Incredibly insightful as well as highly practical, Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead by Brené Brown is about the barriers that stop us living the way we want to.
I’ve never thought shame was a big influence or agent in my life. It’s not a word I commonly use. However, Brown says that many of the things that stop us from doing great stuff in life – in our relationships, careers, parenting, and creative lives – are because of shame and fear of vulnerability.
Her main point is that we’re so afraid of shame that we avoid ever being vulnerable. The massive problem being that the only way to get the good things in life is through vulnerability (dammit!).
Brown gives a lot of practical, specific actions you can use to move on from shame and embrace vulnerability. I have started using some and it’s making me a kinder, more emotionally mature person (I hope).
What did I learn and how have I changed my life?
Shame is really bad
- All people are worthy of love and belonging. Until a few years ago, I honestly wondered why people would be friends with me. Surely I’m not pretty enough or fun enough or interesting enough. I started understanding the concept of inherent worthiness when I read another of Brown’s books (before I read this one) called The Gifts of Imperfection. But the thing that clinched it for me was meeting each of my nieces and nephews. It’s a bizarre but magical experience how you meet a newborn baby and you realise you’re gonna love them for the rest of your life. And they haven’t done anything to deserve it yet! On the flip side, even though they’ll do bad things in the future (cos they’re human), you know you’re still going to love them. That’s inherent worthiness and we’ve all got it.
- Respecting people’s inherent worthiness is making my life better. Even the crazy man who roadraged at me the other day, literally trying to cause a crash and getting out of his car to confront me. I took a moment to reflect that he is worthy of love and belonging. It made me more compassionate towards him. I was still terrified and full of some other emotions but it makes me a better human to remind myself of this, especially when people are behaving like crap.
- Shame erodes worthiness, and that’s really shit. Shame is when we start associating bad things with people’s inherent character. We start thinking we aren’t worthy because we did something bad or something bad happened to us. Urgh. How can I be lovable if I’m a bad person? How could anyone ever love me if there is something fundamentally wrong with my core self? Shame is the shittiest.
- Some people think shame is ok, but I think they’re wrong. Some people use shame to motivate others (staff, children, athletes, performers, partners). However, based on Brown’s way of conceptualising shame, I’m pretty sure it’s never ok.
Shame and guilt can be used for the same purpose but have very different outcomes
- You can look at the same thing through a guilt lens or a shame lens. Everyone does bad things, but you can consider these in different ways. Guilt is when you say someone did a bad thing; shame is when you say someone is bad for doing a bad thing. If you hurt someone you can think ‘I hurt someone’ (guilt) or you can think ‘I am a person who hurts people’ (shame).
- It’s a small difference cognitively, but the impact is huge. Using the guilt perspective, if you do a bad thing, then you regret it, you tell yourself you aren’t going to do it again and you learn some lessons. Shame, however, links these bad things to your identity. Historically I have a tendency to attribute the bad things I have done to my character. Using the guilt lens is helping me accept when I’ve done something I am not proud of, learn from it, apologise and move on, because it’s not linked to my identity anymore.
I have been so afraid of failure, vulnerability and shame that it has stopped me from experiencing all life has to offer
- We can be so afraid of shame that it paralyses us. I sometimes feel like there’s a scoreboard hanging over my head measuring everything I’ve ever done ‘wrong’ – at work, in my relationships, in my hobbies. So I try to stop getting things wrong, either through perfectionism or not trying things. That’s how I lived my life for a long time, to the point where I think it stopped me from pursuing romantic relationships in my early twenties. I was too afraid of getting involved with anyone who might turn out to be not absolutely amazing and that that would prove I wasn’t amazing, or make me less amazing.
- But the things worth having in life require you to risk failure. It’s like a pairing – good things come to those who risk. You can’t get a job without risking the embarrassment of not getting it. You need to show your prototype to someone. You need to try something different to keep your company innovative. In particular, Brown talks about how love requires massive vulnerability. Even if we do manage to overcome some initial vulnerability fears and end up in love, we still risk every day for the rest of our lives that that person might stop loving us, or something bad might happen to them. There’s literally no way I can love someone whose safety is guaranteed. Accepting that takes vulnerability.
- I’ve added ‘risk’ to my core values. I’m not very good at taking risks. My muscle memory always draws me away from them. But I know they’re really important, and since reading this book I’ve added risk to my list of personal values. Now when I’m making decisions, I take into consideration whether I’m avoiding risk. It’s made me instantly braver.
- The critics don’t matter. Being afraid of what the judgey people say stops us from daring or seeking great things. Putting something out there (like this blog!) to where people can see it and judge it is terrifying. This was a big barrier for me, but my amazing career coach pointed out that even the greatest, most lovely people who do amazing work get criticised. Even Brené Brown has people commenting on her youtube videos about her appearance. I doubt this element of life is ever going to go away, so unfortunately we have to get over it if we want to live a full life. Also, I’m one of the judgey people myself, and I know what’s really going on for them (see below).
