Brené Brown: Can We Gain Strength From Shame? Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown studies vulnerability and shame. She discusses what can happen when people confront their shame head-on.
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Can We Gain Strength From Shame?

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Can We Gain Strength From Shame?

Can We Gain Strength From Shame?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz and we're talking about mistakes, making them, admitting them, making ourselves vulnerable, and what happens when you do. Just a moment ago, we heard from Brian Goldman who gets doctors to talk about their biggest errors. And sometimes he has a hard time getting them to open up. But Brene Brown, she has the opposite problem. Do people come up to you pretty often?

BRENE BROWN: Yeah, probably at least once a week.

RAZ: Wow.

BROWN: Yeah.

RAZ: So, that's Brene.

BROWN: And I'm a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

RAZ: Now research professors don't normally get recognized by strangers in the supermarket on a regular basis, but Brene, she's different. Do people, like, bare their souls to you?

BROWN: Yeah, sometimes.

RAZ: They just come up to you and say, I need to tell you something?

BROWN: I don't think they really share inappropriately or anything, but they'll come up and say, oh my God, I was going through a divorce and I saw your talk and I was, like, that's it, screw it, I'm going to be wholehearted. I'm going to live and love with my whole heart. And I'm always think, you know, right on.

RAZ: Brene studies vulnerability and how it affects almost all of our thoughts and decisions, and really our lives, and she gave a TEDx Talk in Houston all about it. And what happened?

BROWN: I don't know what happened ...

RAZ: What happened was that, even by TED standards, this thing was huge - more than 8 million views. That's why people come up to her in the street. And what made Brene's talk different? Well Brene's a numbers person, but wrapped up in that data is a very personal story, a story about how she learned to embrace vulnerability.

BROWN: I felt like, for the first time, really in my career, this total freedom to try something new, and I thought about it, and I thought about well, why don't I just try something really scary and I - let me - you know, I'll be vulnerable while I'm talking about vulnerability.


BROWN: And so I want to talk to you and tell some stories about a piece of my research that fundamentally expanded my perception and really actually changed the way that I live and love and work and parent. So very quickly, really about 6 weeks into this research, I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way that I didn't understand or had never seen. And so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection. The things I can tell you about it, it's universal. We all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this I'm not good enough. Which we all know that feeling, I'm not blank enough, I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough. The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen. And you know how there are people that like, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they kind of surrender and walk into it? A, that's not me. And B, I don't even hang out with people like that.


BROWN: For me, it was a year-long street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight but probably won my life back. And so then I went back into the research and spent the next couple of years really trying to understand what they, the wholehearted, what the choices they were making. And what is - what are we doing with vulnerability? Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability. Having to ask my husband for help 'cause I'm sick and we're newly married, being turned down, asking someone out, waiting for the doctor to call back, getting laid off, laying off people. This is the world we live in. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness.

RAZ: So Brene kept researching vulnerability and two years later she was back on the TED stage.


BROWN: There's two things that I've learned in the last year. The first is vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. And I've come to the belief - this is my 12th year doing this research - that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.

RAZ: How?

BROWN: This came up a lot when we asked people, what's something from, an example from their lives that they would use to describe vulnerability? And a lot of people said, vulnerability is picking up the phone and calling someone who's just been through something tragic or traumatic. And, you know, we all kind of do the same thing. We look at the phone and we think oh my God, I've got to call her. I can't believe her husband had a heart attack and died. I've got to call. And we kind of circle the phone, and we think, I don't know. Maybe I'll call later, 'cause, you know, what am I going to say. And so I think when we finally call - and the hard thing about that call is we know there's nothing we can say to make things better. All we can do is say I'm with you in this. I'm hurting for you. You're not alone. When we pick up the phone and make that call, and we hang up, and we walk away from the phone, we feel courageous. We feel like we've had the courage to live in integrity. We're aligned with our values. So let me ask you this question. Have you ever had - I'll put you on the spot - have you ever had that situation where you really needed to make that call, but you didn't?

