Theory Bites

Extending Brené Brown: Vulnerability, Shame, and the Social Order
Shame by Christian, Image Source

I began this post on Yom Kippur of last year–and glad I started it then, because I have a tendency to forget these moments of insight if I don’t write them down. Thoughts on this subject have been percolating ever since. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that this essay has been percolating–the thoughts were clear to me the moment they arrived in a burst of insight. I’ve only been looking for the words since. At Yom Kippur services, I underlined a statement by Franz Kafka’s biographer, Reiner Stach. Stach was commenting on the underlying intensity of Kafka’s famous letter to his father in which he writes: “To identify deliberately with characteristics that the community regards as strange, insane, or anti-social requires a high degree of reflectiveness.” I’d like to suggest that this in fact is the political origin of shame, and that Brené Brown’s analysis of Vulnerability and Shame requires the addition of this idea to be understood in an ecological, rather than individual, manner.

But first, a note about my choice of language. I want to “extend” Brené Brown rather than critique her. I think her work is great, I’ve used it in my own life, and I know it has been very meaningful and helpful to others. In the humanities and social sciences, we tend to “critique,” but I think this choice of language implies that something is done, complete, finished. And then when it doesn’t do everything we hoped it would and more, we critique it as being only half true, or incorrect, or something of the sort. Ironically, rather than creating rigorous conversation, I think this attitude generally closes down real conversation in favor of arguments, debates, and anger. All of this is a topic for another post, but I wanted to note here that I’m choosing the language “extend” intentionally and beginning to try to figure out how to make it operative.

Brown, a social worker at the University of Texas, builds off the work of others to define shame quite simply, and in relationship to guilt. Guilt is stated, “I did something bad,” while shame moves this from a an objective to a subjective: “I am bad” or “I am not enough.” I first confronted these ideas intellectually in a text by Cheri Huber, There is Nothing Wrong With You. Brown elaborates on how shame works, how it operates in our lives (and yes, she does use a general “our” without much cultural, economic, or social differentiation),  and about how the antidote to shame is choosing vulnerability. She elicits a connection to her reader’s personal experiences by sharing personally moving examples of shame. Indeed, her popular fame is derived from two TED talks she gave The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame, both based on personal narratives. Her book Daring Greatly is the most popular of her works, though she outlines similar ideas in several other volumes.

Brown’s work is ultimately personal and individual. She is looking for strategic authenticity – a choice to sometimes be vulnerable, to move beyond our feelings of shame with a moment of courage in which we strive to share something with another person, even though we feel as though we will be judged as being a bad person. She writes, “Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are” ( I certainly appreciate these ideas, and on a personal and interpersonal level, they have a great deal of positive potential.

In my own life, Brown’s work has colluded with several others and a few major life experiences that have transformed me. I’m a strategic person by nature. I remember playing chess and risk with my cousin who lived down the street and was my best friend as a child. We played together almost every day. But we played in really different ways. He was competitive, and when we played a game like chess or risk, he almost always won. I’m not deeply competitive at board games, but I don’t like to lose. And I also don’t like to hurt people or feel distant from people – often a feeling I experience when in direct competition. And I’m not good at that type of strategy. So we almost never played in direct competition. I think of that as my strategy: when playing a competitive game didn’t work for me, I’d manipulate the social situation to make sure I didn’t have to compete.

I strategize everywhere. Sometimes it serves me well. Being strategic isn’t always manipulative in a mean way – I have many close friendships and I think they grew that way in part because my friends and I are able to be strategically vulnerable with each other. But when it came to sharing information that would threaten the closeness of my relationship with someone, I was usually terrible at sharing it. I kept it to myself, thinking, “I’ll wait until the right moment” or “that will be so hurtful to share, maybe they don’t really want to know.” Any sort of rationalization helped me minimize the importance of the information. Strategically, I could work around it, bury it, hide it. Keep it out of sight. I even got so good at it I could sometimes keep it out of mind. On a basic level, it worked, and often I would get what I wanted (sort of). But I had a problem: this never actually brought me closer to people.

Through a combination of loving friends, therapy, and some challenging experiences, I’ve learned to try to go head first into situations and share of myself as much as possible. This still isn’t easy for me. It involves a conscious choice every time. It involves courage and a risk of failing and fear. And it involves the deep conviction that I am good enough and that I am loved. Without these ideas, I’m not sure I could do it even as much as I do.

But there was one more element to this as well, something that Brown doesn’t really mention with much seriousness. The closest I’ve seen her get is where she writes, “Daring Greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen” ( What she begins to allude to here is the subversive element of vulnerability. And subversive happens only in relation to authority or structured power.

I believe there is a powerful social and structural dynamic to shame, one that extends beyond the individual and interpersonal nature of Brown’s focus. Read from a societal frame, shame has a social purpose, and that is social cohesion. Brown articulates our need for a sense of belonging. Shame allows us to separate who belongs–who is “good”–from who should be excluded–by definition “bad.” Shame operates on an everyday level. It is not an abstract concept, nor is it something we do to ourselves (at least not at first). Shame operates as a way of defining where we belong, and is therefore perpetrated on us from the moment we are born. Most moral frameworks are structured on shame. Don’t do this, or you’ll be naughty. You’ll be bad. You’ll be a sinner. In a less dramatic form, these play themselves out in phrases like, “don’t cry,” “be a man,” “don’t be a quitter,” “you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” But they operate in more subtle forms too, “I can’t believe you did that!” “Why did you do that?” They operate through our body language, our facial cues. It is our way of saying, “if you do this in this way then you’ll belong. If you don’t…”

The Reverend Thandeka traces the operation of shame as the primary psychological structure reproducing race/racism. In her book Learning to be White, Thandeka discusses the ways that whites in the United States experience a primary moment of shame in their early childhood as they relate to people of other races. A small facial expression on the face of mom when the black neighbor kid comes to a birthday party. Subtle statements that begin with, “those people“. Or, “X racial group! Of course that’s why they are a bad driver.” The implicit statement is, “you don’t want to be like them,” which extends to, “you don’t want to be caught with them.”

