At the moment, I have no recollection how I first became acquainted with Dr. Bréné Brown and her work although this fact isn’t pertinent to this article. Bréné Brown is a quantitative researcher from Houston, Texas, who studies shame. She has become a popular author and speaker on the subject.
Shame isn’t a hot topic at cocktail parties nor in daily life. I believe it is hard to find a subject less discussed than shame. The times I have heard this noun uttered was usually as a “shame on you” or “he should feel ashamed” quip.
I am the product of a shame culture with ancestors who dispensed it liberally like candy on Easter. Indeed, shame is an effective weapon for curbing unwanted behaviors. Moreover, when — as a culture — we determine an individual’s parental qualifications solely on the “good” or “bad” behavior of his children, shame becomes a much-applied weapon in a parenting arsenal.
However, in most cases — certainly this is true in my case — the lavish use of shame was not the result of unkindness but rather, of ignorance.
Guilt and Shame
Quite a few years ago, I read a book on shame which – while it rang true – did not cause any major life-altering habits. Although the book was a catalyst in recognizing I suffered from shame, it wasn’t, however, an effective tool to protect me from said shame. I still was unclear about the insidious damage shame causes and the difference between shame and guilt.
I was still erroneously under the impression that I deserved to feel ashamed when my behavior warranted it because it was my conscience talking. Feeling bad for a wrong committed was “good” right?
The problem with shame is that it isn’t about feeling appropriate guilt over wrongdoing but instead, it is about feeling something is intrinsically wrong with us, that at our very core we are bad. A feeling often further driven home by religious dogma (no particular religion).
For instance, upon stubbing my toe on a chair, I still remember my mother reminding me that “God was punishing me” for some childish infraction.
Sheesh, I must be really bad if God Himself felt the need to give me an attitude adjustment by causing me pain.
Contrary to popular belief — although shame is effective at causing behavior modification — it isn’t effective at producing wholehearted, happy, and healthy human beings.
Forgive me the cliche but, realizing how impacted I still was by shame was comparable to hitting a brick wall at fast speed. Indeed, the awareness stopped me in my tracks (metaphorically speaking).
I was in my car, on a country road in California, on my way to visit my best friend, listening to Bréné’s The Power of Vulnerability seminar, when her words penetrated the fiber of my being and I got “it.”
Shame was a pervasive, continuous, and toxic theme in my life.
At the end of every argument with my husband, no matter how right or vindicated I may have felt at the beginning, I usually ended up feeling if I wasn’t “Florence” there would be no issues and our marriage would be perfect. In my mind, I was the issue.
I also steadfastly refuse for anyone to use shaming words on my kids and I went all Mama Bear on anyone who did (even if they did so inadvertently). You have but to ask my father-in-law to verify this fact. I went all G.I. Florence on him once over misspoken words directed at one of my boys.
Additionally, I mindfully tried to never shame my children although in hindsight, how could I genuinely create shame resilience in them when I was easily triggered by shame myself?
Shame is destructive.
Shame turned me into either a warrior or a wimp depending on the circumstances.
A couple of years ago, I read Daring Greatly by Bréné Brown. A great book with an important message which — again — was not the catalyst to any revealing a-ha moments. What I did not know was this: for me, the secret sauce would be in hearing Bréné herself speak. I love her.
I must preface, I do not know her personally nor have I ever attended a live conference where she spoke.
While her research is life-changing, I believe her superpower resides in her teaching. She is brilliant, compassionate, hilarious, with the occasional peppering of PG-13 language, and with a fair amount of sass. She delivers her message with passion, authenticity, and vulnerability which never fails to speak to my heart.
In of one of her teachings, she shared that her intention was to speak from her heart to others’ hearts. Mission accomplished as far as I am concerned Doctor Brown.
Braving the Wilderness
A few weeks ago, on another road trip, I listened to her newest book “Braving the Wilderness.” In the introduction, she shares that Maya Angelou became one of her mentors (unbeknown to Doctor Angelou). I realized then that Bréné has become my mentor (also unbeknown to her as well). Indeed, I singlehandedly appointed her to this lofty position.
Dr. Brown resonates with me probably because she allowed herself to be transformed by her research. She could have easily — and dryly — solely shared the results of her research from across a lectern while never being affected by it, much less converted and metamorphosed.
Instead, she shares her research with wholeheartedness from her life’s journey and she does so from a place of vulnerability and authenticity.
I have not read nor listened to all her books, yet. However, I have purchased — or borrowed (from our local library) — both a written AND audible version of all her books and teachings.
There are two lessons I want to concentrate on so far:
- Practice shame resilience.
- Practice courage.
These lessons are well summarized by Bréné Brown thusly “strong back, soft front, wild heart.” So far, my life motto has been closer to these (depending on the circumstances): “strong back, armored front, wild heart,” or less commonly, “roll over, armor up, and hid your heart.”
“Take no prisoners and don’t let them know when they hurt you” may be a somewhat useful defense mechanism, although it doesn’t lead to a wholehearted life. This motto certainly isn’t a serene — nor loving — way to go through life.
I was touched by a story Bréné shared about her — then-teenage — daughter Ellen. Her coach has asked her to participate in a swim meet using a stroke she had not yet mastered. As a result, Ellen knew she would still be in the pool long after other participants were done and out of the water, a scary prospect for anyone.
Despite her fears, Ellen chose to swim that day, knowing the outcome, and when done she told her proud parents: “this was horrible, but I was brave.”
Her action was indeed courageous. I personally think that — especially at her age — I would not have shown such bravery. Granted I had no support, no tools, no examples….while sporting a hefty dose of shame.
Bréné Brown is an answer to my Quest.
As a young girl of 15, on a warm spring day, while sitting on the beach surrounded by a handful of friends, I spoke my Quest’s intention: I wanted to live an authentic life wholly and completely as Florence. No apologies, no molding, no bending over to gain acceptance or a sense of belonging.
No one should have to make apologies for who they are. For those who will say we ought to strive to be better, I agree. Nevertheless, we should not have to feel the need to improve in order to be loved nor should we be forced to conform to belong.
There is a catch to being shame resilient.
I cannot solely teach these lessons, I must first live them, and embody them, for myself first and then, for my children and my children’s children.
I owe myself no less than to show up fully and wholeheartedly.
This is it, baby!
I only get this life, the majority of which is more than likely now behind me. This wholehearted mission of mine goes much deeper than me. I am aware my ceilings become my children’s ground floors. I do not wish for another generation to be paralyzed by shame.
My desire is for wholeheartedness to be my legacy and this goal can only occur if I forge ahead on this path no matter the fear nor the obstacles. I cannot give what I do not have despite my best intentions. Wholeheartedness is not an option for me, it is the only answer.
I am willing to brave the wilderness, even if this wilderness is the landscape of my own soul, I can do no less, I will do no less.
There is within me a wellspring of life from which I must live and which I must share.
Wholeheartedness is my path.
I will strive to become shame resilient, will you join me on this journey? We will meet in the wilderness if we must.