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“Public Shame to the Rescue,” blazed the headline of a prominent website barely a week into the American version of the worldwide coronavirus shutdown. “What could be more effective than a little public shaming?” the author asked in the first paragraph, going on to try to document the rise of shame on social media as a tool for curbing undesirable behavior.1 If there was an ever a moment to pause and consider the use of such a powerful phenomenon as shame, this is it.
Into the breach steps self-styled shame expert Brené Brown, distinguished for her research of that fearsome subject, counselor to today’s most prominent self-help and pop-theological female voices. Her podcast, Unlocking Us,2 premiered two days after my own family was quarantined for what our doctor hoped was not COVID-19. As I anxiously separated sick children into their separate rooms and furiously disinfected my house, I was propelled up and down the stairs by the soothing humor of Brown interviewing Glennon Doyle Melton, Tarana Burke, and others.
Brown is the one to whom the most prominent voices of today turn, not only for functional models for coping with shame, but for the deeper counsels of what to believe about the self, and the self in relationship to others. She is the font, the source, and the sociological justification of a self-oriented worldview increasingly adopted by so many, including Christian women. But she is celebrated in her own right, not just as counselor to this moment’s influencers.
Shame Is Everywhere
If you mention Brené Brown anywhere, the immediate response is always, “That was a great TED Talk.” Indeed, if you are reading this and haven’t seen her 2010, fourth most viewed presentation, “The Power of Vulnerability,”3 you should stop and watch it. The twenty minutes will show you an engaging, warm-hearted, funny, thoughtful academic committed not only to psycho-social cultural research, but to integrating her findings into her own life. Here is not some ivory-towered professor, lecturing the harried, isolated American woman who cannot get herself together. Here is a scholar who looks real people in the eye, listens attentively, and permits the implications of her conclusions to permeate her own soul.
A month spent with the voice of Brené Brown echoing in my ears made me sensitive to the voices clanging around me — my own negative self-talk, the deep rushing river of perfectionism that propels me out of bed every morning, and most of all, the nebulous “cultural” assumptions that swirl online, steeping me in a morass of unattainable expectations about who I should be, what I should feel, and how I should order my life. In other words, at a pragmatic, primal level, Brown exposes the pressures faced by a majority of women in America today. Her message is a crucial summons to self-examination, to a life more fully lived.
I found, however, that Brown stops short of reckoning with the deepest roots of shame, and therefore, her approach is not a substantial relief from persistent, shame-addled existential questions of the soul. By side-stepping the original source of shame — sin — and the reparative healing of the cross, Brown misses the effective hope offered by God in Christ who absorbs shame and covers the exposed and naked with His own goodness.
What Is Shame?
The first task is to establish what shame is. “Shame,” writes Brown in I Thought It was Just Me, “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”4 She arrived at this definition by interviewing hundreds of women about their experiences with shame. Phrases like these emerged from her research:
- Shame is that feeling in the pit of your stomach that is dark and hurts like hell. You can’t talk about it and can’t articulate how bad it feels because then everyone would know your “dirty little secret.”
- Shame is being rejected.
- You work hard to show the world what it wants to see. Shame happens when your mask is pulled off and the unlikable parts of you are seen. It feels unbearable to be seen.
- Shame is feeling like an outsider — not belonging.
- Shame is hating yourself and understanding why other people hate you too.
- I think it’s about self-loathing.
- Shame is like a prison. But a prison that you deserve to be in because something’s wrong with you.
- Shame is being exposed — the flawed parts of yourself that you want to hide from everyone are revealed. You want to hide or die.5
In her recent Netflix special, Brown went on to say that “shame is the feeling that you would get if you walked out of a room that was filled with people who know you and they start saying such hurtful things about you that you don’t know if you could ever walk back in and face them again in your life.”6
Brown’s definition is helpful for at least three reasons. First, it reveals the disconnection felt by so many women between the expectations of what Brown calls society7 and the degree to which those expectations are accepted as fair or realistic. So much of a sense of shame arises out of the failure to measure up to the external standards relentlessly communicated through media and advertising. Women are the primary consumers in today’s economy. Insinuating shame about the body, in particular, but also emotional happiness and life circumstances, is proven to drive sales. Women internalize these messages, even when they know they are being sold a lie, because of the near universal dissatisfaction, and even shame, that women naturally feel about their bodies.
