--by Jill Suttie, syndicated from Greater Good, Feb 25, 2016 interview with Brené Brown
Why do we feel shame and how does shame change us?
Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough. --Brené Brown
According to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It’s an emotion that affects all of us and profoundly shapes the way we interact in the world. But, depending on how we deal with it, shame can either shut us down or lead us to a new sense of bravery and authenticity.
Jill Suttie: Why do you think it’s important to study shame and vulnerability?
Brené Brown: Because they are such a big part of our emotional landscape and daily experience. For shame, it’s about shining a light in some dark corners and normalizing some universal experiences that by definition make us feel very alone.
As for vulnerability, a lot of people believe that vulnerability is the centre of dark and difficult emotions that we don’t want to feel; so they guard against it. The truth is that vulnerability is the centre of all emotions. We’re emotional beings, and to understand our emotions is going to require a bit of uncertainty and risk
JS: What do you mean by vulnerability being at the centre of all emotion?
BB: Based on the research, I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. When we feel dark emotions—when we feel grief or shame or fear, scarcity, disappointment—we feel risk and uncertainty, and we feel emotionally exposed and raw. But vulnerability is also the birthplace of love, joy, belonging, trust, intimacy, creativity, and all of the good things. If we’re practicing a guarded heart life, we’re pushing away the things we’re most desperate for.
JS: Can you talk about the difference between shame and guilt?
BB: The easiest way to separate shame from guilt is to say shame is “I’m bad” and guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behaviour. An easy parenting example would be saying, “You’re stupid” versus “You’re a great kid that made a bad decision.” It’s very hard to get out from underneath shame because, if that’s who you are, what is the potential for change?
JS: Why should we engage with shame in the way you describe in your book when it’s so painful? What’s the benefit to that?
BB: Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Those are not authentic responses. So, dealing with shame while maintaining authenticity and cultivating more courage, connection, and compassion in your relationships is what’s needed. It’s a tall order. But one of the by products of being able to move through shame constructively is that people who come out the other side by default feel braver, more connected and compassionate.
JS: Do you have advice for people who grew up in families where emotions were ignored or downplayed?
BB: I’m a big believer in therapy. I could not have done this work without a really great therapist. I don’t think we can do this work alone, because we were never meant to. It’s not how we’re wired. We’re wired for connection, from mirror neurons on down, and in the absence of connection, there’s suffering. So, I think just starting small conversations with people we trust and care about and being honest about wanting to learn more and do more about our shame is a good step. It’s all about being in connection while we’re in this learning process.
JS: What do you hope people will most take away from your work?
BB: I hope more than anything that it starts a conversation. I hope my work helps people feel less alone and gives them the permission and the language to talk about the most important parts of being human—both the hard parts and the most beautiful parts.
Brene Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston.
Her TED talk on the power of vulnerability is the fourth most popular talk of all time and has been viewed by over 23 million people, while her books are all bestsellers, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly and her latest book, Rising Strong.