Sunday, December 31, 2017

On Shame, Honour, and Vulnerability

I was forwarded this 47 minute podcast with Brené Brown on 1A, and some of the ideas she has are remarkably similar to Timothy Snyder's views in On Tyranny (e.g. connect with others in real life, speak truth to bullshit), so I bought her newest book, Braving the Wilderness. I was sorrily disappointed. She has done a bit of useful research, but it's written in such a self-helpy way that makes it all seem so dubious: anecdotes from childhood, some forced acronyms, lots of repetition of ideas, a slightly bigger font than most books, the sort of thing that feels questionable but likeable. She's very popular. She's a TED Talker, which can also boost popularity but detract from credibility in equal measure (see herehere, and here). Luckily, I found her original research (but just that one journal article), which is a much better starting point.

I'm interested in her findings but also concerned with some ideas left out of her analysis. Granted I haven't read all her books, but I think I get the gist of her ideas.


Her research all started by looking at how people respond to shame, but she takes a bit of a narrow look at what shame is. From the research article, it appears that her definition is from the participants' dominant view:
"In defining shame, participants contrasted shame with guilt, which they defined or described as a feeling that results from behaving in a flawed or bad way rather than a flawed or bad self" (45).
For Brown, guilt is what we feel when we do something bad, and it can motivate us to change. It's only a problem when we feel guilty over a minor slight that might be embarrassing but isn't actually harmful to anyone. By contrast, shame is what we feel when we think we are bad, and it doesn't motivate us to change. It just makes us feel horrible. From what I've read of hers, I can't distinguish shame from self-loathing, but I'm not sure that's a problem.  

Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo questions this definition. He comes to accept that Brown is just discussing one type of shame: social shame, while he tends to discuss basic shame, which has its root in disappointed expectation from our parents in infancy. He looks at shame derived from growing up in an abusive family. Burgo says,
"At heart, the experience of basic shame, often unconscious, feels like inner ugliness, the conviction that if others were truly to “see” us, they’d recoil in scorn or disgust....Even if early environment isn’t abusive or highly traumatic, we may develop pockets of shame when our parents let us down in important ways."
Social shame refers to the feeling we have when we don't live up to perceived expectations of our social group, and this feeling is often, as Brown suggests, a real barrier to mental health. I find that distinction helpful. An image from her article illustrates the web we get trapped in created by myriad social groups and institutions:

I completely agree that feeling like crap because we aren't as accomplished as we think we should be or that we're not as strong or capable or perfect as we let on is clearly tied to self-esteem issues, and that shame over who we are, our immutable core self, is unhelpful. I also think it bears repeating that this is an issue for lots of people, and that it starts with parents and gets reinforced by peers and the media. Absolutely. I count myself immeasurably lucky to have always been a bit 'off' and had parents who were very accepting of individuality and who encouraged us to march to a different drummer, and thus I tend to experience the freedom of the outsider when it comes to social pressures (and also am one of few completely unaffected by Lady Bird). I'm sometimes baffled when people are upset that people don't adhere to norms because clearly our norms are just suggestions and sometimes questionable suggestions at that. But many people actually do try to live up to the outrageous ideals perpetuated by our competitive culture, and that's not good for anyone. (But it's also not really a new idea we're working with.)

Brown and Burgo seems to suggest that shame is necessarily a bad thing that we need to overcome. In her research Brown cites a mental health professional who found that shame is the "dominant emotion experienced by clients, exceeding anger, fear, grief, and anxiety" (43). I agree that we need to overcome self-loathing generated from trying to adhere to unreasonable expectations or from childhood abuse. Her solution is Shame Resilience Theory (or SRT because... acronyms). We need to pay attention to our shame triggers - wanting good body image, family, parenting, or to be good at everything or to look good, etc. Then once we know our triggers, we need to increase our awareness of our own vulnerabilities and our critical awareness of cultural forces affecting us (recognize expectations for what they are), then reach out to find and offer empathy, and then find the words to think about and discuss shame. Basically, we shouldn't beat ourselves up about not meeting expectations and we should help others stop as well. Or in Ian MacLaren's words (aka John Watson):
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Where I differ is that I think shame, like guilt, can be powerfully motivating and can sometimes be necessary to help people develop a more profound internal moral guidance system.


