Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Unlocking Us podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.
WHAT’S OK: You are welcome to share an excerpt from the episode transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include proper attribution and link back to the podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT’S NOT OK: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Brené Brown’s name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Brené Brown from her Media Kit page or license photos from Getty Images, etc.
Brown, B. (Host). (2020, July 1). Brené on Shame and Accountability [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-shame-and-accountability/
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. It’s just me today. I thought I would just talk to you about some of the thinking I’ve been doing, some of the observations I’ve had over the last few weeks, what’s really on my mind. And I want to focus, really, on shame today, and one thing that has struck me over the past few weeks as we’ve seen the country and the world mobilized to take on COVID-19 and white supremacy to lethal pandemics is how we’re talking about shame, how we’re weaponizing it, and why getting clear on the differences between being held accountable for racism and feeling shame is not the same thing as being shamed.
BB: And this distinction, I think, is critically important, especially for those of us who are white. We’re trying to do anti-racism work, some of us have been doing it for a while, some of us are brand new to it. We need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame as a result of that accountability, and how that’s different than actually being shamed for being a racist. These are different things.
BB: But I want to start with a quick primer so that we’re all kind of talking about the same thing. So, the Shame 101 that I have used for a long time, one, around shame: We all have it. It is universal, and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. As long as we have a capacity for connection and empathy, the fear of disconnection, and not being able to be in connection will always be real for us. So, we all have shame. We all know the warm wash that comes over us and makes us feel small and not good enough and like we just want to disappear.
BB: Number two: No one likes to talk about it. Shame is a very visceral word, even. Even hearing someone talk about their own shame can put us into shame. That’s how contagious this is. So we all have it. Number two, we’re all afraid to talk about it, we don’t like to talk about it, and three, the less we talk about shame, the more we have it and the more control it has over our lives. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. It hates being spoken, and so it has set up this great system where “I’m going to make it miserable for you to talk about me. That way, I can keep control over the situation,” just to personify shame a little bit.
BB: Okay. So, a couple of very helpful ways, I think, to think about shame. First, shame is the fear of disconnection. Given that we’re physically, emotionally, cognitively, and for many of us, spiritually, hard-wired for connection, love, and belonging, and it’s why we’re here, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, think about how powerful shame is, because it’s the fear of disconnection, it’s the fear that we’ve done something or failed to do something. We haven’t lived up to an ideal, or we haven’t accomplished a goal that makes us worthy of connection. “I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection.” Shame, especially for children: “I am unlovable,” which is why shame is so traumatic. “I don’t belong.”
BB: So here’s the definition of shame that I have used in the research for many, many years. It emerged from the first study that we did on shame, and it has stood the test of all new data, which is, as a grounded theory researcher, the theories and hypotheses that we generate are only as good as their ability to work new data. So the definition has stood for, I guess, it’s maybe 15 years: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”
BB: We want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have experienced really unspeakable trauma. You know, when we think of shame, we immediately think, “Oh, abuse,” but shame is something we all experience, and it comes up for many of us in our lives on a daily basis, and it doesn’t hide in kind of the faraway corners of our lives. It tends to lurk in all the familiar places: Appearance and body image, money, work, parenting, family, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion.
BB: I would say less spirituality, because when people talk to me when we’ve done interviews around shame and belief, it’s usually… It’s interesting, just a side note. This could be an entire podcast. Religion, very specifically, is the word that people use, and interestingly, shame resilience usually takes some form of spirituality when healing from religious shame trauma, so religion is one of the words. Indeed, trauma itself, discrimination, stereotypes, labels, these are all familiar things that we navigate every day.
BB: Shame is real pain, and this is like a “Stop, and take this in for a second.” The importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry. The pain that results from social rejection and disconnection from shame is real pain. In fact, there was a study, it was funded by NIMH and NIDA, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, where researchers found that as far as the brain is concerned, physical pain – I think the example they use in the article was you spill a hot cup of coffee on your hand – physical pain, and the intense experiences of social rejection, hurt in the same way. The same part of the brain lights up. The same reaction, neurobiologically, happens.
