On this episode of Unlocking Us
I said, “Ask Me Anything,” and the Unlocking Us community came through with the tough questions. To be honest, I thought I’d get some easy, fun ones—but no, all deep-end questions. In fact, we received so many thoughtful and tough AMA questions from listeners that it took us two episodes to cover the most popular topics, including ‘fake news,’ disappointment vs self-pity, religion and shame, when something is shame-worthy, and how parents can build shame resilience in children. I also discuss what TV series and films I think do a great job of accurately capturing emotions and the human experience, and I answer my own ten, rapid-fire questions.
Listen to the episode
Gerdes, K. E. (2011). Empathy, sympathy, and pity: 21st-century definitions and implications for practice and research. Journal of Social Service Research, 37(3), 230-241. doi:10.1080/01488376.2011.564027
Geller, J. D. (2006). Pity, Suffering, and Psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60(2), 187-205.
Stöber, J. (2003). Self-pity: Exploring the links to personality, control beliefs, and anger. Journal of Personality, 71(2), 183-220. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.7102004
Suzanne Pleshette on how she’d like to be remembered
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everybody. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. And this is part one of our two-part AMA – Ask Me Anything special. Oh, my God. We said, “Ask me anything,” and y’all asked us everything and anything. We received over 400 messages, and I’m so sorry for those… Some folks who live outside of the US had no problem leaving a message, some folks really struggled to do it. So, when we do it again, we’ll make sure that we have an easier way for you to leave your question.
BB: I really thought that y’all were going to leave me fun questions, but no, there’s no… There are a couple of light-hearted, fun questions, and they’re not even that light-hearted and fun. Mostly, you just came with really hard, complex, layered questions. And some of them, I don’t have the expertise to answer. It really helped us lay out topics we want to cover. We’re finding the right people to talk to about them. Some of them I can answer partly. I can pull one question out of maybe three or four questions that are embedded in one message.
BB: So, what we’re going to do is divide this up into two podcasts, one this week and then one later on, just because there are so many questions. And I think, because we put out the call for questions for the AMA at the end of the July 1st podcast on Shame and Accountability, a lot of the questions are about shame and, you guessed it, accountability. We’ll divide it up, and we’ll jump right in. We’re going to listen to, I think, four or five today, and we’ll do a podcast for the second set of questions. Again, I appreciate all those softball lobs. No, there were none, none. All really hard questions. But I appreciate the critical thinking. I really do. I’m so grateful for this Unlocking Us community. For people leaning in to real stuff, like hard, real stuff, I’m here for it.
BB: And the first person we’re going to hear from is Jacob. Okay, here we are, AMA Part One.
Jacob: My name is Jacob and I’m from Seattle, Washington. Hey, Brené. This might be too political of a question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. The rise of “fake news” has created this strange situation where I feel like people feel empowered to choose what is and isn’t true for them. And it seems like a lot of people automatically just believe whatever it is that makes them feel good, and they disbelieve whatever it is that goes against their pre-existing narrative or what makes them not feel good. And this seems like an issue with emotional regulation more than an issue of being educated, but I do still think it’s an issue with critical thinking. So, given how your work, it seems, is really focused on helping people with emotional regulation, I’m just wondering how do you think your work could actually be used in the fight against disinformation?
BB: What’s interesting to me about Jacob’s question is the answer to it is actually… Not controversial, but really there’s a lot of conflict about the answer. “Why are we vulnerable to propaganda?” is a way, I guess, to phrase it that would be in line with how some cognitive psychologists, people who are really studying this, would talk about it. They would talk about the vulnerability and the susceptibility to misinformation.
BB: There seems to be two camps in the research world. One camp says people are susceptible because it’s kind of confirmation bias. They want information that prove their political opinions. They don’t think critically, they just want confirmation of their own beliefs. There is that camp looking for confirmation of their political righteousness. And then the other camp of researchers would say that it’s a lack of intellectual curiosity or a lack of skill of critical thinking. So, it’s not that people are looking for confirmation of their beliefs, but they don’t know how to challenge what they read or they’re not willing to challenge what they read because it takes a lot of effort.