Brown writes that the opposite of shame is empathy or self-compassion, and that's true. She says we are "products of rigid socio-cultural expectations" (46) further reinforced by the media, but I think "I'm not good enough" doesn't go quite deep enough in understanding shame. Another way to look at shame is as the opposite of honour. It's not just from an inability to live up to unrealistic external standards that makes us feel shame, but it's also from an unwillingness to live with integrity. Many of us are in deep denial about who we are as moral agents, and this creeps up on us through the feeling of shame. And, unlike Brown's discussion of shame, this type requires us to face some dark things about ourselves rather than just better learn how to accept ourselves. Some shame shouldn't be overcome or made resilient to, but needs to be addressed. It's important to accept that we are not as strong or capable or productive or beautiful as the ideal, absolutely, to develop resilience to that type of shameful feelings the disconnect creates and largely learn to ignore it. BUT it's not useful to accept that we are dishonest or cruel or manipulative. I mean, we are. We generally suck because we're fallible. But we shouldn't develop resilience that helps us avoid seeing the parts of ourselves that are truly immoral.

For example, if we tell a lie, we feel guilty. We feel discomfort for the act and the fact that there might be an external punisher in our future further adds to our discomfort. The guilt helps to motivate us to change the behaviour, to apologize and atone in order to relieve the guilt. It's uncomfortable to own up to it, but it's doable. And it does feel better afterwards, so there's a reward at the end if we have the courage to get there.

But if we tell lies generally, then we are liars, and we become ashamed of who we are. We suck. If we are resilient to that shame, then we allow ourselves to continue being liars, and that's a problem. We can be motivated by shame, it's just a longer road. Guilt for one action can be fixed with an apology and atonement. Shame for a way of being takes more work to honestly accept the self as faulty and then develop personal guiding principals to become more honourable as a human being.

Shame that is arbitrarily determined and external to us (unrealistic and unnecessary expectations) has to be clarified from shame that wakes us up to address an issue of our own making (a habit of poor moral choices). Both are about failure to reach an ideal, but the one is shame from an inability to match social perfection, to create a perfect product - a house, body, strength, which is soothed with empathy and self-compassion enough to accept our shortcomings, and the other is shame from a dismissal of an attempt to develop character, which requires a quest to become honourable in order to be assuaged. My view assumes that many social ideals or norms Brown discusses are unattainable and foolish to aim for, whereas moral character is attainable by all - or at least that it's more necessary and possible to get closer to the ideal with some effort. We are, after all, works in progress. But we give up on this one so much sooner. It doesn't hold the social rewards of the "right" (i.e. consumerist and competitive) way to be.

Shame from being morally flawed creates a similar discomfort. But it's much harder to fix. We can punish ourselves internally, but we can't possibly fix every act from the past.  We can't make amends to everyone over all those years, particularly if our actions have led to a chain of events. An element of self-forgiveness is necessary, empathy with our human condition. But, by contrast to Brown's SRT, it's not enough to accept the disconnect with our ability and ideals. We can fix this type of shame with an ongoing a concerted effort towards becoming more honourable in future.

My concern is that Brown's followers, and our culture in general, see shame as inherently negative and useless and something to prevent. It's sometimes the case, for sure, but that view sometimes allows people to continue lacking integrity or any internal moral code. We need self-acceptance of our flaws and imperfections and we shouldn't work towards perfection to any ridiculous ideals, but we should continuously work towards being a better person - a good person. If we have allowed ourselves to be selfish or conniving or callous, then we should definitely be ashamed of ourselves.