BB: So, when I define shame as an intensely painful experience, that’s not hyperbole. I’m not kidding. Neuroscience advances confirm what we’ve known all along: Emotions can hurt and cause pain. And just as we often struggle to define physical pain, describing emotional pain is difficult. Shame, again, is particularly hard because it hates having words wrapped around it. It hates being spoken. In fact, this is important to get into, I think, because we’re going to talk about this today. As we work to understand shame, one of the simpler reasons that shame is so hard to talk about is vocabulary. There are what we call the four emotions of self-conscious affect: Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Again, let me go through that big term, “self-conscious affect.” So, “self-conscious,” like reflecting on ourselves, and “affect” is just a fancy word for emotion. So, four emotions of self-conscious affect: Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment.
BB: And the problem is that we use these words interchangeably. And that’s dangerous, and I’ll tell you why, and it’s not just me being a nit-picky shame researcher who wants you to use the right word for the corresponding emotion. Go back to the podcast with Marc Brackett on emotional literacy. We know that emotional granularity, emotional…You know, the ability to really, finally identify emotion is a critical component to resilience and moving through an emotion, to building resilience, to building self-awareness. So, understanding and naming emotion: Super important. It’s more than semantics. How we experience kind of the self-conscious emotions really often comes down to self-talk. How do we talk to ourselves about what’s happening? And that can be extended to other emotions as well, but seems to be particularly important, I think, with shame and guilt, especially, and humiliation. Embarrassment, we’ll talk about in a second.
BB: The best way to start examining self-talk and untangling these four distinct emotions is with shame and guilt, because these are where we really confuse things. The majority of shame researchers and emotion researchers think the best way to understand the difference between shame and guilt and this, I would include myself in believing this is the right way to do it, or the most effective way to do it, is shame is “I am bad”; guilt is “I did something bad.”
BB: So, I like to quote this article where they use the example of getting really hammered, like on a Thursday night, and being so hungover the next morning, that Friday morning, that you miss an important meeting when you get to work. And so, what I usually use in my talks is, so you get to work, you’re late, you’ve missed a meeting. Your self-talk is, “I’m such an idiot. I’m so stupid. I’m such a loser.” Is that self-talk focused on behavior, or self? It’s self. “I’m a loser, I’m an idiot.” So that’s shame. Compared to “I get to work, I missed the meeting, maybe I’m in trouble,” and my self-talk is “God, that was a really stupid thing to do last night. I should not have done that.” Focus on the behavior, not who I am.
BB: Another great example that I use all the time when I teach is, you get back a grade, you get a 60 out of 100. Is your self-talk, “I’m stupid,” or is your self-talk, “That was stupid not to study for the test”? That’s the distinction between guilt and shame. Why is that important beyond just lexicon and proper usage and emotional granularity? Because shame and guilt self-talk, that’s how we measure your proneness, that’s how we measure whether you have a tendency to identify as more shame-prone or guilt-prone. And the difference between proneness is everything. Shame-proneness is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders. It’s so…Shame-proneness and addiction are so enmeshed that we don’t even know which one came first.
BB: When we’re trying to develop correlations in research, we try to look at, as a temporal variable, what came first. Shame and addiction are just so enmeshed. So, it makes a big difference, because then when you look at guilt-proneness, the ability to focus on behaviors, the ability to take on behaviors without eviscerating yourself and your personhood, guilt-proneness is inversely correlated with those outcomes, meaning, the more that we can separate “I’m a good person, and I made a really bad choice,” the more we can do that, the more the outcomes that we’re trying to avoid, like addiction, depression, anxiety, violence, the more those are mitigated.
BB: And in fact, guilt-proneness seems to be a protective factor against some of the outcomes that we don’t want for ourselves, our kids, our family, our community. And the thing is that here’s where we get confused: We think that shaming is this great moral compass, that we can shame people into being better. But that’s not true. Because here’s a great example that comes up a lot when I’m talking to people about parenting. You have a kid who tells a lie, and you say…Here’s shame, you shame that child: “You’re a liar.” Shame corrodes the part of us that believes that we can be different. “If I’m a liar, if that’s who I am, how do I ever change? How do I ever make a different decision?” Versus, “You’re a good person, and you told a lie, and that behavior is not okay in this family.”