BB: When I think about Jacob’s question in the frame of my research, I have a different perspective that maybe… I don’t know, maybe pulls on both the lack of intellectual inquiry or critical thinking, and the confirmation bias, just wanting to confirm what you already believe. Which is, in heightened times, again, a reminder for those who haven’t listened to another podcast where I’ve mentioned this, but I coincidentally started my research six months before 9/11.
BB: And so, I’ve been watching how, over the last 20 years, how fear has changed us. How something that didn’t exist in some ways now is a huge driver, at least for a majority population, for a white, middle class, straight population that never was accustomed to living with a constant layer of terror and film over our lives. Now, of course, if you are a Black person, or you are an immigrant, or you are Muslim, or you are in this country, and our beliefs and our actions that are perpetuated by those beliefs cause you to live in terror, which we’re seeing that clearly, many people, for the first time, 9/11 was not a new feeling. And, in fact, I’ll just tell you. This is getting off your thing, Jacob, but it’s related. I was teaching in a Graduate College of Social Work when 9/11 happened, and we had to have very, very difficult conversations about race and violence and police brutality and living in fear on 9/12 basically. Because that experience of living in fear was so new to some people and so consistently traumatic for other people who not only lived in that fear but were raised by parents, who were raised by parents, who were raised by parents, who were raised by parents, who were raised by parents, who lived in that fear and taught around the collective trauma and what they call “the talk,” the talk that you have to give your children when their existence, because of the color of their skin, their faith beliefs, makes them unsafe.
BB: And so what I would say is, after 9/11, there was a new level of collective trauma. And one thing that I saw, which made things even more dangerous for people who are not in the majority culture of white, straight, Christian, middle class, was this phenomenon, and I write about it a little bit in Daring Greatly, of, when people are afraid, if you can give them someone to blame for their fear and you can sell them the snake oil of certainty in times of deep vulnerability and uncertainty, they will, we will consume and believe almost anything you tell us. We are… It’s so funny, if all these questions had one thing in common, from white supremacy to Jacob’s question about fake news, we don’t know how to be in pain and uncertainty. We don’t know how to be productive in our vulnerability. And the many ways that we tap out of our pain and our fear is literally having our knee on the throat of other people.
BB: And so when I think about my own… I’m a critical thinker for a living and trained to think critically, trained to pull apart every argument, including the ones I love, and the ones that make me feel better, and the ones I want to wrap around me like a blanket. When I’m in enough fear and I’m in enough scarcity, I will go down my own version of fake news. If I hear something in the news, like, “This blood type lessens your chance of COVID,” or, “If you take this vitamin,” I’m like, “Steve will get this box of blood testing equipment and supplements.” And he said, “What’s going on?” I say, “Well, I heard this new story.” And he’ll say, “Brené, step back.” And “I get it but step back for a minute.” So, we’re all susceptible to information that delivers us from pain, and any news or information or proclamation, or snake oil even, that delivers us from uncertainty, fear, pain, shame, our smarts are going to be overridden by the human need to tap out of that.
BB: And so I think that’s why, when you listen to a lot of cable news, when you dissect it and you really listen to it, every news story has a blaming component. So, from innocuous things that have nothing to do with people’s choices sometimes, everything has, “Here’s what’s happening, here’s why you should be afraid, and here’s to blame.” And that’s scarcity culture, and we’re so deep in scarcity culture, holy shit, I am in such deep scarcity culture around COVID. But scarcity culture, I write this in Daring Greatly, is you know you’re in a scarcity culture when the conversation really hinges on what should we be terrified or afraid of right now and whose fault is it. And so, in scarcity culture, I make up that there’s a huge correlation between fear and scarcity and pain and belief of propaganda. But I’ll dig in more. Maybe we’ll bring in some of the folks who are studying it and ask them questions. That’s one of the reasons I love this AMA. So, thank you, Jacob, for your question.