Sometimes it's the case that we need to ignore or change our culture's expectations, but sometimes we need to change ourselves. Sometimes we are bad people and are allowing that to flourish as we sit in denial of it for too long. We have to own up to what we've done repeatedly over the years, because, at some point, repeated actions become who we are. If we feel guilt for stealing, it can be rectified by returning the items and apologizing. If we feel shame for being a thief or bully or whatever, it isn't so easily remedied, but it's also a beneficial socialization process that conditions us to feel that sense of shame. Sometimes we should be ashamed of ourselves. We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the socialization bathwater.

When we feel shame over who we are, over our character that's not a product of warped childrearing or a product of unrealistic expectations, but because of a habit of immoral choices, then we have two routes. We can stop believing it's a problem and continue in denial OR we have to change core beliefs about the world and ourselves such as, that it's okay to cheat if we don't get caught; it's okay to take more than we need and leave others with nothing; it's okay to ignore someone asking for money when we're on a shopping trip; it's okay to drive to the corner store because everyone does it, etc. It's painful to dismantle the rationalizations we've developed that help us avoid feeling shame for who we have become, but we won't get out of that hole without taking those steps. I think Brown skirts this entire issue and just wants us to feel better about thinking we're horrible without looking too closely at whether or not we actually are.


Brown's studies on shame led to her interest in vulnerability, which is also compelling. However, I'm concerned that what some people are hearing from her vulnerability talks is that we should be openly vulnerable all the time. My counterargument is this: from what I've seen, sometimes when people are openly vulnerable, it can have the effect of a wounded gazelle falling to the back of the herd: provoking others to eat them alive. People can be jerks, so it can be wise to be a little cautious about where and when we share. Sometimes it's scary for good reason.

That being said, I agree that vulnerability can be one path toward a greater sense of belonging.

Something I've noticed is that people really connect with others after a tragedy. From my own experiences, after having cancer treatment, I've gotten closer faster to people in those circles than is typical with any non-traumatic group formation. And I think Brown's on the right track that it's because we're willing to be very vulnerable with one another because we've been through a difficulty. A shared tragedy helps us connect; it's a place we can be vulnerable in an acceptable way because of the tragedy.

And it makes me wonder about people who complain at length. Perhaps it's not that they crave pity, but that they hope to form the perception that they've been through some tragedy each day as a means of forming a closer connection. We can't really be vulnerable in our daily lives without seeming weak and ineffective, so maybe we create little traumas to complain about in hopes of, not eliciting sympathy (which is what I always assumed), but making vulnerability more acceptable, and thereby forming a deeper bond. Except, from what I've seen, it doesn't really work either - unless it's very convincing. A tragedy, real or perceived (so long as it is perceived), creates a vulnerable expression, which elicits compassion and closeness, and takes the relationship to a new depth.

But then Brown goes on to suggest in her book that vulnerability is necessary for connection, and I'm not so sure about that. She says we need shared emotions, not shared experiences, which is why social media might help us communicate, but it doesn't help us connect. We need the chemical effect of in-person emotional sharing. And this requires courage in order to acknowledge the pain in ourselves and do enough work to share this with others.

While I agree it clearly helps us get to a deeper place in relationships, and I think we clearly need more in-person connection, I don't think vulnerability is entirely necessary for a sense of belonging. As I've written before, through working together, "the joy of collective accomplishment," we can develop tight groups. We can see this just with snow shovelling - as we collectively bemoan the snow and then shovel for absent neighbours together. And shared emotional expression doesn't have to be a vulnerable sharing as a shared humour also deepens relationships. It tells one another that we're understood on a different level. Because our humour is so diverse and individual, it can significantly bond us together.

But when vulnerability is openly acknowledged, in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people, it definitely affects the depths of our connections. And if we can differentiate between shame from an inability to attain superficial ideals and shame from ignoring moral ideals, and address them differently, willing to get to the depth of some of our issues, then maybe we can begin to fix this mess we've created together. On this day of making resolutions, consider if your choices are to try to fit with an unrealistic ideal externally imposed or to actually make your a better human being.

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