BB: Go back to the Harriet Lerner podcast where everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to see change. You can’t shame people into being better, and in fact, when we see people apologizing, making amends, changing their behavior, that is always around guilt. Guilt is… Guilt, the whole “I am bad,” is not easy, because it is cognitive dissonance. It creates psychological pain. “I have done something that is inconsistent or incongruent with my values or who I want to be.” So when we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends, change a behavior, guilt’s the driving force. We feel guilt when we hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values, they don’t match up, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s helpful. It’s a positive, socially adaptive experience.
BB: Now, I will say, feeling guilt for things that we don’t have control over, or feeling guilt about things that we should not be owning: Not helpful. But really, true guilt, the psychological discomfort, like cognitive dissonance, motivates meaningful change. It’s as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive.
BB: Humiliation, we’re learning more and more about humiliation, and in fact, what we’re learning now is changing my work. We thought that shame and humiliation were very close, except for one critical variable, which is deserving. If you call me… If you say I’m stupid in front of… Let me give you the example that I share a lot in my books. You’ve probably read it if you’re familiar with the work, or you’ve seen me talk. I’m handing out papers, I’m a teacher, and I have one paper left. And I hold up the paper and say, “I’ve got a paper. It doesn’t have a name on it. Whose paper is it? Any guesses? Who’d like to guess that this is Susan’s paper?” And “Susan, how many times have I asked you,” and I’m using this example because I observed it in an actual classroom, “Susan, how many times have I told you to write your name on your paper? 100, 50? How many of you are surprised,” looking out to the classroom, “how many of you are surprised that Susan didn’t put her name on the paper? Let me see a show of hands. How many of you are surprised?”
BB: Now, I want you to stop for a second if you’re listening, and notice what you’re feeling right now, as you’re observing me as a teacher shame a student. Secondary shame. Rage, sinking down, “Please, God, don’t look at me, don’t call on me. Please don’t let this happen to me. I want to get up and just push you out of this classroom for doing this to Susan.” Shame is so powerful. So this teacher said, “Susan, I’m going to help you. I’ll write your name on it,” so she puts the paper on Susan’s desk and she writes S T U P I D. “Stupid.” So, let me tell you, if you’re a teacher listening to this, you’re probably having the most emotionally violent reaction, like, “That can’t happen.”
BB: And I used to…Well, I didn’t use to, I one time role-played this with someone. But even in the role play, they were so devastated by it because 85% of the people we’ve interviewed can remember something so shaming that happened in school that it forever changed themselves as a learner. So I don’t use…I just use like an empty seat when I’m doing this because it’s traumatizing for people. I can totally remember many things that happened that were so shaming in school, they changed how I thought of myself as a learner, how I thought of my own intellect, disproportionately happening to black students, Hispanic students, indigenous students.
BB: We have to understand this. So, let me go back to, I’m Susan now, the student. Humiliation versus shame. Humiliation is…the variable that predicts the difference is deserving. “Did I deserve that?” So, if I didn’t deserve that, my thought process might be, “I didn’t deserve that. I didn’t deserve that. That’s the meanest, most horrible, nastiest teacher in the whole world. I didn’t deserve that.” Humiliation. Shame: “I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid. Why am I so stupid?”
BB: So, we’ve talked for many years about the difference between shame and humiliation being the difference between deserving and not deserving. We have new research, I’m looking into it right now, that is really starting to link humiliation with violence. And that…we’re looking at that, so, more to come on that, I’ll do a podcast on it, maybe with some of the researchers who are doing that.