BB: Okay, let’s listen to this question from Chuck.
Chuck: Hello. My name is Chuck, and I’m from League City. First off, Brené, do you play pickle ball? Okay. My second question is, I was super excited about something a couple of days ago, it didn’t work out, so I was experiencing disappointment. I pride myself in being emotionally sober, so I thought I was feeling it. But six hours later, as I was still feeling it, I missed some connections with some people because they asked me how it went, and I didn’t want to answer them because I was feeling my disappointment. Well, the next day I was kind of reviewing my day, and I was actually in, I believe, self-pity pretty quickly after. But anyway, here’s my question. God, I hope this makes sense. Can you tell me the difference between the feeling of disappointment and self-pity? I think that’s my question, and I hope it made sense. Thank you, Brené. I love you.
BB: Okay. Chuck has a two-parter. The first part, way easier than the second part. The first part, “Do I play pickle ball?” Brand new obsession, complete obsession. I’ll tell you why. We are big-time four square players. We will play four square, just the four of us. For 10 years, we’ve played four square, maybe longer than that. So much so that I bought a chalk outline thing that, when you make a field for sports, you push that thing and chalk comes out of the bottom of it in a straight line. We had one… I thought it was temporary, but I made a four square court in our street, and it was permanent. And so it was there for years. It was great for us. I’m sure our neighbors thought it was iffy, but I was like, “Hey, this is our… This is our country club baby, right here, four square.” We’re huge four square players, and we have a whole set of rules. No cherry bombs, no chicken feet, no snake eyes. Rookie cookie only once, meaning if you’ve never played, you get one round where everyone’s taking it easy. But then after that, you’re on your own. But we would, the four of us, would play four square, me, Steve, Ellen and Charlie. And by our second game, there would be a line of 10 kids and some adults that are like, “We want in the game,” so first person out, the next person would come in.
BB: I’m also a huge tennis player, and I love badminton, so when I… First, my friend Lauren told me about pickleball, and so I looked it up, of course, as all people would because it involves a ball, which means I’m interested in it. And pickleball is like badminton meets tennis meets the most important sport possibly in my life, ping-pong. I have a ping-pong table at work, I have a ping-pong table at home that’s in my living room. I take ping-pong… I couldn’t write a book without ping-pong. So, new obsession. I’ll let you know how it goes, Chuck, but I’m so excited.
BB: Second question, a little bit tougher, the difference between the feelings of disappointment and self-pity. For this one, I had to think a little bit about what is self-pity, what is disappointment to figure out how they’re different. And I went to Ronda, who is our director of research, and right now we’re doing this… The most ginormous ass… That’s a technical research measurement term, ginormous ass… Literature review on all these emotions and cognitions, and how they work, and what the difference is and how they’re the same. If you look at the research on self-pity… Man, we do not like self-pity. I’m looking at research. Researcher Geller says that being accused of self-pity is one of the worst criticisms we can receive, this is from a 2006 study, because it implies that the person is not willing to or making attempts to improve their current situation.
BB: Gerdes states that self-pity is associated with whining and victimization. Most people experiencing difficulty, even if they wish to be helped, loathe to be pitied. Stober, another researcher, points out that self-pity is often used as a bid for attention, empathy or help, and calls it “a strategy doomed to fail,” because people who indulge in self-pity ultimately tend to be socially rejected. I think there is a real belief among researchers, who study pity, that self-pity is an ineffective coping strategy. Higher levels of self-pity seem to be positively correlated or associated with internalized anger, emotional loneliness, a belief that life is controlled by chance. It really seems to be not correlated with the sense of agency that, “I can handle things.”
