On this episode of Unlocking Us
We received so many thoughtful and tough AMA questions from listeners that it took us two episodes to cover the most popular topics. In Part 2, I unpack one of the most asked questions: How do parents build shame resilience in our children? I’m also answering another popular question: Are there TV series and/or films that I think do a great job of accurately capturing emotions and the human experience? While there are SO many that do that well, I share a few of my current favorites.
Listen to the episode
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Part two of the Ask Me Anything, AMA, no joke, hard question episodes. Dang, y’all… Really, if you haven’t listened to the first episode of AMAs, you’ll know that I am not kidding around, around these questions. Here’s my key learning: Do not solicit questions at the end of an episode about shame and accountability, unless you want the hardest questions you’ve ever been asked about shame and accountability. Although I’m really grateful for them, but they have been very tough. So we’re going to finish up the AMA, we may combine a couple. We got a lot of questions about shame and parenting. So I am going to start there with a question first, from Tara who is in Asheville, North Carolina.
Tara: Hi, Brené and the Unlocking Us team. My name is Tara and I live in Asheville, North Carolina. I’m calling about something that you brought up in your most recent episode on shame and accountability. I have two children, two boys, and my younger one just seems so much more shame-prone, and you used the term shame-prone versus guilt-prone. And I wanted to know what the research says about what the origin of the proneness is, if it’s just a genetic difference, or if it traces back to some kind of experience typically, and if we know much more about why certain children are more shame-prone than others, and then what to do about it as a parent? It’s definitely evident. Just some of the tools that you talked about in your last podcast, I think are helpful. But if there are any more specifically to what parents can do for the more shame-prone child, I’d appreciate it.
BB: So this is one question that we received probably out of over 100 about shame and parenting specifically. So what this tells me is we should maybe do a couple of episodes dedicated to shame and parenting, or what I’ve learned about parenting in general. I’ll put that together for this fall. I think it could be great. And we’ll have some guests on that can take us deeper into some expertise that I don’t have, and I can tell you what I’ve learned. So to answer Tara’s question, we don’t know. We don’t know why some children are more shame-prone, other children are more guilt-prone. We don’t know why some of our… We’ve got… If we have multiple children, which some are introverts, some might be extroverts, some may be shy, some aren’t, some struggle with anxiety, some have learning differences, some don’t. We don’t know why. And for a long time, and I’ve said this before because these were the data, we thought parenting was not only the best predictor of proneness, but I’ve seen some people say it’s the predictor of proneness.
BB: What we know now is that’s just not true. We know that parenting has a lot to do with our child’s ability to recognize and navigate shame and develop shame resilience, but I think for better and worse, the mythology that our children come to us perfect, and every amount of perfection that they inhabit and express is due to our great parenting. And everything that is less than perfect as they grow up and become middle-schoolers, and high-schoolers, and then young adults and adults, everything that they do “wrong” or every struggle that they have is because of our failure. It doesn’t work that way on either side. I think what we know now from neurobiology is our kids come to us, we come into the world in general, wired for struggle and wired for strength. And anyone that can tell you the exact percentage of what’s nature, what’s nurture, anyone that can tell you, “Oh, this is because of your parenting,” not because of how your child is just hardwired, I would have to call BS on that because I have never seen that data and we just don’t know and I’m not sure that we’ll ever know.
BB: What I do know is that, I don’t like using gun metaphors, but I’m going to use this one because I’ve thought long and hard and I can’t think of another way to do it. I’m sure there’s another equally great metaphor, but the one that I’m going to use is, we know that biology loads the gun, environment pulls the trigger. And so things come hardwired in us. How much or how little they’re expressed, how much or how little they shape and define who we are, we do have some control over that. So going back to Tara’s question. If we have two children, we can have one that’s very shame-resilient, doesn’t personalize, does not become overly critical of self, doesn’t use shaming self-talk, “I am bad, I am stupid,” kind of in some inherent way thinks, “Well, that was stupid, that was bad, but I’m pretty awesome.”