Second, her definition highlights the contradictory messages that women embrace about themselves. The idea that “You can have it all” rubs shoulders with “Be a perfect mother.” “Don’t settle for anything less than success” collides with “Nobody’s perfect.” Brown elucidates this humorously in I Thought It Was Just Me, describing one of those unavoidable occasions when every part of a fractured sense of self comes into sharp relief as roles collide. Mother’s Day just happened to fall on the very weekend she had been elected to speak at her university’s graduation ceremonies. And, just to underscore the pressure, her daughter’s ballet recital and Teacher Appreciation day made it a perfect time for the grandparents to descend and enjoy the festivities. Brown’s anxiety about keeping all the logistical balls flying in the air without any one part of her identity crashing to the ground reached a fever pitch when she found herself staring into the eyes of her child’s beloved elementary school teacher and blatantly lying about the existence of promised homemade cookies. Perfect mother expectation crashed violently into perfect professor, which toppled over perfect daughter. The aftermath left her feeling emotionally bruised and isolated.8
Third, this definition illumines the disconnection that women feel within their communities and families. Women in American society, despite so many technological “helps” such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, are increasingly risk averse. When they do manage to make meaningful connections with other women, those connections are subject to the glass shards of judgment and indifference.
If there is a single theme throughout Brown’s work, it is that shame drives people, women especially, away from themselves and each other into the netherworld of depression, addiction, perfectionism, discontent, and anxiety. It is a strong, bitter force, what she calls a “silent epidemic.”9 It can be blamed for a vast number of the emotional problems that women face, if not all of them, and it needs a cure.
Shame Resilience, Empathy, and the Power of Vulnerability
The experience of shame is universal and inevitable. Benjamin Kilborne, in his fascinating article “Fields of Shame,” elucidates a study done with infants and shame. He writes:
In phase two, the mother is instructed to sit opposite the child, making eye contact but no facial expressions whatsoever. For a short while the child will try to make faces at the mother. Then, when there is no response, the infant will either burst out in tears of distress or slump down, averting its eyes from the mother’s face. It is hypothesized that since the infant is too dependent on the mother to entertain the idea that she might abandon or disappoint it, the infant tries to evacuate disappointment and fear, then feels ashamed of what it needs to hide or get rid of, anticipating rejection should its mother know these feelings. Thus, shame masks shame, which masks still more shame; one becomes ashamed of being ashamed, and defenses against being found out build one on top of another.10
Curt Thompson concurs, describing the way shame functions within the brain, embedding neural pathways that become difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. “Shame,” he says, “makes its way into our stories at an early age. So early, in fact, that we usually have no conscious memory of our initial encounters with it.”11 He describes what he calls a sheering: “A deep sense of self-consciousness emerges; cognition becomes fuzzy as our thoughts are disabled; words may be hard to find (if we are old enough to form them); and the mind becomes caught in a vortex of images, sensations and thoughts that recycle and feed on each other at light speed, reinforcing the experience.”12
For Brown, such an embedded and universal emotion must be accurately identified as the root of unhappiness or pain. It lives buried in the darkness, producing inauthenticity or worse, addiction and other destructive self-medicating behaviors. Because it cannot be eradicated, the person suffering from shame must develop what she calls shame resilience. “We cannot become resistant to shame,” she writes, “however, we can develop shame resilience. Shame resilience is best conceptualized as a continuum, with shame anchoring one end and empathy anchoring the other end. Our level of shame resilience is determined by our combined ability to recognize shame and our specific triggers, our level of critical awareness, our willingness to reach out to others and our ability to speak shame.”13
Brown’s expression, “speaking shame,” though at first might sound like the act of shaming another, is the practice of identifying shame as shame when it appears. Shame, as she says, is sticky. It attaches itself to everything. It is communicated in silence, in the act of questioning someone’s decisions, in the misery of hearing your mother’s criticism or your father’s disappointment in the back of your head, of trying to fit into a bathing suit. Stopping, speaking the shame, facing it, and moving forward builds the ability to withstand the experience, become stronger, and reach out to others.
Reaching out to others is crucial because, as Brown says, “we are hard-wired for connection.”14 We are not meant to live alone, unattached to the human community. Though we may live in physical proximity to family and work, shame-fed isolation keeps us fractured and emotionally unconnected. Therefore, alongside building shame resilience, Brown advocates what she calls “the power of vulnerability.”15 Vulnerability is not mere self-disclosure — letting people know everything about you, the “over-share.” Vulnerability is having the courage to take emotional risks with others. When a person or a family or a company or, better yet, a whole society chooses to build a culture of vulnerability, creativity and ingenuity inevitably prosper.16
What About Shame Though?
There is one crucial way in which Brown, by not considering the deeper roots of shame, fails to make all the connections that are necessary for dealing effectively with shame. She hints at it many times but doesn’t probe into its depths. This is the question of worthiness, which is fundamentally a question of sin. Look again at her basic definition of shame: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” Her solution — building shame resilience — alludes to the bending flexibility of a tree that can bow low before a great storm, and stand upright again when the wind ceases. The shame is something that passes over, leaving the essentially whole, well, person in its wake. But what if the shame isn’t just something that exists out there? What if shame, as opposed to guilt, which is the sense that I have done something wrong, is felt because something inside the person is wrong or broken? What if wrong action flows out of a broken orientation? In fact, I would argue, while human beings feel shame for a whole world of reasons, some of them justified and some not, one of the primary reasons that people feel shame, as members of the human family, is because of a corporate and individual rejection of God.