BB: When I was talking to Roonda about it and we were trying to figure out… We’re careful when we talk about differences, because as researchers we want to see the data before we talk about a difference. Here’s what my research gut says. Disappointment is about something specific. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the promotion.” “I’m disappointed that this did not work out.” Where self-pity is more of a global assessment. Even if it starts as something specific, it’s more of a global assessment. In AA rooms, we often hear something that we associate with being in the throes of addiction, or what we would call terminal uniqueness, like, “My life, my experience, everything about me is very unique, very unique,” which… There are unique things about us, of course, but when it comes to some things, we have a lot more in common than we don’t. But this idea of disappointments about something specific, where self-pity becomes a global assessment of circumstances, like, “I can’t catch a break. Nothing ever goes my way,” I think we would affiliate self-pity with the “poor me’s.”
BB: I also think that there’s a perception that self-pity can be manipulative, and this is interesting because now we’re getting into less research gut, more research research. One of the things that we studied, when we were studying shame, is this idea of empathy versus sympathy. Empathy is, “I feel with you. While I may not have had that experience, I can connect to the emotion that you’re feeling based on that experience. While I may not know what it’s like to get fired, I know grief and rage and fear. I know the emotions that underpin the experience, and that’s how I’m connecting to you around this.” And so when we’re in disappointment, I think we look for empathy. I think we look for… I just had something really disappointing happen.
BB: This is a true story. I just had something in the last week really disappointing happen, and I was feeling everything from pissed off, to grief, to maybe not shame, but probably embarrassment that I’d gotten my hopes up. And then I was disappointed, when I can go into that thing where I should have known better than to get my hopes up, but I’m a “get my hopes up” kind of person. And I remember just texting Steve, “I’m pissed.” Five seconds later, “I’m so sad.” Five seconds later, “Now I’m more pissed.” And his response was empathy, like, “God, I get it, I’m actually pissed too.” And we compare experiences where we’re looking to make a bid for empathy with experiences where we’re sympathy-seeking, where I would say to Steve, “God, I’m pissed and I’m sad, and I’m just, I’m disappointed and I can’t believe it. Nothing ever falls the way I want it to.” And then Steve would say, “God, I get it. I really… I’m so sorry and I know you really… ” You know what? You didn’t get it. You don’t get it. No one knows how I feel.
BB: Now we’re moving into sympathy-seeking. Now, I don’t want empathy and connection. I want sympathy and validation, that everybody has it better than me and no one gets it. And let me tell you, when I first started studying shame, I’m really hoarse. It’s not because… I don’t sound like this because I’m trying to sound like Suzanne Pleshette, for those of you all in the age range to know who she is, sexy voice, Suzanne Pleshette. Nor have I been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day since COVID, but that I’ve been fantasizing. Maybe this is what happens when you just fantasize about smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I’m just kind of hoarse today. So, that’s one to give you a little caveat.
BB: But when I first started researching shame, I interviewed a lot of mental health professionals. And when I would talk about sympathy seeking, these well-trained empathy givers, holders of space, nothing got these people pissed off as much as this idea of sympathy seeking. They’re like, “Oh, my God, the sympathy seeking, if you’re in group and you’ve got someone that’s sympathy seeking, everyone gets pissed off and starts rolling their eyes, then you have to really manage the room. It’s so hard. Or if you’ve got a client who’s a sympathy seeker, it’s just so manipulative, and there’s no winning, there’s no helping.” And I was caught off guard by the reaction people had to sympathy seeking.
BB: But I feel the same way, because when someone tells you something really hard and then you try to be empathic, when you try to show compassion and the response is, “You don’t get it. You could never get it. No one has it as bad as me.” You’re like, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m out.” And it’s interesting because, in group, when we wrote a curriculum based on shame resilience, I was co-facilitating a group with a clinician, a therapist, because again, I’m a researcher, I have my master’s degree in Social Work and my PhD, but I am not a clinician. So I was co-facilitating a psycho-educational group with a clinician, who’s a masterful clinician. And I saw her do this thing around sympathy seeking, which was so interesting, because someone in the group said… And this was hard, this was a group… Domestic violence, sexual assault. We were doing this at the Houston Area Women’s Center. This was a group of incest survivors, very tough. One of the women in the group said, “No one gets it, no one understands me. Everyone’s got it worse. I mean, Everyone’s got it better than me.” And then started stacking the list of things that she was up against.
