we can rid ourselves of vulnerability is behind our desire to be and have more.
Vulnerability cannot actually be overcome. It can only be concealed. Most people find their vulnerability so uncomfortable that they try to mask it, even from themselves and from others.
How are we going to hide it? By behavioral patterns such as perfectionism or by numbing it by drugs and alcohol.
For instance, we all had happy moments that became sour because we started to imagine something terrible was going on. Rather than becoming vulnerable to the feeling of joy itself, we do so to fight the (imagined) imminent doom.
We strive for completion to avoid the possibility of failure. Perfectionism works the same way.
However, if we accept that we have enough instead of our fear of never taking over, we will be able to expose ourselves and reveal our vulnerability.
For example, we can open ourselves up to potential criticism or failure without defining who we are by ridding ourselves of the unattainable goal of perfection.
We can also accept that we are worthy of that momentary joy rather than ruining happy moments by imagining the worst. In those truly happy moments, we should be grateful and not fear imagined tragedy.
So, we can take up our vulnerability by satisfying ourselves with what we are and have, freeing us to lose the masks, which serve only to harm us. We can see ourselves and those around us finally without such masks.
Next, you will read how a culture of vulnerability at work, school, and home can be beneficial.
Shame in any workplace or school is toxic to an atmosphere:
We all heard of some questionable motivational strategies designed to lead people in school or work to the desired goals. These are benchmarking concepts that compare performance with specific fixed rates or standards, and shaming and blaming display people’s weaknesses or failures. Office staff needs to sell their bonus in a certain amount, school teachers need to read the classes of students in a loud voice, and universities can only advance to their graduate courses in the best grade level.
However, anyone who is threatened with public shame is well aware of its dangerous effects on productivity.
Shame may lead to disconnection; we stop being emotionally invested when we are forced to work or learning in a shameful environment because feeling shame distracts us from our environment. This will likely mean that we’re no longer working so hard – or even totally disengage by leaving.
Secondly, this discourse threatens creativity, innovation, and education. Whether at work or in school, you have to feel involved in what you do if you want a new and creative idea or an unusual but efficient resolution to a problem. If you get disengaged by being shamed, it leads to disinterest and inaction and prevents you from learning about yourself and improving by focusing on meaningless things.
In fact, without creativity and innovation, no workplace or school can work.
Can you think of a creative school? Learning involves independently thinking and creating your questions, answers, and ideas. Briefly: creativity.
And companies can’t work without innovation: create new products, adapt old products to fickle, and constantly changing markets. Without it, no company can survive.
As you can see, the atmosphere is harmful and counterproductive in our workplaces and schools. Companies and schools should adopt or develop alternative motivational strategies if they wish to remain effective and productive – for example, by enforcing productivity.
Leaders in education, employment, and society, in general, must fight disengagement by promoting vulnerability over shame and disgrace:
Changing social patterns always means that committed people take the first steps. Whether important employers or managers, teachers or parents, they can contribute to introducing a culture of vulnerability into our society.
In almost every workplace or school, there are symptoms of shame culture. For example, you could have heard of extreme cases of employee failure in the office. One occurrence shamed employees at trading offices and used other methods of public humiliation.
These behavioral patterns can nevertheless be transformed to encourage people to accept their vulnerability. Such a cultural worthwhileness and openness to vulnerability can address the problems of shame. If we learn to manage our own vulnerability, the same values and concepts can then be transferred to our workplaces, schools, and families.
Leaders in responsible and influential positions – and therefore rehumanize education and work – can take over vulnerability at the professional and societal level.
For example, if you are the head of a division, you have probably more chances than other employees to shape that division’s behavioral patterns and thus fight shame. And that’s in your best interests: the success of your entire division – and therefore your achievement – will be linked to any change you promote.
Suppose you are an influential person and express problems or seek assistance. In that case, this can create an atmosphere of confidence in which vulnerability is not smashed but used to enhance the working and learning environment.
Work, families, and schools – all of them have signs of disgrace and disengagement. However, a culture of dignity and vulnerability can turn them around.
Parenting in a shame-free environment, dedicated and involved, will help children to develop a sense of dignity:
For our children, we want only the best. So we have to teach them the underlying principles of dignity and vulnerability when we want them to lead dedicated and related lives.
First, we have to consider the trauma of children. In early childhood, shameful incidents can affect not only the youth but the rest of its life. Think of times when in your own childhood you felt shameful.
On the other hand, if kids don’t feel shameful, they feel worthy because they are loved without condition. A family should be a place to be ourselves. They need a shameless home environment for our children to grow up with a deeply rooted sense of dignity, knowing that they’re good enough. If you love your family unconditionally, you can learn to love yourself much easier.
This is precisely why, as parents, we need to teach our children shame resilience, both by engaging and committing to parents, as well as by accepting our own dignity.
To create such an atmosphere, parents must act as role models and commit themselves to standards and values of dignity which their children want to inherit, rather than just preaching to them. The atmosphere in which our children develop is open and consistent. Parents must first take their dignity if they want to teach their children that they are valuable. No child can bear a quality of a parent that they do not actually own.