Whether or not this is the primary origin of racist dynamics, Thandeka makes a powerful argument that shame plays a role in the reproduction of race relations. And it is broader than that too. Shame is used to enforce gender performance, racial performance, age performance, ability performance, etc. It can and often does operate as the instrument of social and cultural reproduction.  It’s purpose is to bring you into the fold, to keep you in line, and ultimately, to maintain the current social order.

So Brown is right when she says that vulnerability is subversive. It is a choice against the status quo, against the social order, against the Moral Authority. I’d argue that it can be so difficult to choose vulnerability because we are surrounded by the purveyors of shame, shame’s agents, the foot soldiers of society’s Moral Authority. To look someone in the eye and to be vulnerable with them is to directly challenge the Moral Authority, within yourself and with the person across from you. There’s the risk that they’ll take up the position of the Moral Authority. It’s a decent risk indeed – it is a culturally and socially supported/rewarded decision to make. It’s much easier to be an instrument/spokesperson for the Moral Authority than it is to resist it. But that’s what shame is: the Moral Authority internalized. This is why shame is so powerful. Vulnerability cracks this – it leans on the power of our relationships with others to reject otherwise titanic social force.

To be judgmental, then, is not simply to be mean to someone else. Usually, the force and weight of our judgment stems from the Moral Authority. So our judgment is an amplification of the voice of the Moral Authority, not our voice alone. It combines the power of the Moral Authority’s broad social message with the weight of our relationship. Moral Authority to the power of the Strength of  our Relationship is the equation that establishes the force of a judgment on another. Judgment in this sense is all the more terrible because it conveys to the judged what they already well know: they have erred against the world, and worse, the world inside themselves.

There are reasons the Moral Authority remains strongly moored to our sense of self, to our beliefs about right and wrong, to our social structures. First, it maintains social cohesion and the current relations of power. If we began to lift shame and shaming, we’d have different views about black youth who are involved in gangs; about Native Americans, who socially have been stereotyped in every way imaginable, about homosexuality, about transgender folks, about drug users. The social structure and media could no longer associated their human being-ness with “bad” and not belonging. And it would reach in a different direction too. We wouldn’t feel as though we had to relate to each other in the same types of ways. Our entrapment in binaries of gender, race, age, class, and ability would lift, and so too would our attachment to particular forms of economic relations, social groupings, hierarchies of power. We’d feel less of an obligation to build a family and get a good job as a way of continuing to “be good” or “do things right.” It isn’t that we might not still make these choices, just that they’d come from a very different place.

So vulnerability in the face of shame isn’t just subversive, I think it’s revolutionary. One interpretation of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari’s seminal text Anti-Oedipus names this in a very different way. Part of the goal of their work is to shift the responsibility for psychological disorder to social disorder. This would mean a shift away from “I am bad” to a belief that society–the Moral Authority–had given me particular definitions of good and bad and that I was operating out of those. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of desire, a very complex theorization I can’t possibly do justice to here, in part recognizes that what term as psychological ills are often actually manifestations of societal ills, how they’ve caused us to be, to see ourselves, and how we are seen. Michael White and David Epston built from these ideas (and those of another French philosopher, Michel Foucault) to create Narrative Therapy. A very basic idea behind this therapeutic model is that we operate from stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are supposed to be/do. Often these stories aren’t fully conscious. The role of narrative therapy is to make these stories conscious, to name them, and then to name other alternative stories that have been present in our lives at other points in time. This offers choices between stories, and validates these alternatives, rather than enforcing a particular social/moral position. When we allow alternative stories to surface and quit repressing especially the ones about which we feel ashamed, we have the opportunity to throw away the burden of the Moral Authority.

Of course, the Moral Authority will not easily allow this. I think Brown should also be extended a bit here. The Moral Authority requires obedience, because straying from its narrow paths endangers its very existence. Demonstrations of other possible ways of living threaten to ripple outward, allowing other people to also live more as themselves outwardly and less under the performance or guise of the Moral Authority. The Moral Authority doesn’t have to care what we think about inside, as long as we operate under its guidance. I think this is the pushback, for example, to gay marriage or to anti-bullying laws. They threaten the Moral Authority’s ability to censor, punish, and bring into line of the dichotomies, divisions, and definitions that exist and reproduce it. The anti-bullying laws in particular force the Moral Authority to withdraw its foot soldiers from its strongest institutions: schools.

I suggest authenticity, “be who you are,” while cliche and trite (and also very modernist) is a politically subversive and dangerous act. But perhaps just as, or even more dangerous, is to let others be who they are, to draw out their vulnerabilities, and to listen to their shame and acknowledge it not as theirs, but as deriving from a broader social world that needs to control them in order to survive. This is a war for our selves and for each other, and to win, we need to be prepared to listen to shame and then to put it within a historical and social context, thus cutting its force. I think, therefore, that Brené Brown’s work has bigger societal implications, going beyond what it does for individuals and families and friendships. I think it has the potential to radically restructure society. And I think, for those of us who aren’t quite satisfied with the way things have long been organized, that practicing this work — as hard as it is — invites others into practicing it as well.

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