BB: And I masterfully watched this clinician, who is a good friend and just a badass, say this loving accountability. “I hear what you’re saying, that no one can understand. What I’m experiencing is a group of people who want to understand, a group of people who want to be with you in it. So, would you be willing to help us be in it with you?” It was so interesting because what we found in the research is that sympathy seeking is very related to shame. When we’re in shame, what do we feel? Alone. When we’re sympathy seeking, what do we feel? “It’s just me. I thought it was just me.” So, as she started unpacking all these things that she was ashamed of, that made her feel alone, that made her feel like no one would ever get it, and she saw knowing looks and she felt empathy by connection to not experience but emotion, she started coming out of the shame and moved from sympathy seeking to empathy seeking.
BB: And so, I… This is such a long answer, but these are complex questions. So, Chuck, there is a big difference between, I think, disappointment and self-pity. I also think, and this is really important, the action tendency, meaning a key element of all emotions and cognition as well is the action tendency. What is the motivation? What do you do next from this emotion? What does it propel you to do? The action tendency with disappointment is to do better, is to move through it, think through it. I think, this is gut researcher here, the action tendency of self-pity is to seek sympathy, not specifically to move through it, to get through it, to learn from it, or to do better. Chuck, strong preference for the pickleball question, dude. Oh, my God, I really am going to give up, dude. I thought I should give up, dude, at 40. Still with me at 50. Sixty is going to be the key non-dude decade.
BB: Okay, let’s listen to Matthew’s question.
Matthew: Hey, Brené and her team. This is Matthew in Los Angeles. Deeply appreciate all the work you do. I love the distinction between shame and guilt that you just did in the previous episode, and that shame is not a tool for social justice. I’m curious about the distinction of how we clarify the historical atrocities, and how we shame movements of control and of evil, that there’s zero tolerance when we talk about Nazism, in Germany, and about the atrocities that were committed, but that America does not have that same sort of zero tolerance when it comes to the sense of slavery and enslavement and dehumanization and subjugation, discrimination. So, how do we divide, as they say, the history and heritage that continue to prop up these systems of hatred and allow it to continue to exist? When does something become worthy of shame? Because my aunt said something very specific like that, “America has a problem with shame.” And yet, when we look internationally, we are very quick to completely penalize, entitle, and shame for when we see evil done elsewhere but not necessarily within our own history, our own borders, our own community.
BB: There are so many questions embedded in this, and so many people way more qualified to answer the majority of them. I’m thinking about my conversation with Ibram Kendi, with Austin Channing Brown. I’m going to take one question. I played all the questions, because I think they’re all important to give context, but I’m going to pull one thread out of here, which is, “When does something become worthy of shame?” I believe that… And I don’t know because I haven’t talked to Matthew, but I believe under that question is the presupposition that shame can change behavior in a good way. It’s just unkind or too painful to use. And if it’s not, I’m going to address this anyway, and then go to the other things that I think could be under the question.
BB: I don’t believe shame… If you’ve listened to the podcast before this, on shame and accountability, you’ll know that I don’t believe in shame as a social justice tool. And as I’ve talked to many activists, from Tarana Burke, to again, Ibram Kendi, Austin Channing Brown, but many others across many other issues, I’ve never heard anyone say that they thought shame was a good social justice tool, honestly. Not a single person, no matter what the issue is. So, it’s not that I think shame is too painful to use, or too dangerous to use. I just don’t think it’s effective. And I got to tell you, and this is not something I’m proud of, to be honest with you, but if I thought… Knowing how painful shame is, if I thought I could change some of the things that we’re facing today in the world, I would probably say, “Release the Kraken.” I think I would just say, “The greater good outweighs the pain of some individuals who are wreaking havoc, dehumanizing… ” People are dying.