BB: So, Shame: “I am bad.” Guilt: “I did something bad.” Humiliation: “I’m belittled and put down, but I don’t believe I deserved it,” which, not believing you deserved it, is a protective factor, which is why I raised my kids to say, “Look, here’s the thing: You can…No matter what you do in school, you’ll be held accountable and there’ll be consequences, but no one can call you names. No one can make you feel stupid. No one can put you down in front of other people.”
BB: Short note, that when Ellen was a kindergartener, I got this great email from her kindergarten teacher that said, “Oh. Totally the daughter of a shame researcher. Today, she was in the Glitter Center. And I said, ‘Ellen, you’re so messy.’ And she sat straight up and said, ‘I may be making a mess, but I’m not messy.'” For me, the mom, I was a halfway like, “Go, Ellen” and halfway like, “Oh, shit.”
BB: So Shame: “I am bad.” Guilt: “I did something bad.” Humiliation, similar to shame, but “I didn’t deserve it.” Embarrassment: Often fleeting, sometimes funny, the least serious of the four emotions. The hallmark of embarrassment is that when we do something embarrassing, we don’t feel alone, we don’t feel that warm wash of not good enough. We know other things. We know other people have done similar things, and we know it will pass when it’s happening.
BB: So getting familiar with this language is important as I move into the second part of this, which is going back to this idea that being held accountable for racism and feeling shame is not the same as being shamed. So, let me start with by saying this: I… I’m on the record, I stand by this, shame is not an effective social justice tool. Period. Just period. Shame is a tool of oppression. Shame is a tool of white supremacy. Humiliation, belittling, those are tools of injustice; they’re not tools for justice.
BB: First, shame corrodes the belief that we can be better and do better, and it’s much more likely to be the cause of dangerous and destructive behaviors than the cure. It’s also inherently… Shame itself is inherently dehumanizing. And it’s just not a tool for social justice. I go back to Audrey Lorde’s quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
BB: Now, if you’ve never read this essay, you need to go and find it and buy it. I’ve read it. I think I read it…I’ll put it on the show notes where you can find it, but it was an essay that she wrote in the late’ 70s, that Audrey Lorde wrote in the late ’70s, that was a searing, accurate, necessary indictment of white academic feminism, and about how white academic feminism just reflected the same hierarchical, punitive, punishing, racist, homophobic, heterosexist aspects that indeed feminism was developed to fight. And I can tell you that this essay changed every women’s studies, gender studies department in the country. It was just this amazing…I hear people use the quote all the time, but it’s a beautiful quote. I apply it to shame because I don’t…I think when you say, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” I think of shame as a tool of oppression and of white supremacy. But read the article. Read the article, because it’s just the title of an essay that is so much more deep and profound.
BB: I’ll give you another example of why shame is not a social justice tool. So here in Houston, probably, I don’t know, I think, I guess, maybe I was in graduate school, maybe ’90s, early ’90s, we had a judge who loved to use shame in sentencing. And so, one example is you have to carry a sign downtown that says, “I’m a wife-beater,” or wear a sandwich board that says, “I am an abuser.” And I want y’all to think about for a minute: Who do you think…When someone who has been convicted of domestic violence has to wear a sign or carry a sign that says, “I’m a wife beater,” and that person goes home to their partner at night, how…would you want to be that partner that person comes home to? No. Who are the first people to say, “Oh, my God, this is not okay”? The domestic violence community, because we were like, “You are…Shame breeds violence. Shame begets shame and violence.” And so, it’s not a social justice tool.
BB: So, having said that, let’s go back to this idea, and I’m going to talk to…I want to talk to my white audience right now. And this is not to be exclusive, or I don’t know, whatever word you ever want to use, but I really want to talk to white folks right now. When we’re held accountable for racism, and listen to the Ibram Kendi interview: We’re all racist, it’s rained on our heads from the day we were born, so, when we’re held accountable for racism and someone points out or holds us accountable for what we say or what we do, and we feel shame, that’s not the same as being shamed for being a racist.