BB: The power of parenting and the power of parenting around shame is, the power I think for me of parenting, period. And Steve, as y’all know, – if you’re new to the podcast, my husband is a pediatrician and has been one for 30 years. No, I guess, 25 years – is the ability to see our children for who they are and love every bit of them, the strength and struggle, and parent very individually to strengths and help children understand how to build resilience around areas that are more tender or areas where they don’t have them. For example, I have one child that is somewhere between an extrovert and an ambivert. Ellen really refuels with others. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t like some alone time, but she refuels with connection in others. I’ve got Charlie, who’s an introvert like me, who when he was little, on his Christmas list that we were going to send to Santa, wrote down, “Transformers, Legos, alone time.” Because we have a big, crowded house at Christmas, he wanted to make sure he got alone time during this season.
BB: And so it’s not my job to figure out, “Okay, well, the best would be someone who was right in the middle. So I’m going to try to shore up Charlie and change his introversion to ambiversion and bring down Ellen’s need for social connection and contact. My job is to say, “This is who you are. I see you. I love you. You are so lovable. You are so deeply worthy of love and belonging. Here’s what I know about moving through the world as an introvert: There are such gifts. And just like you asked for alone time on your Christmas list, you’re going to have to continue to find ways to do that, that allows you to have the time you need and also stay in connection with other people. And here’s what I’ve kind of learned from doing that myself. Here’s what I screwed up. Here’s what I’m working on.”
BB: And so when we have a child who’s got shame-proneness, who kind of reflexively goes to self-criticism, the more we can say, “I get that, I see that. Here’s how we can work on that.” One rule that I have in my house, this is actually not an example. But this is… We have no name-calling, including of self. We can’t name-call in fights, we don’t name-call in arguments, we don’t name-call other people, and usually it’s Steve and I that breaks that rule and get called out by our kids, and we don’t do it with ourselves. So if one of my kids is working on their homework and they’re like, “God, I’m so stupid. I just don’t understand this.” “Nope, no. You can say, ‘This is really hard. I don’t get it. I need help, but we can’t use name-calling.'” And one of the other things we do is we help teach alternatives to shaming self-talk. We try to refocus to, “I did something that was not smart, it’s not that I’m not smart.”
BB: And so the parenting gift here, I think, it’s why I always call… A lot of the work that I’ve done on parenting in the past, I’ve called, “The gifts of imperfect parenting.” Because if we can allow our children to see us struggle in an age-appropriate way, where if I drop a glass and it breaks and I’m like, “God, I’m so stupid, I’m so clumsy,” and our kids are watching, to say, “You know what? I just called myself clumsy, and that’s not okay. Because I dropped the glass, that doesn’t mean I’m clumsy. It just means I’m human and I make mistakes. And as a family, we all have to watch how we talk about ourselves.
BB: So a couple of research findings. One of the things I learned studying shame is that we can never raise children who have more resilience and awareness around shame than we have. So if we have high levels of shame resilience, if we know how to recognize… Remember the four levels we talked about during the accountability podcast? We can recognize shame, we can know why we’re in it, we can critically understand the messages and expectations, the unattainable expectations that drive shame, we can reality check those, we can talk about what we’re feeling, we can ask for what we need. If we can model those and frame those as courage in our families, then our kids, by seeing that modeled, really start to understand that process. So model it, be explicit about it. And there’s nothing undercover that we have to do with our kids about shame. We don’t have to pop up one day and say, “We’re using shame language, and we need to change our focus from, ‘We are wrong to we did something wrong.'” We can actually demystify. Demystifying and normalizing are the biggest parenting tools for shame resilience.