- Vulnerability is necessary – but not easy. Just because we’ve figured out that vulnerability is key doesn’t mean it’s suddenly going to be super easy. It’s a little bit easier, but not pain free. Being ok with the discomfort of vulnerability is still necessary.
Anger/blaming/judging are signs that I’m feeling vulnerable
- This is such a useful diagnostic. I can look back and see moments in my life where, because I was feeling vulnerable, I protected my sense of worthiness by putting it on someone else (either in my head or publicly). I’ve noticed some of the things I do to protect myself from vulnerability include lashing out, blaming others, getting angry, eating, seeking out human connection (yay a good one!), crying, getting sick, physically hiding my face or putting on a funny voice.
- Self-righteousness is vulnerability or fear in disguise. This one took me by surprise. Brown says ‘when I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid’. At the time of reading, I was feeling super self-righteous about something someone had done that I objected to in principle but that also affected me personally. In my imaginary argument with them, I wasn’t talking about the effect it was having on me – I was arguing solely from the self-righteous position of ‘what you did is a bad thing in principle’. When I read this part of the book, I realised that my issues were coming from a fear that I had missed the only opportunity for something. But I hadn’t – while that particular option was gone, I had other pathways to pursue. I am still annoyed at that person but hey, I’m working on it.
- I’ve also noticed some more unusual habits that indicate I’m feeling vulnerable. In particular, I’ve noticed that a lot of times when am feeling bad about myself (like my common pastime of recalling cringe-worthy moments from my past), I reach for my phone. It’s creepy that my phone gives me endorphins but that’s the world we live in these days. It’s a handy thing to notice, now when it happens I take a moment to think ‘what’s up?’ and then I can deal with my vulnerability.
- One of Brown’s ways of defusing vulnerability has been particularly useful for me. Anytime you realise you are feeling vulnerable, you say ‘I’m feeling vulnerable about x’. Then you think about what you are grateful for that directly relates to what you’re feeling vulnerable about. So you say ‘I’m feeling vulnerable about x, I’m grateful for y’. Gratitude practice sometimes annoys me, it can feel like an ‘at least’ thing. For example, maybe you made a fool of yourself at a party and people are teasing you. I don’t think it’s useful to think ‘I feel vulnerable that these people are teasing me, I’m grateful that they invited me to the party at all’. I mean, that’s shit. But you can say ‘I feel vulnerable that they’re teasing me, I’m grateful that I have the courage to get up and keep going’. It’s really effective, I use it all the time now.
Those were the main points for me. But she said so much valuable stuff, here are some other bits that got me:
- The different between belonging and fitting in. Belonging is being accepted the way you are; fitting in is changing yourself to match the group. If we have to change ourselves, we must be bad, right? Wrong. I have spent way too long trying to fit in. Now I look for where I can belong.
- The size of the problem does not predict our emotional reactivity to it. Sometimes small things have a big impact on me emotionally. I’ve gotten pretty stressed out by ‘small’ things like who I’m going to sit with at a formal event. But actually it’s about my self-worth – I’m hurt I’m not being included by people I want to be with, or I’m scared I’m going to be sitting with people who won’t talk to me. So I don’t belittle myself anymore for getting upset about such ‘small’ things.
- The biggest shame message women get is about how they look. I get so frustrated that I spend my time and money and energy and emotions on something so apparently vacuous and superficial. To hear a shame researcher say it is literally the biggest shame trigger for women made me feel less stupid for still caring. For men it’s about not being weak. I have been trying to be more aware of how I treat men in this respect, such as not reacting badly when they show vulnerability.
- Perfectionism is one result of being afraid of shame and vulnerability. I’ve known I was a perfectionist for a while. But I didn’t realise it was because I was afraid of what people would think of me if I didn’t do everything perfectly. I was trying to prevent any chance of being wrong, because it would mean I was inherently wrong and therefore unloveable.
- We must be the type of people that we want our children to become. Argh how annoying! Can’t they just get it right and then I can live through them? Ok fine. If I have kids, I want them to be so many things I’m not or that I’ve had to work hard on – financially successful, emotionally mature, accepting and non-judgmental of themselves and others. But we get so much from our parents. Sure, there are people who don’t, but I see a lot of patterns. People whose parents run their own business start their own businesses. People whose parents are pharmacists often become pharmacists (ok maybe that’s just something I’ve noticed). So if I want nice children, I need to be nice.
- Using strengths to frame feedback makes it easier to give and receive. I hate the sandwich method of feedback. I still only focus on the bad thing! Brown suggests using the strengths someone has to make suggestions to improve the weakness. The main place I’m giving feedback at the moment is in improv. Say someone is often creating conflict between characters when improvising a scene. They might have great emotional range, and commit hard to their characters. So I might phrase the feedback as ‘You have great emotional range. I’d love to see you looking for other emotional responses that might be more positive or connected when you get inspired by the other person, like love or humility or joyfulness. Then you can use your awesome commitment skills to delve right into that new emotion’. That’s probably more in depth than I typically give to someone in improv but you get the drift. It would be excellent for a work situation.