BB: And it happens so fast, and shame is a full-contact emotion, but there’s a huge difference between being shamed for being a racist and feeling shame. And it’s our responsibility for experiencing and regulating our own emotions. It’s my job to regulate my emotion, move through shame in a productive way, without defensiveness, without doubling down, without rationalizing, without demanding to be taught, demanding absolution, demanding comfort from the person who’s holding us accountable, which is often a black person or a person of color. I’m responsible for that emotional regulation.
BB: And so often, what we…And I have to tell you that I have studied racism, anti-racism, critical race theory, for 20 years, and I am still making mistakes. So I speak from experience. During every one of the many times that I have been held accountable for not recognizing my own privilege, or centering my story or my experience, every time, I’ve experienced shame. Not guilt. I didn’t feel like, “Oh. I did something bad,” or “These actions are not aligning with my values.” My response, first response, has always been full-on shame.
BB: And let me tell you, when I’m in shame, and this is a podcast for another time, we have very patterned ways of responding to shame. This is from the Stone Center at Wellesley, and it goes even back further, to Karen Horney’s work, like some of us move against by fighting shame with shame, some of us moved towards, some of us move away. I’m a fighter, and so when I’m in shame, I like… When you back me into a corner, I come out swinging normally. That’s my MO, my modus operandi. So, I understand that. Now, I would say, because I’ve been practicing this for a long time, the discomfort I feel when I’m held accountable for something, I do go more into guilt, but it is the result of a lot of practice.
BB: Let me share some of the things that have worked for me. So, first, understand this: When we go into shame, we’re normally hijacked by the limbic system: Fight, flight, parasympathetically freeze. The pain of shame is enough that it triggers that survival part of our brain where we run, hide, we come out swinging. Part of what we have to do in these moments where we’re held accountable is get the pre-frontal cortex back online, because if you imagine the front of your forehead, we have this pre-frontal cortex where we… It’s our executive center. We think, we rationalize, we organize. It’s great. It does all of that work. The limbic system, which is that really kind of reptile brain, the fight, flight or freeze, unfortunately, when it’s activated, the pre-frontal cortex comes online. So the first thing to do to regulate shame in these moments is to pull our thinking brain back online. So, I have a mantra for that, especially as it relates to racism, and sexism, homophobia, heterosexism.
BB: Let me just tell you a story. I’m going to stop for a second, and I’m going to tell you this story. Despite all the bullshit tweets that I get, and the comments where they say, “Don’t be political. Go back to being a spiritual writer.” A., I’ve never been a spiritual writer, and I’ve always been political. I’ve been an activist for 30 years. At least. At least. I went to the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, because they had the only political social work concentration in the nation. And I have taught Women’s Studies, I have taught Feminist Practice.
BB: And let me tell you a true story. One day, I was on an airplane. This was probably, I don’t know, maybe 15 years ago. I was a faculty person, and I think I was probably teaching feminist practice during this… Oh, I was teaching Feminist Practice and Women’s Studies because… Women’s Issues, because I came back and told my class the story. And I was flying to a critical race theory and feminist pedagogy conference. Like, I was full on, right? And I get on the plane, and I’m sitting there, and the co-pilot comes out of the cockpit, and it’s a woman, and I say, “Right on, man! This is right on. This is amazing. I love this.”
BB: And about two minutes later, the pilot comes out of the cockpit, and it’s also a woman. And my first thought is, “Holy shit! Are they out of real pilots? I mean, what is happening here? Where are the real pilots? Why is this the girl pilot venture? Where are the real pilots? Holy Jesus! I gotta get off this flight. This is not even funny. You’re going to have to experiment with the girl pilots on your own time. I’m getting the F off this plane right now.” That was my first thought. Literally! My first thought is, “We’re going to crash because there are girl pilots.” Just like Ibram Kendi said, “Racism rained down on our heads from the day we were born,” I wasn’t raised where Wonder Woman was raised, on an island of amazing women. I wasn’t raised there.