BB: “Hey, I was listening to a podcast by a woman who studies shame. Do you know what that word means? I wasn’t really sure what it meant. But what she said is, ‘It’s that feeling that washes over you, that makes you feel like you’re small and you’re not good enough, and that you’re not worthy of love and connection with your friends and your family.’ And that it’s really dangerous and there are ways that when we feel it, we can come out the other side of it being stronger and braver and more compassionate. I think it’s really interesting, we should talk about that more in our family.” Demystify it. Normalizing. When we see a kid go into shame to say, “Let me check in with you. I see that you’re looking down, you’re slumping down. I know when I look like that, sometimes I’m experiencing shame. I believe I’ve done something that makes me a bad person and that other people won’t care about me. I want to check in with you. Is that what you’re feeling or?” And your child might say, “No, that’s so weird. You’re so extra. No, I just have a headache.” “Oh, okay. Well, I just wanted to check in with you because that shame feeling is a powerful one, and I want to make sure we can talk about it.” But normalizing. Normalizing everything from the emotions we feel, to the thoughts we have, to the way our bodies function, the sounds and smells our bodies make. All of those things, normalizing.
BB: I grew up in a family where nothing was normalized, nothing. It was very Victorian in nature of 5th generation German Texan. We just didn’t talk about things like that. And so the first time I was with a group of friends and they were talking about bodily functions in this really kind of laughing, normalized way, I felt both freaked out and it was the most important moment in my life. I had no idea because all I was doing was comparing my body, and who I was and what I looked like to things I saw in Seventeen Magazine, which… I’ll tell you this, this is a funny aside. When I wrote my first book on shame – again, if you’ve heard me tell the story, I could wallpaper the Astrodome and rejection letters – I couldn’t even get an agent, much less a publisher. And the first name of the book on shame was Hairy Toes and Sexy Rice: A Woman’s Struggle with Shame.
BB: It was meant to be kind of normalizing and also funny. Because one of the things I had learned doing the shame research, is this whole power of knowing laughter, if we can laugh about the things that we thought were just us. But I remember doing this kind of editor meet-and-greet at a writing conference, where you go to a hotel, and you pay $100 and you get a five-minute audience with a real publisher, a real agent. And he hated the title, and he quoted Nietzsche and he… Around shame and he said, “Shame’s not funny. And you’ve got a PhD, and you shouldn’t be laughing about shame and this is the worst title.” And it sent me into actually ironically, a shame spiral about not being serious enough and being kind of a joke. But the title “Hairy Toes and Sexy Rice” were about two shame experiences for me that were 20 years apart.
BB: One was when I was in elementary school, and this is a good parenting example. I started to get hair on my big toes, and I didn’t know if it was normal or not and I couldn’t ask my parents about that. They didn’t talk about their own bodies, they didn’t talk about our bodies, we had no talks, we had none of those. It’s amazing books, we didn’t have the great books on bodies that we read with our kids now. And I remember scouring every page of Seventeen Magazine, and Young Miss and all the things I was reading at the time. And like, “Oh, my God.” Jayne Modean was the big model, and no one had hairy toes. And I stole my mom’s razors, and shaved the hair off my big toe, and cut myself to pieces and… Because I didn’t have a house where we could ask, and I didn’t… And I’ve done it so different with my kids. My kids will just run into the kitchen and say, “Okay, weird question,” and then they will just lay out the most personal, weirdest question. I’m like, “Awesome question, here’s the answer.” Or, “I don’t know, let’s look it up.”