BB: So, if I thought we could shame people out of police brutality, if I thought we could shame people into wearing masks and social distancing, I might go for… I don’t know, I’d have to think about it, but my gut would be, I’d say, “Well, you got to weigh common good here maybe, I don’t know.” But this is just not the case, so the intellectual ethics exercise is not worth it, pointless, I guess. But I don’t think shame is an effective tool. I think shame is really related to the first question around fake news. We’re so hard-wired to leap out of pain, and discomfort, and vulnerability, and uncertainty, and fear, that shame is often the first thing we grab. You say something that I disagree with, it causes me rage or pain, and I just shame the shit out of you. I belittle, humiliate you. But nothing changes. Nothing changes. Just the world is just a little bit bleaker, a little grosser, a little bit more dehumanized.
BB: I think accountability is what we don’t do because, interestingly, accountability is hard in cultures of vulnerability. Because accountability itself is vulnerable, it’s just more vulnerability, it’s just more uncertainty, and it’s a shit ton of work. For me to hold you accountable means I need to say, “Here’s what this experience is doing to me. Here’s what’s not acceptable, here’s what’s got to change, here’s how it has to change, here’s what it has to change by, and here are the consequences of not changing it.” So, accountability is hard.
BB: And when you’re dealing with people, trying to hold people who have more power than you accountable, shame becomes a much easier weapon to grab, because it’d be one thing if I was the CEO of a company and I was like, “Here’s the new rule around accountability, everyone has to do this by this date. This is what it’s going to look like, this is what it looks like if you don’t do it. Here are the consequences.” Because I have the authority to do that and the power to do that. That’s why accountability, when we’re in a power over situation, looks like protest. It looks like protest. It always has, it always will.
BB: Accountability is the tool. And when you don’t have power, or when the people you’re fighting use power over, instead of power with and power to, accountability becomes very difficult. It doesn’t make shame any more effective, and here is the thing that really is just the worst. Then the quickest handle you grab is shame, then all of a sudden you’re shaming, you’re humiliating, you’re name-calling, you’re cancelling, you’re doing all of these things. And now the debate shifts, right in the middle of it, from the real injustice to your behavior of using shame. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.
BB: For example, if… Let me just take a really micro example, because I think it’s easier to understand when we use really micro examples and then we can apply them to macro systems, or even mezzo systems, systems working with systems. Steve and I are in an argument, it’s getting heated, my feelings are hurt, and I say something really shaming to him. It doesn’t matter if he did something really crappy to start this fight, it doesn’t matter if he was disrespectful or did something hurtful, because now I’ve said something that’s cruel and scarring and mean, probably used a vulnerability that he has shared with me against him. And now it doesn’t matter what happened in the beginning, now the whole vortex of what’s happening is on me. And not in a good way. And so that’s why it just doesn’t… Shame doesn’t work. Cruelty doesn’t work.
BB: The example that Matthew used around Germany and Nazism is really interesting, because I heard from people on Twitter, I did a Facebook Live after the violence in Charlottesville, and after the neo-Nazi white guys in polos and khakis with, I don’t know, tiki torches, marched. And I did a Facebook Live around privilege and speaking out against that, and why it was important, and how there were no nice people, like that statement from Trump. It was interesting because some of the people that DM’ed me and commented were German. And they were just in shock that Americans would allow that display of Nazism. Because in Germany, just the presence of neo-Nazis, the paraphernalia, the swastikas, those kind of things, the Hitler salute, the statues, Holocaust denial even is illegal. And there’s even a legal concept that you can’t even incite hatred, so any group of people inciting hatred against another group could go to jail.