BB: I was raised here, actually, in Texas, where we were basically taught, “You need to be a cheerleader and marry a quarterback, and that’s success.” I wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader until I was probably 12. Everything else has been unlearning and learning, and brutal unlearning and learning. They call it consciousness raising, because that conscious comes up through our heart and out the top of our heads, and it’s painful. I had to talk myself into… I had to say, like, “Brené, what are you thinking? Think about what you’re saying right now, that you think we’re going to crash because we got girl pilots? Think about what you’re saying.” And as I started to bring my pre-frontal cortex back online and think, like, “Is this what I believe? Do I believe that we’re at risk because there’s two female pilots? No. And in fact, I’m pretty sure I could land this plane.”
BB: And so, just accepting in us that white supremacy has been our silent stealth teacher. And starting from this belief that “I’ve got these beliefs and I don’t want them, and when you hold me accountable for them, even if it’s uncomfortable, I’m going to listen.”
BB: So, let me go back to the mantras that I have and the little hacks that I use in these moments. Number one, my mantra. And it’s huge for me, which is: “I am here to get it right, I am not here to be right. I am here to get it right, I am not here to be right.” Then I have a whole blind spot indicator system, like in my car, I have these blind spot indicators close to my side mirrors, that if someone’s in my blind spot, they go off. We gotta build those in our lives. So, one of the blind spot indicators that I have, one of the lights that I look for in my life, is when I start thinking, “You know what? This has gone too far now.” Uh-oh. Indicator light: What’s gone too far? The protest, the activism, the requests, the shift in language, the things I have to change? Wait a minute. Blind spot indicator. Blind spot indicator. Has it really gone too far, or has it not gone far enough and I’m on board? Think through it.
BB: Second blind spot indicator: “Why are you making me feel bad?” No one’s making me feel jack. I’m feeling. I’m in charge of my emotions, I’m in charge of regulating them. This is blind spot indicator number three for me, which is: Transform and roll out. Repeat: Transform and roll out. Now, if you’ve got a kid that’s been into the Transformers, then you’ll know what that is. “Transform and roll out” is our armoring-up process. So I studied this when I was doing the research on Dare to Lead, where what I realized is that the greatest barrier to courage is not fear. The greatest barrier to courage is armor, is how we self-protect when we’re afraid. And I studied the arming-up process and just in preparation for this podcast, did I realize that this armoring-up process is so applicable to white supremacy.
BB: So let me go through the six stages of armoring-up, let me take you through a scenario. So, let me give you a real scenario of something that I did… That I said in Instagram. I did a post on Instagram, I don’t know, six months ago, maybe, five months ago, I don’t remember, but I said… I named some actor, and I said, “This actor is my spirit animal.” And within seconds, I had comments that said, “Ooh. That’s very hurtful to indigenous people.” “The term of having ‘spirit animals’ is a really sacred, important thing.” “It’s appropriation.” “It’s not thoughtful, Brené.” And some of them said, a couple of them, which, I don’t know, said the harsher things, but basically, it was like, “We really shouldn’t be using the term ‘spirit animal.'”
BB: And so I was like, “God, that makes complete sense.” I was like, “Okay, I’m here to get it right.” And at first I go, it’s not like, “Oh, thank you for the feedback”; it’s like, my face got hot. “Oh, God. Oh, my God, what did I do?” Now I’ve got 10 million followers across all social or something crazy, but I’m like, “Oh, my God, what did I do?” I changed it, “How do I do this?” And then I’m like, “Breathe. You’re here to get it right, not to be right. You’re here to get it right, not to be right.” So, I changed it in the post, but then I acknowledged in the comments that I had changed it in the post and said, “Thank you for the teaching, I really appreciate it.”
BB: So let’s say I got defensive. Let’s say I went into this armoring-up. So number one of the roll out and transform, tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk-tsk, building the armor: “I’m not enough.” Number two: If I’m honest with them about what’s happening, they’ll think less of me, or maybe even use it against me. If I say, “God, you’re right. That is appropriation,” then they’ll use that against me. Number three: “No way am I going to be honest about this. No one else does it. Why do I have to put myself out there?” Number four: “Yeah, you know what, screw them. I don’t see them being honest about what scares them. I don’t see them being us about mistakes, and they’ve got plenty of issues, too, trust me.” Number five: “You know what? This is actually their problem. This is their shortcomings that make them act this way, this is their ultra-sensitivity, this is… They’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so fragile.’ This is their fault, and they’re trying to blame me for their own weirdness. No way.” Number six: “In fact, now that I think about this, I’m actually better than them.”
