On Shame and Vulnerability, a reaction to Brene Brown

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

A few months ago, I listened to Brene Brown’s talk (link to transcript) “Listening to Shame.” I hated every moment of it.

This runs counter to most of what I’ve seen on the internet in the intervening months. If I believed everything I read on internet threads, I should be sharing this talk wildly and reading her book, and basically proclaiming Brown a genius for her research on vulnerability.

Okay, maybe Brown is a genius for her research on vulnerability. I, admittedly, haven’t read much of that research.

What I find really difficult though is that Brown doesn’t (appear to, in this talk) take into account the role of survivorship in her talk on vulnerability. How not being vulnerable can be a key to surviving until a victim of abuse — a future survivor — reaches a safe place. How, if not being vulnerable has been the dominant structure of existence for a survivor for a long time, it might be difficult to take back the space to allow oneself to be vulnerable. I speak about this from personal experience. It isn’t easy to break the silence. It hasn’t been easy to make myself vulnerable, because I’m afraid of taking up space, afraid of rejection, afraid that someone I care about will say “sorry, you’re not worth it.”

This fear can be paralyzing. Some days, it’s all I can think about — how surely I’m driving people away from me because I can’t tell them why I’m crying, or I can’t say “I just need you to be in the same space as me, even though I don’t want to speak about why I don’t feel like I should be alone.” This feels too demanding. It feels as though I’m asking people to sacrifice too much. It feels as though there’s too much to explain.

Brown says

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.

I agree with this statement. Empathy, for me at least, has been key to allowing me to break the silence.

But it’s finding that empathy, and receiving enough of it. Brown speaks of receiving an equal part of empathy, but after years of shame, that doesn’t seem reasonable. Instead, it seems suffocating (because I’ll continue to feel shame while I wait for that empathy to accrue). I resent being told that by not being able to be vulnerable I lack courage. Instead, I see my experience — up to and including talking and writing in various forums about surviving abuse and assault — as one type of courage and the ability to be vulnerable as another. Vulnerability, to me, seems like a privilege. It implies that one receives the empathy that Brown speaks about, and is not coated in such a thick layer of shame that the person’s overall and continuous perception of their self is not “I am a mistake.”

Here’s the thing:

I know I’ve felt “I’m a mistake.” I just recently had a friend admit she felt the same way. We program half the population (ehm, girls, at least) to say “I’m sorry” at almost anything, regardless of whether or not it’s their fault. To take up less space. To feel ashamed of their sexuality. To question their right to anything — including being in a secure and loving relationship with friends or with an intimate partner. We teach them that their existence is less important than that of men, even in “progressive” American society. We teach them their bodies are gross and incapable and mostly good for pleasuring men and making babies, and that if they deviate from these norms then they should be ostracized or harassed. When people offer me (or my friend) reassurance, it’s hard to accept that they might mean these things in an authentic, non-coerced way — that they don’t feel pressured to say these things because they’re related to me, or a friend, or whatever.

For me, this is because of a deep sense of shame. I feel shame (or guilt? I made a mistake by consuming things?) for the money I cost my parents as I was growing up. I felt shame if I ever asked for help on anything, because I believed I was causing someone else to sacrifice something. I felt shame for my body, because of harassment by men. I felt shame for having needs because I’d been led to believe that I should be self-sacrificing.

According to Brown (in “The Power of Vulnerability“), I could potentially be self-sacrificing, but I wouldn’t be able to show genuine compassion for others without having compassion for myself.

They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.

I’d love to know how, exactly, Brown came to this conclusion, because I believe(d) I could feel compassion for others without feeling compassion for myself because I believe(d) other people deserved compassion, whereas I didn’t. For me, this was integral to how I understood my self-worth and the worth of others. Other people were deserving. I was not. Simple.

And the last was they had connection, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.

“As a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be.” Authenticity, to me and in this context, also translates to privilege. It’s difficult to be authentic when you’re afraid of being re-victimized. It’s difficult to be authentic when you deeply believe that the authentic you is unworthy of anything. It’s difficult to be authentic when individuals or society have told you that you’re not good enough.

But thanks, Brene Brown, I needed more shame.

I’m not good enough to be authentic. I’m not capable of being vulnerable because I’m terrified of rejection by the few people I can identify as caring about me even though they are under no obligation to do so.

That being said, when I do finally feel safe enough with these people to be vulnerable, it’s rewarding. I can witness that these people see my vulnerability not as a weakness, but as a facet of my strength. It’s just that it takes a lot of work on my part to get there. It takes a lot of work not to apologize for my very existence. I do, as Brown also suggests, find myself feeling more deeply connected to these people, and more alive, and being vulnerable becomes easier with practice.

But there’s so much shit to work through, and a renewed struggle to be vulnerable with each new person I meet.

This is exacerbated by the few instances where I’ve tried to let my guard down, or have chosen to let my guard down, which have resulted in me being more deeply wounded — including, in one instance, being assaulted. I still haven’t figured out how much empathy it will take to dissolve the shame that surrounds that — the sense that on some level it was my fault because if only I hadn’t tried to be vulnerable, it (probably) wouldn’t have happened.

Brown finishes her talk about vulnerability with this (and I quote it here, because it sounds wonderful, and is true to my experience, when I have been able to allow myself vulnerability):

This is what I have found:  to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” [emphasis mine]


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