BB: I don’t know… So, to say, “Well, the Germans are on top of the neo-Nazi movement, and some of this dehumanization and hatred, because they use shame,” I don’t know that that’s accurate as saying there are laws in place and there’s accountability. This is not without controversy, because it’s a legal strategy. And a legal strategy is an accountability strategy. Whereas shame strategy is just name-calling and make you feel bad about yourself. If all we did with drunk drivers was shame them, as opposed to take away their driver’s license, it cost gazillion dollars, you go to jail, I don’t know that we could… I don’t know that that works. I don’t know.
BB: But the problem with a legalistic strategy is who’s determining what’s hateful, and then we get into a civil liberties issue. Who’s in power? If we had something like that now, there is no doubt in my mind that this administration would say “Black lives matter,” there didn’t have to be a good doubt in my mind, because Trump said that a Black Lives Matter monument that is going up in New York was hateful. So, the problem about an accountability strategy that’s legal is… A legalistic strategy, I guess, is civil liberties. So, I don’t know that we can say shame is working here.
BB: Honestly, if you look at outcome data, and I’m not… I don’t have the most current, but it’s something I looked into probably seven or eight years ago. One of the things that’s really interesting is looking at public health models to see what works for change there. And in public health models around… Successful public health changes, like teeth brushing and seatbelt wearing, that might give us some insight. Because police brutality is a public health issue, and it should be looked at as a public health issue and funded like a public health issue. Dehumanization, hate crimes, terrorism, I absolutely believe they should be classified like that. Acts of white supremacy, terrorism – funded, researched, tracked very much like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
BB: So, I think there are models where we have seen successful communal change. I don’t know of any of those that have been shame-based. Because a lot of people in our culture today, if you shame them, will almost perceive that as proud moments of martyrdom, too. Like, “Look I’ve been called this by these people, which makes me a hero with my people.” It doesn’t work. There’s no accountability. There’s no change. There’s no policy. There’s no financial investment. I just don’t think it works. But, Matthew, lots of questions in here in your questions.
BB: Okay, let’s listen to the question from Anne, who is in Charlottesville.
Anne: Hi, my name is Anne. I am calling from Charlottesville, Virginia. I am 24 years old, and I identify as a gay woman. My question is, what role does religion play in the incessant shaming and guilting of LGBTQ+ people, and how can that type of force be resisted or combated when religion is often considered to be absolute truth? Thank you.
BB: This idea of what role does religion play in shaming LGBTQ+ people. Shame is a tool of social control. Let’s go back. One question I get asked all the time is, “Is shame ever useful?” If we look at shame from an evolutionary biological perspective, it served a purpose. Communal living was necessary for survival. You did something that threatened the community’s safety, you were shunned, pushed out of the community, and the community became safer, and you became dead. If you look at evolution, perhaps, yes, there is still this idea that someone not conforming to communal rules is a threat to the community.
BB: Now, as we’ve evolved and our brains have evolved and our capacity for thinking and emotion has evolved, it has become a sledgehammer on a thumbtack. You cannot use it, and it doesn’t work. We don’t, as a collective, believe in “The Scarlet Letter” approach. But make no mistake that shame is still used in religion all the time as a tool of social control. And then you get God on your side, or you get the Bible on your side, or you get whatever doctrine on your side, then it’s not even an anvil on a thumbtack. Then it’s like a cannon against a thumbtack.
BB: And so one of the things that I’ve seen in the research, because we did a lot of research early on when we were studying shame, around shame and religion and spirituality, and what we found is very interesting. People often asked, “Okay, what denomination is most shame prone? Who uses the most shame?” All the Catholics thought it was the Catholics, the Jews thought it was the Jews, but the Southern Baptists were actually very sure that it was the Southern Baptists. They were like, “Look, we know that you’re hearing from the Catholics and the Jews, but it’s us for sure. We know already.” One of the things that we found is that no denomination emerged as more shaming than others.