BB: And I wrote this, really, as the observed armoring-up process in leadership scenarios. But what’s interesting about it, to me, is that it is definitely the same armoring-up process that we use when we’re held accountable for racism and we feel shame. And people think this armoring-up starts with “I’m not enough” and ends with “I’m better than people.” And people think there’s a long walk, like a mile-long walk, between “I’m not good enough” and “I’m better than,” but let me tell you, that walk is no walk. “I’m better than people” and “I’m not enough” is the exact same standing still position of pain and shame.
BB: I think in addition to the indicator lights and kind of building those in your life, one critically important thing to understand is we solve the problem of accountability with action. One way to move… Once we get back into our thinking brain, once we pull that pre-frontal cortex back online and we can think and organize our thoughts and use language to get a handle on things, then it’s action. It’s “What am I going to do differently? How am I going to show up differently? What choices, different choices, am I going to make moving forward? How am I going to think about the language that I’m using? And how am I going to think about how I’m showing up?” Change, action, is probably the best cure for the shame we experience around accountability.
BB: So I’m going to do another podcast at some point on shame resilience, fully moving through shame while maintaining your authenticity, coming out of a shame experience with more courage, more compassion, feeling more deeply connected, but for now, here’s one thing that will help you as you start to think about taking responsibility for regulating your own emotional experience of shame. One of the things that the research participants who had the highest shame resilience shared in common was they physically recognized when they were in shame. We all have physical symptoms of shame. And so, for me, when shame washes over me, I know exactly what happens: Time slows down, I get tunnel vision, my mouth gets dry, and my armpits tingle, and I know that’s weird.
BB: But let me ask you this: If you think about the last time you experienced shame, close your eyes and really think about it, which is actually a very good exercise because you’re thinking about it, you’re brought back into that feeling, do we want to remember the wound, not become the wound, and then we want to come back out and think, we’re like adding that pre-frontal cortex piece, but think about the last time you were in shame and what it feels like. It’s very much the symptoms of trauma, so if I’m driving down 610, big freeway here in Houston, and it’s pouring down rain, and the 18-wheeler in front of me jackknifes, let me tell you exactly what my bodily response would be to that: Time would slow down, I’d go into tunnel vision, my mouth would get dry, and my armpits would tingle.
BB: So, when we can recognize our physical symptoms of shame, our body responds way before our minds can get there, because A, again, hijacked by the limbic system, but our bodies feel emotion first, that’s why we call them feelings. So, one of the things it will help you in this process is start to physically recognize when you’re in shame. I do the don’t text, talk, or type when I recognize those bodily symptoms. That’s also when I start saying to myself, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right. I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Watch the transform and roll out, watch the transform and roll out. Those things are part of me labeling what’s happening, acknowledging what’s happening, so I can regulate and appropriately feel my way through what’s happening.
BB: So, last point that I want to make, again, about why shame is on a social justice tool and why feeling shame when we’re held accountable is not the same as being shamed is that we can’t use shame as a social justice tool, because shame kills empathy, and empathy is the foundation of love and justice. So, here’s how this works: Empathy is other-focused. It’s other-focused, we call it an other-focused emotion. It draws our attention outward toward the other person’s experience. When we’re truly practicing empathy, our attention is fully focused on another person. We’re trying to understand their experience. We only have thoughts of self in order to draw on how our own experiences can help us understand what someone else is going through.