RAZ: Yes, yes.

BROWN: Me too. I have, too. And then what is that feeling that you have when you run into that person at the grocery store a month later?

RAZ: Shame.

BROWN: Yeah. And it's ...

RAZ: ... Total shame.

BROWN: Yeah.

RAZ: You avoid - you want to avoid them. You can't look into their eyes.

BROWN: You do. So then you've got a person who's in grief, probably feeling really alone and isolated, and you're hiding behind the potato chip aisle. I think vulnerability is courage. I think it's about coming through in times of deep uncertainty and of deep fear and emotional risk. I think that's - I think that's brave. I think it's brave to show up.

RAZ: Is it necessary? Do you have to do it?

BROWN: Yes, yeah, because here's the thing. If vulnerability is indeed uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, then to be human is to be vulnerable. To be in relationship is to be vulnerable. To be, you know, professionally engaged at work is to be vulnerable. We're up against uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure every day, all day. And so I think the myth that, the dangerous myth is that we can say, oh, that's a neat topic that I heard them talking about on the radio, but you know, I don't really do vulnerability. No, you do it every single day. You know, one of the things I've said before is, you know, live tweeting your bikini wax is not vulnerability. You know, sharing the intimate details of your child's emotional response to your divorce on Facebook is not vulnerability.

RAZ: That's too much information.

BROWN: Definitely, it's one of the big four myths of vulnerability, that vulnerability is letting it all hang out.

RAZ: Right.

BROWN: Embedded in real vulnerability is an honest, raw bid for connection. And, you know, if I get really shamed by a colleague in front of clients at work or something, and I come home and I put it on Facebook, man, got totally shamed at work by so and so and feel small and stupid, I might get 20 comments from other people that say, I hate when that happens, it's happened to me, you're not alone brother. You know, that kind of thing.

RAZ: Yeah.

BROWN: And that's normalizing. But nowhere in that is there a raw bid for connection. If I called you after work and said, hey Guy, it's Brene, and do you have a minute, because I just went into this total shame spiral at work, and I'm just feeling, just, I'm devastated. That's a very vulnerable bid because I'm saying, do you have time, and do you care enough to spend a few minutes talking to me about something that's hard. And so in my view, vulnerability is about intimacy, trust, and connection. We share our stories with people who've earned the right to hear them.


BROWN: One of the weird things that's happened is, after the TED explosion I got a lot of offers to speak all over the country, everyone from schools and parent meetings to Fortune 500 companies. And so many of the calls went like this, hey Dr. Brown, we loved your TED talk, we'd like you to come in and speak. We'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention vulnerability or shame.


BROWN: What would you like for me to talk about? There's three big answers - this is mostly, to be honest with you, from the business sector, innovation, creativity, and change. So let me go on the record and say vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.


BROWN: To create is to make something that has never existed before. There's nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

The truth is, when failure's not an option, we have a bunch of scared people hanging around, loitering on the outside of the arena. You know, the bottom line is if you're going to go into the arena, you're going to get your butt kicked.

RAZ: That's scary.

BROWN: You're going to come up - yeah, you're going to come up with an idea that just, you know sucks. But, you know, as scary and dangerous as that sounds, I don't think it's as scary and dangerous as spending your entire life on the outside wondering, what if I would've shown up? What if I would've pitched that idea? What if I would've said yes? What if I would've taken that job? What if I would have turned down that job and spent the year doing this crazy project that I really believed in? To me, that's far more dangerous.


BROWN: And so I'll leave you with this thought. If we're going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it's seductive to stand outside the arena 'cause I think I did it my whole life and think to myself, I'm going to go in there and kick some ass when I'm bulletproof and when I'm perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is, that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster, when you got in there that's not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and for the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly. So thank you all very much. I really appreciate it.

RAZ: That's Brene Brown. You can watch both of her TED talks at our website,

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