Teddy Roosevelt, speaking at the Sorbonne in 1910 said,
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Brene Brown named her latest book, Daring Greatly, after this quote.
My introduction to the work of Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston School of Social Work, is a clear example of the magic of synchronicity. After dinner on Thanksgiving, my hostess and friend Katie Strunk, asked me if I was familiar with Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, and showed me one of Brown’s books. Katie’s introduction to Brown had also been synchronistic. She had intended to record a program on her DVR, but when she tried to watch it, realized that she had accidentally recorded something entirely different; an interview with Brene Brown by Katie Couric. Early this morning as I listening to my favorite radio show “On Being”, who was Krista Tippet interviewing, but Brene Brown. The universe was clearly bringing Brown’s work to my attention, and with good reason, as it feels personally very meaningful and timely to me, and I hope will feel that way to you as well.
In 2007 Brene Brown gave a TED talk about shame and vulnerablity that went viral, reflecting the unspoken epidemic of shame in our culture. I learned about the difference between shame and guilt in 1986 when I was a first year psychiatric resident at the Cambridge Hospital in supervision with Judy Herman, MD, a pioneer in the treatment of incest, trauma and recovery, whose mother, a psychologist, Helen Block Lewis, was a pioneer in the field of shame. I remember Judy saying that shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with the self, where as guilt is the feeling that you did something wrong. Brown observed: Shame says, “I am a mistake.” Guilt says, “I made a mistake.”
Brown identified that the tapes in our mind that underlie shame are “I am not good enough.” and “Who do you think you are? ” Judy taught me that shame is anaerobic, that it flourishes where there is secrecy and darkness, and that once it is exposed to air and the light of day, that its power is greatly diminished. Psychotherapy can mitigate against shame, because in the safety of that contained context, secrets can be voiced and neutrally examined. Brown said something similar; that shame is fueled by secrecy, silence and judgement. Shame is characterized by the feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
Brown notes that feelings of shame are at the heart of depression, addiction, eating disorders, and aggression. Though the felt emotion of shame is experienced similarly by both men and women, its basis is different. Shame for women is linked with an expectation that a woman “do it all, do it properly and never let them see you sweat”.(body image and perfectionism) For men it is based primarily upon the perception of appearing weak.
The power dynamics of the patriarchy are maintained in part by gender differences in the experience of shame.
In her “On Being” interview Brown stated,
“I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it, but just hear her and be with her and hold space for it, I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.”
She defines vulnerability as the capacity to tolerate uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. A related concept is “wholeheartedness,” holding nothing back emotionally. Going for it, risking wrenching heart break, bitter disappointment and miserable failure.
Brown notes that the capacity to allow oneself to feel vulnerable is at the heart of creativity, innovation and change. We have to be willing to fail in order to dare to try something new that has never been done before. It is fundamental to showing up authentically in our lives, reaching out to others and telling our stories.
Here is the 2007 inspiring and funny TED talk that went viral: