When Brené Brown’s TED Talk on the importance of vulnerability hit the internet, her life dramatically changed.
Overnight, she transitioned from a successful, yet not popularly recognised author and therapist into a celebrated figure who couldn’t shop for her kids’ sports equipment without someone shouting out “Vulnerability TED!”
Brown’s office phone rang off the hook, as everyone from local school principals to executives from Fortune 500 companies called to request that she speak at their organisation.
It was the start of a new period in Brown’s life, but something was wrong. The majority of speaking opportunities she was offered came with one condition – she wasn’t allowed to discuss vulnerability. Instead, they asked that she discuss one of three topics: innovation, creativity, or change.
The irony wasn’t lost on Brown, who responded to such requests with “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change”, but she understood why the organisations were hesitant to discuss it.
It was shame that had been the focus of Brown’s research when she recognised the importance of vulnerability. Shame of trying to ignore the need for vulnerability that triggered her breakdown. Shame of admitting her failure to an audience of (at present) 43 million people around the world.
Shame, Brown says, is one of the most severe epidemics plaguing modern society. Feeding on secrecy, silence, and judgement, it’s a paralysing agent that proactively inhibits an individual’s ability to inspire change.
Brown points out two examples:
The first is the conversation about racism. To address racism, she says, we must address privilege. However, when people are asked to do so, they withdraw out of shame.
That’s because shame tricks the individual into proclaiming “I am bad”.
“I am bad because I have inherent privilege.”
The reason shame is so destructive to discussion in this case lies in how it differs from guilt. Guilt derives from action. It doesn’t provoke the “I am bad” mentality, but “I did bad” instead. So while it’s easy to apologise for the negative consequences of our actions, we find it extremely difficult to acknowledge similar consequences when we don’t feel we have personal responsibility.
In that way, shame becomes a burden, one highly correlated with depression, aggression, and addiction.
The second example Brown highlights was another TED Talk from a doctor who revealed that a simple solution to lowering mortality rates in medical procedures was to have a checklist.
It seems fairly obvious, until you consider the image of intelligence and prestige that society has built up around doctors. “If this doctor is truly elite”, a patient may ask, “why would they ever need a checklist?”
The question alone can be enough to instill a sense of shame.
To overcome this, Brown says, we must acknowledge it. Rather than fear shame – what Jung called “the swampland of the soul” – we must explore its depths.
That means accepting failure rather than taking it personally. It means listening and seeking to understand how it impacts others. And it also means being vulnerable in all that we do.
For these are all markers of excellence, and excellence never comes easy. As Theodore Roosevelt once said:
“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best, he wins, and at worst, he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”