Brown never addresses the question of sin. Indeed, in her Netflix special, Brown says this: “You let people into your life because they love you, not in spite of, but because of your imperfections” (emphasis added).17 The most that could be wrong with a person are their “imperfections,” which can be superseded through the courageous practices of vulnerability and empathy. Though she often describes scenarios and occasions when she, her friends, and the subjects of her research do wrong things, she never probes down to the roots of those wrong doings. Lying to her child’s elementary school teacher is the result of stress, of having too many roles to juggle. It could not be because she, as a member of the human family, has a deep proclivity to lie to herself, to others, and to God. The solution — to seek empathy and understanding from a friend — does not begin to touch the broken self that, out of fear, lies. Her humorous example of shame unwittingly gets to the very heart of shame itself: we have committed ourselves to sin, and death — we have made ourselves “worthless.”
That sense of worthlessness is the key. In the well-worn Biblical creation narrative, God made Adam and Eve in his own image and gave them dominion over every living thing.18 The beauty of the garden, the joy of their common work, and more importantly, their life in His presence all communicated the high honor God bestowed upon His creatures. They were worthy because God, who made them, is worthy. This worth was put into sharp relief by the choice then set before them. Everything about their lives depended on their connection to Him. When they disobeyed Him, which was an open rejection not only of God Himself, but of everything that He had made, including themselves, they experienced shame for the first time. They discovered themselves to be, in the language of Genesis, naked and ashamed.19 They rejected their own worth when they rejected Him. When I look in the mirror and feel unworthy, it is because I have cut myself off from the source of my worth — God. The feeling I have is just and right. It is a mercy of God to let me feel it, so that I will be compelled to do something about it — not build resilience to the feeling so that I can better endure it, but to be completely delivered of it forever by being found worthy in God on the basis of who He is, rather than who I am.
Is Joy Possible?
In her Netflix special, Brown says that “Joy is the most vulnerable of all human emotions.”20 Brown is more perceptive than she knows. Joy is to look upon the One who, in cataclysmic reversal, took the shameful, naked rebellion of Adam and Eve and all their inheritors onto Himself, absorbing it so completely that every spot and stain is removed from the one who looks on Him to live. Looking there, seeing the forgiving love of the one who holds all worth, who has the power to destroy shame, does produce deep joy, that astounding vulnerability available only to the one whose life is hidden in the everlasting and unshakable love of Christ.
The subjective experience of shame cannot be eradicated in this life, nor should it be. Besides, in many cases, being the guard rails of social life,21 it has the spiritual value of driving unworthy sinners to the objective work of the cross of Christ for the mercy and forgiveness that eternally do away with shame. Although Brown is helpful for working out the practical experience of shame and its day-to-day implications, insofar as she rejects the cross,22 she fails to offer a life of freedom, worth, honor, connection, joy, and especially love.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016) and blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace, a blog on Patheos.com, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/preventingrace/.
- Jeva Lange, “Public Shame to the Rescue,” The Week, March 24, 2020, https://theweek.com/articles/904078/public-shame-rescue.
- Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, can be found here: https://brenebrown.com/unlockingus/.
- Brown’s TEDxHouston Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_the_power_of_vulnerability.
- Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame, Kindle Edition (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2007), 5.
- Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, 4–5.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage, directed by Sandra Restrepo, Netflix, Los Angeles, Royce Hall, 2019, https://www.netflix.com/title/81010166.
- Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, 178.
- Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, 34.
- Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, 2.
- Benjamin Kilborne, “Fields of Shame: Anthropologists Abroad,” Ethos 20, 2 (June 1992): 233, JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/640387?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A538bae4716471504606d325cf596f5d7&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
- Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves, Kindle Edition (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 62–63.
- Thompson, The Soul of Shame, 66.
- Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me, 268.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
- Genesis 1 and 2.
- See Genesis 2:25 and 3:7.
- Brené Brown: The Call to Courage.
- For a brief, helpful discussion, see John Amodeo, “The Power of Healthy Shame,” Psychology Today, August 18, 2016, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/intimacy-path-toward-spirituality/201608/the-power-healthy-shame.
- Brown discusses her faith on Jen Hatmaker’s podcast, For the Love, “For the Love Of Moxie Eps 2: Getting Vulnerable With Dr. Brené Brown,” August 22, 2017, https://forthelove.libsyn.com/for-the-love-of-moxie-eps-2-getting-vulnerable-with-dr-bren-brown.