How to Defeat Shame and Embarrassment

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Brene Brown, photo by fastcompany

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen

Humans, while quite lovely at times, can be a spiteful bunch. The merciless critic within us, that character who always makes us feel better about ourselves, lets loose his disapproving expression or wicked tongue, the recipient of which is cast into a filthy pit of shame.

Shame is a result of undue, unfair, or badly-delivered criticism and judgment, adding to an anesthetized feeling of unworthiness. When we’re experiencing shame, we want to withdraw from the world; to run away from the thing that’s causing us damage. Experience enough of it over time, and we’ll make ourselves so small that we may as well not exist.

Brene Brown is a research professor from Houston who has spent much of her career studying shame. In her extraordinary book Daring Greatly, she explores the devastating impact of shame on our lives, and offers a powerful antidote: vulnerability.

Many of us might think of vulnerability as weakness. To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to damage, and we live in a perilous world with physical and mental danger around every corner. Surely it’s better to protect ourselves? As it turns out, being constantly guarded is tantamount to being invisible – we must risk vulnerability in order to achieve anything worthwhile.

“Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And yes, we’re taking huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.”

Brene Brown

Vulnerability isn’t weakness, it’s strength. It’s a prerequisite for progress—you simply cannot hope to achieve anything unless you’re willing to take risks. Every compromising gamble could end up in success, or failure, but you’ll never find out which unless you have the guts to throw the dice.

Shame cloaks us in fear, preventing us from being vulnerable. Every disparaging look that lighted upon us and every small failure that befell us has helped to assemble an impenetrable suit of shame armour that we wear to protect ourselves. Brown is wonderfully candid throughout the book, describing her own farcical attempts at self-preservation:

“All of my stages were different suits of armour that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.”

Brene Brown

If shame is the excavator of quick, cowardly exits, vulnerability is how you board them up. Slowly, with enough practice, you’ll become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of being vulnerable, and though there’ll be times when you’ll want to shamefully escape using the swiftest of exits, you’ll usually possess the strength to stand true, and with a bit of luck, achieve great things.

“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.”

Brene Brown

The hazards of life are thrust upon us daily, and every time that happens we’re faced with a simple choice: cowardly withdrawal, or knightly, engaging vulnerability; to camouflage ourselves and fade comfortably into the background, or put a tentative foot forward, place ourselves in all kinds of jeopardy, and maybe accomplish something that makes us feel like worthy human beings.

“Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”

Brene Brown

Though we’re horrified at the prospect of being vulnerable, it evokes unadulterated admiration when we witness it in other people. It’s a trait for which we hold a heartfelt appreciation—this person has the courage to step reluctantly into the abyss, and the audacity to push their chips forward, cross their fingers, and throw the dice. They’re risking embarrassment, loss and failure, but at least they’re brave enough to play.

“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.”

Brene Brown

“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough – that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing and impressing.”

Brene Brown

Brown places great emphasis on the idea of wholeheartedness, which is living your life from a place of worthiness; a place where you realise that you are undeniably valuabledeserving of happiness, with the courage to be vulnerable. This is a position from which you’ll experience and affirm everything in your life—fear, pain, doubt, depression, amusement, bliss, joy—everything! By answering life with a resounding yes, you’re fully participating in your own existence.

“Much of the beauty of light owes its existence to the dark. The most powerful moments of our lives happen when we string together the small flickers of light created by courage, compassion, and connection and see them shine in the darkness of our struggles.”

Brene Brown

“We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”

Brene Brown

“The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success, to their marriages, to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.”

Brene Brown

It’s a choice between shying away from vulnerability and remaining on the sidelines of your life, or taking a deep breath, strapping on your boots, and running onto the field, brimming with fear but truly alive.

“Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones), or we stand outside of them – denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness.”

Brene Brown

“It’s easier to live disappointed that it is to feel disappointed. It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment than to just set up camp there. You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain.”

Brene Brown

While we’ll never be able to fully silence shame-inducing critique (whether from ourselves or others), we can combat the crippling feeling of shame by practicing gutsy and relentless vulnerability, stepping into the world as opposed to withdrawing from it. We adore vulnerability in others, and yet, when it’s time for us to enter the fray unprotected, running away becomes a tempting option. When we do muster up the courage to take the plunge, we’re transformed into objects of admiration, and during those moments, we’re living wholeheartedly.

“I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, ‘Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?’ Steve looked at me and said, ‘I love you exactly like that.’ Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.”

Brene Brown

The positives of embarrassment

1_s7mWD-jN__vjdg_XufqYfwBy Omar Alnahi on Pexels

At some point in our lives, every one of us has done something so shudderingly embarrassing that we’d pay a good sum of money to reverse time and change it. Maybe you were the kid who called your teacher “mum” at school, and the sound of merciless laughter still rings in your ears today. Perhaps you completely lost your train of thought while speaking publicly, and revealed yourself as the idiot that your peers always knew you were. Maybe it was a wardrobe malfunction, in which a smidgeon of scrote was found delicately peeking through your unzipped fly.

Whatever the situation, being embarrassed fucking sucks, and the fear of experiencing such a situation influences our behaviour in negative ways. We avoid a range of potentially embarrassing situations, from something highly risky such as public speaking, to less dangerous circumstances like putting an unorthodox idea forward to our colleagues. Visual stories of what could go wrong appear in the back of our minds, zapping the courage that we need to act, and killing promising opportunities.

The evolutionary purpose of embarrassment is to clearly display regret to the people around us. We do something embarrassing, involuntarily reveal the emotion, and this communicates our repentance. If we committed a social-taboo and didn’t show embarrassment, our audience might think us heartless. As with every other emotion that we experience, embarrassment is incredibly useful. The problem occurs when our devlish, overzealous foresight causes us to avoid potentially embarrassing situations, which often contain the possibility of personal growth. We need to be vulnerable in order to live a fulfilling live. If you never put yourself out there, how will you ever achieve anything?

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brene Brown

Embarrassment is solely about being accepted in our social group, but ironically, those of us who get embarrassed are liable to be liked and trusted by others, making embarrassment a powerful social glue. Even though you may feel like a complete imbecile when you inevitably mix up your words while publicly speaking, your audience will be developing an increased appreciation for you, because vulnerability is fundamentally human and loveable. Nobody wants to be friends with a cold, stand-offish android who rarely reveals emotion, let alone gets embarrassed. Vulnerability is key to fitting in with your social group. We might imagine everyone maliciously sniggering at our embarrassing faux pas, but it’s actually making you more likeable.

“I’ve been embarrassing myself since about birth.”― Phil Lester

We worry so much about fitting in that we shuck and jive our way through life, making more laughable excuses than a schoolboy truant. Sure, there’ll be times when you take a risk and end up looking a fool, but your determination and fortitude will be strengthened, with your peers appreciating you a little more. Everyone makes embarrassing mistakes, we just need to learn how to accept them with grace, and remind ourselves that they’re necessary hazards on the road to improvement.

Don’t let the fear of embarrassment dictate your actions, even if you do fuck up, you’re still winning.

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