BB: The sexy rice commercial was… Fast forward, I’m 33 or 34, I guess. Ellen is a newborn, and I’m back at work and I feel she’s probably three months old. And I come home from work one day, and I’m watching TV, and I’m nursing and I see this commercial for rice where this woman is cooking dinner and she makes this rice that, I don’t know, all of a sudden, she’s like in a silk teddy. And her partner’s home, and he’s eating the rice and she’s spoon-feeding it to him. And they’re sliding down the refrigerator and I guess having rice sex. I don’t know what’s happening because it cuts after that. And I’m looking at myself, and I’m looking at my body, and I’m looking at, “All I want to do is sleep,” and I’m nursing and there’s spit-up in my hair. And I’m thinking, “I’m not enough. I’m a terrible mom. I don’t ever feed Steve rice and slide down the refrigerator in a teddy, I don’t… ”
BB: And those two moments of shame, real shame for me, and not having the ability to reality check those unattainable, bullshit expectations and not have anyone I can talk to. That is the core of building shame-resilient children, is to say, “Here you are, and you’re imperfect and you’re worthy of love and belonging. And you’re so lovable. And the things that are a struggle for you, we all have things and we’ll teach you how to move through the world where you can take care of that tenderness and there’s no reason…” Here’s an example, another example for Ellen gets very car sick. And I grew up in a family where being high maintenance was a massive shame trigger and so, I would just sit in the back seat when I’d go somewhere with my friends and throw up quietly into my purse. Because I grew up in a family where if you had to ask for things like, “Can I sit in the front seat?” Or, “Oh, my God, I’ve got to pee but we’re on a road trip and we’re trying to make good time and the rest stop is not on the right side of the freeway. We’d have to cross over.” That was being problematic and not helpful.
BB: And so as Ellen started getting old enough to go places and even ride with other people’s parents, I would say, “You deserve to ask for what you need, you don’t have to be miserable”. You can say, “Hey y’all, I get really carsick, would you mind if I sit in the front?” She said, “Are you sure? And I said, Yes.” And she started doing it a really young age and the first time she came back and she said “it was really hard but I sat in the front and it was great because when we got to the roller skating rink, I had fun, I didn’t have to spend the first 20 minutes like throwing up in the bathroom.” She had gluten intolerance; we’re going to a party. I’m going to bring my own cake.
BB: But for me if I would normalize saying we all have things that are hard, and we all have permission to ask for what we need. And if that’s… As my friend Glennon says, when we ask for what we need, if we’re too much for people, those are not our people. And so this is a really long answer because it’s not just Tara’s question, it’s a lot of questions that we received from hundreds really of you saying, I don’t know, I’m learning about shame for myself, I don’t know how to translate this to how I parent, how we move around in our family. I want to end with a story that I’ve told in books and I’ve told in talks, but I want to give you this because it was one of the biggest gifts I’ve ever received in my life as a parent.
BB: Many years ago, maybe a decade ago, I did a lecture at a church, an Episcopal Church in Amarillo, Texas. And I got a letter from a woman a couple of weeks after that lecture that said, “You were in Amarillo, you talked at our church, my mom was there, and it changed my life. I grew up with a lot of shame. After the lecture, my mom wrote me a note that said, ‘I did not know there was a difference between shame and guilt, I just learned that at a lecture tonight at church. I shamed you your entire life, I meant to guilt you.’” Which I thought was really funny. “‘I’m sorry. Some of your choices scared me and some of the things you did, I didn’t like, but I’ve always been proud of you, I’ve always loved you. I’ve always thought you were amazing. I’m so sorry that I used shame.”
BB: And I get emotional thinking about it because the killer was the last line that the woman wrote in the letter to me and she said, “I’m 50, my mom is 75.” And I think a lot of us would love to get something like that from our parents. I’m lucky enough that I study this, and my parents have read the books as I’ve written them, and we’ve talked about the research a lot. But I grew up in a very shaming family and we’ve done a lot of healing around it. There are a few studies that do show some intergenerational change that our grandparents used more shame than our parents and we’re using less shame than our parents. But there are parents who say, “I’m done parenting when I die.” And there are other parents who will say, “Yeah, I don’t need your parenting stuff, my kids are like 16.” I don’t ever want to give up. Like, I don’t ever want to give up.
BB: My dad, who was raised with a ton of shame, used a lot of shame. I remember one day when we were talking about parenting and shame, I think when I was writing maybe The Gifts of Imperfection or no, maybe it was Daring Greatly. No, it was The Gifts. He said, “You know, what I think a good parent is, Sis?” And I said no, what do you think, Dad? And he goes, “I think a good parent is someone who wants their kids to be an even better parent and supports them in changing those things and doing those things differently.” And it was maybe one of the most important things, just one of the most important healing conversations I’ve ever had. My parents did the very best with what they had. I have a picture of my grandmother, Ellen, who I named my daughter after because she was my soulmate, my person in the world. She was the person who unconditionally loved me from the very beginning, always, wouldn’t know how to you shame if you handed it to you on a platter.