BB: Shame is very egocentric, self-involved. It draws our focus inward. Our only concern with others is…When we feel shame, our only concern about anybody else is to wonder if they’re judging us. So shame and empathy are incompatible. When we’re feeling shame, our inward focus overrides our ability to think about another person’s experience. We become less able to offer empathy. We’re incapable of processing information about other people unless that information specifically pertains to their view of us, which becomes really self-absorbed, and you can…
BB: Rachel Cargle was doing this incredible work, if you don’t follow her on Instagram, follow her, because she is doing this kind of unlearning, teaching, where she deconstructs things that people say and talks about this thing exactly but in real time. Austin Channing Brown, amazing work in her book I’m Still Here, around these things, like when you’re held accountable and you experience shame, we’ve gotta regulate that emotion and get out of it before you respond, otherwise, you’re going to double down, ask for the person who’s holding you accountable, who is probably the person who was hurt by it, to make you feel better, to teach you, which is not their job. They call shame the master emotion for a reason. It’s so powerful.
BB: I think shame resilience has to be part of our anti-racism practice because it just doesn’t serve the anti-racism work, and again, our job to own that and do that work on our own. I also want to say that we have become accountability phobic. Look, accountability is not comfortable. I’m held accountable all the time, and I hold people accountable. It’s like, it’s so interesting, I just did this…I just send a tweet out because I’m in Houston and where it’s a disaster in Texas right now because we opened too early because we’re Texas and we’re like rugged individualism, look at us, bars open, restaurants open, masks are for sissies. This whole thing, and we’re dying now, and we’re sick, and it’s scary.
BB: And I send a tweet out to the Lieutenant Governor and the Governor of Texas saying, “What is the plan moving forward? Here’s what science is saying. Here’s what epidemiologist are saying. What is the plan? And how does your plan hold them accountable? You’re not leading us in a brave way, if you’re not taking science into consideration.” And I got all these tweets back saying, “I can’t believe you, of all people, are shaming and blaming. You’re shaming and blaming.” And that’s accountability, people. Like those folks work for me. And I’m not name-calling, I’m not putting down, I’m not belittling, I’m not humiliating; I am holding accountable. And we’ve gotten so far away from that, which is another terrible by-product of using shame. We rant and we rave and we say, “These stupid losers, and these assholes, and these this and that,” and we do nothing else. We feel better, but nothing happens, because accountability is work.
BB: It’s my job as a citizen to hold people accountable for protecting our state and our citizens. Shame is name-calling, put-downs, “You’re a bad person.” Accountability is “You’re not doing your job.” We need to step back and think a little bit about accountability. And as we’re stepping back, I think that’s part of what the work that I’m trying to do right now and the work that I’m inviting people to do right now, especially, because, look, I know when we believe we’re being called racist, we go into shame, I know that. But our doubling down on “I’m not racist” is getting in the way of real work.
BB: So, can we take a deep breath? Take a minute, let me think about that. Thank you for the feedback. I need to give it some thought. When we’re in shame, we’re not fit for human consumption. Like my motto is “Don’t talk, text, or type. Don’t talk, text, or type. Don’t talk, text, or type” until I’m out of it and my thinking brain is back online. We can do this, but interestingly starts with accountability, which is holding ourselves, I think, accountable for experiencing and regulating our own emotions.
BB: I appreciate y’all listening. I hope it was valuable. I know I get a little evangelical about the shame stuff, and it’s just probably the product of studying it for the last 20 years, and also seeing how our inability to regulate our own shame is getting in the way and piling hurt on people who are already hurting.
BB: So, next week, I’m going to do something new. I’m going to do an AMA, an ask me anything. And it can be really anything. I’m not even going to pick a topic, but I’ll pick a few of your questions and we’ll play them on the podcast, so if you’d like to ask a question, 281-436-9703. Again, 281-436-9703. It’ll be in the show notes on brenebrown.com. And we will share your questions, I’ll try to answer it, give it the best shot I have. And PS, you won’t be calling me, like you’ll be calling a voice recorder. I’m not going to be answering, like, “Hey, what’s up? Brené here,” but leave us a question. We’ll do an AMA next week and we’ll see how it goes.
BB: Kind, awkward, brave. Kind, awkward, brave. I’m here to get it right, not to be right. I’m here to get it right, not to be right. Grateful for you. Grateful for this community. Grateful to learn and unlearn together. Take good care.
© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.