BB: However, shame did cluster by congregation. Some churches were specifically more shaming than others, which means that it’s the people using shame, not necessarily how they use doctrine, how they use texts, how they use their power. So, we definitely found clusters around congregations, and those clusters around congregations were across every denomination. Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, mainline Protestant, across the board. So, to me, when we talk about religion, shame is a very man-made part of that. And I use that word specifically. It is very much how men in power decided to add to their power by using God in their shame crew. And what was interesting to me about this as well is the majority of people, I think it was over 80% of people healing from religious shame wounds, found healing in spirituality. They, however, did often leave their denomination and their church.
BB: There is a long history that goes back from the beginning, I’m sure to the beginning of time, around how shame is used as a tool for social control. And one of the most dangerous stories that we make up is that who we are, who we love, how we live can be judged as holy, good, or divine by anybody but ourselves and our relationship with our God, how we define our God. So, the stories we make up about who we are based on what we heard growing up and seen growing up, very dangerous narratives that we spend a lot of our lifetimes unraveling. But it is worth it, because on the other side of getting to the truth of that story is your inherent worthiness and lovability.
BB: Okay, y’all, last question for the podcast episode today is from Sheila. Let’s listen to her request.
Sheila: Hi, Brené. It’s Sheila from Denver, and I would really love it if you would answer your 10-question quick fire with your own personal answers during the AMA episode. Thanks.
BB: Okay, Sheila, great. Turning the tables, the interviewer becomes the interviewee. I will answer the 12 rapid fire, which I’m not even going to think through them, I’m just going to answer it. Number one: Vulnerability is hard and brave. Two: I’m called to be brave, but my fear is real and stuck in my throat, what’s the first thing I do? Name that I’m in fear. Three: Something that people often get wrong about you. I don’t know. Maybe that I’m a serious person. I don’t know. Sometimes, I think, people think I’m kind of goofy and funny and, I don’t know, silly. But then they don’t know I’m kind of a serious person. I don’t think I thought I was a serious person, but I’m a serious person. But then… Yeah, maybe that I’m kind of a serious person.
BB: Last show that I binged and loved. Oh, God. Lord have mercy, Normal People. Number one and number two in current binge mode, I May Destroy You. Jeez, God. I feel so better waking up in the morning knowing that this kind of talent exists in the world. So, Normal People and I May Destroy You. Powerful. Favorite movie. The Color Purple will definitely be in the top few. We’ll go with The Color Purple. What’s on my nightstand? Phone charger, moisturizer, foot moisturizing cream, an unbelievable leaning tower of books, a lamp. And that’s it. A concert I’ll never forget. U2. Any of them. Favorite meal. I’ve been in keto for years, so we buy some kind of fresh non-fishy whitefish, and then bread it in chicharrons, like pork rinds, and then we serve it with… I make this cilantro lime coleslaw out of either coleslaw or broccoli slaw, and I really love that. If I were not on keto, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, white roll, butter. Did I mention mashed potatoes yet? Corn. And did I mention fried chicken, and mashed potatoes and corn and a roll? And then some kind of cobbler, blueberry cobbler.
BB: Okay. Snapshot of an ordinary moment in my life that brings me true joy. In the water, at the lake, with my family, friends, floating and talking. I can never get over how magic it is. I would say a weird snapshot of an ordinary moment in my life right now would also have to be being on a very isolated hike in the hill country, and finding Jonathan Van Ness sitting on a rock under a cedar tree. It was as if I was in a fairy tale, and cartoon creatures would start frolicking about, and birds would land on my finger. What am I deeply grateful for right now? My team at work, my family, and this community, the people that just help me move through the day… Just the people who help me move through the day, at this point.
BB: All right. This was AMA, Ask Me Anything, Part One of Two. We may do the second part next week, we may move it out a little bit. Just depends. All right. Thanks, you all. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. Keep your hands washed, masks on, you keep your social distance, and take good care.
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