BB: But I have a picture of her pregnant with my mom, nine months pregnant and she’s got an orange melamine ashtray balanced on her stomach and a cigarette in one hand, doing the best she could with what she knew. So there’s so much healing we can do around shame in our families if we’re willing to unlearn, relearn, learn, make amends, say I love you, say I’m sorry. Say that I still want, I’m still in the game, I still want to learn, I still want to be better and do better. That’s up to us. I’m going to do one more question before we go, because I went long on this because I just tried to wrap up all the questions. This is from Esther in British Columbia, Canada, let’s listen to her question.
Esther: Hello, my name is Esther and I live in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. I wanted to ask you Brené, what is a movie or a TV series that you would say really depicts this human experience of vulnerability and emotional intelligence?
BB: Okay, so Esther’s question is really interesting because you could look at it a couple of ways, you could look at it as what is something written in a way where you know the writers, the directors and the actors are deeply emotionally literate. Like it’s just such a beautiful, accurate portrayal of emotion and how it really unfolds in our lives and our bodies between us. Or you could say, “What is a TV series or show that has great emotionally literate characters?” I’m going to go with the first and I’m just going to go with recent and I’m doing research on this right now, so there’s a lot more to come about film, television, emotional literacy, human experience.
BB: But here’s what I’ll tell you, three movies that are so emotionally accurate and heart-piercing that they will literally take your breath away, I think. Marriage Story, Lady Bird, and Moonlight. Two shows I just finished watching, binging on TV, on streaming platforms, that I can tell you right now. The first is Sally Rooney’s Normal People, just exquisite. And the next is Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You. I am shook, I will continue to be shook by I May Destroy You. I will forever be shook, shooked, I don’t know what the past tense is but I think Michaela Coel, Chewing Gum as well, a series that she did, is just freaking brilliant!
BB: And she understands the emotional landscape that we live in. I will tell you, I May Destroy You is about sexual assault and consent. And so if those are issues that are hard for you to watch, just know that going in. Read Common Sense Media, one of my favorite places before you watch any of these movies, it’ll tell you a lot about them and where they are with violence and trauma. It’s a non-profit that has a great website online, but I can tell you… The other thing, while we’re talking about Michaela Coel just quickly, there’s the James MacTaggart lecture from the Edinburgh TV Festival in 2018. She gave the talk for it, it’s an hour long. It should be mandatory watching for human beings. I don’t know how you say what kind of Michaela Coel fan I am but whatever stands the top, that’s me. So, films: Marriage Story, Moonlight, Lady Bird. All just brilliant emotional depictions. I really love the two series that I’ve loved recently, I May Destroy You by Michaela Coel and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
BB: Okay, y’all. In closing, we’re going to take a little podcast hiatus, so we’ll be back in a few weeks. I just want to say that I am so deeply grateful for the Unlocking Us community. I had no idea whether the podcast was going to work or not work; whether I would love it; whether you would love it, more importantly; whether I’d be good at it; and whether guests would be interested in coming on and talking to me about weird things. I didn’t know. It was such an FFT. (F’ing First Time, for those of you who have not listened to the first podcast). I have to say that I love it. I love this community. I can be better. We get a lot of feedback, some glowing, some super tough. All of it, appreciated. I know I can be better and do better. I know the things that you like that I’m doing, I’ll do more of. The AMA while tough, gave us great ideas about content expert guests, and people I want to talk to. I’m also learning what I love to do the most. So, we’ll be back in a few weeks. And just stay awkward, brave and kind. Fight for what’s right, when you see people who are hurting, do the opposite of what the world says and do take it personally and do something about it. I’m just deeply grateful. Thanks, y’all.
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