At first glance these seem pretty heavy subjects – vulnerability and shame. Actually they don’t just seem heavy they really are! But please don’t stop reading!  According to Brene Brown in the TED talk below vulnerability and shame also hold the key to living a whole-hearted life – that is a life of courage and authenticity. If you are a regular reader of this blog my hunch is that you too hunger for this.


If courage and authenticity is something you aspire to then please don’t allow your initial negative reaction to vulnerability and shame hold you back from watching the talk if you haven’t seen it yet. Quoting Brown from her book, ‘Daring Greatly How The Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead’:

“Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

So what do we actually mean by vulnerability?

Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.’ From the original dictionary definition the root word includes ‘capable of being wounded’ and ‘open to attack or damage’. So it is far from comfortable and not a place any of us naturally want to be.

Here are some examples of vulnerability Brown received from her research. As you read them do reflect on the feelings and emotions they provoke inside of you:

  • Sharing an unpopular opinion
  • Standing up for myself
  • Asking for help
  • Saying no
  • Starting my own business
  • Helping my 37 year old wife with stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
  • Initiating sex with my wife
  • Initiating sex with my husband
  • Calling a friend whose child has just died
  • Signing up my mum for hospice care
  • The first date after my divorce
  • Saying ‘I love you’ first and not knowing if I am going to be loved back.
  • Getting promoted and not knowing if I’m going to succeed
  • Getting fired
  • Falling in love
  • Trying something new
  • Bringing my new boyfriend home
  • Getting pregnant after 3 miscarriages
  • Waiting for the biopsy to come back
  • Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
  • Admitting I am afraid
  • Setting up to the plate after a series of strikeouts
  • Telling my CEO that we won’t make payroll next month
  • Laying off employees
  • Presenting my product to the world and getting no response
  • Standing up for myself and for friends when someone else is critical or gossiping
  • Being accountable
  • Asking for forgiveness
  • Having faith

We tend to instinctively think vulnerability is weakness and so we shy away from it.
But the closer you examine it the more you being to realise vulnerability is not weakness. As you read the examples above it becomes clear that vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. So while truth and courage are often not comfortable, they are certainly not weakness.

In order to be truly vulnerable, Brown argues, we need to develop resilience to shame

But then what does shame look like? Here are the conclusions Brown says she always starts with when discussing shame:

  1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive  human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: (con)fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.
  2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
  3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

Through her research Brown has identified 12 shame categories that include appearance and body image; money and work; motherhood/fatherhood; family; parenting; mental and physical health; addiction; sex; ageing; religion; surviving trauma and being stereotyped and labelled.

Here are examples of shame given to Brown during her research:

  • Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
  • Shame is having someone ask me, “When are you due?” when I am not pregnant
  • Shame is hiding the fact I am in recovery
  • Shame is raging at my kids
  • Shame is my boss calling me an idiot in front of the client
  • Shame is not making partner
  • Shame is my husband leaving me for my next door neighbour
  • Shame is my wife asking for a divorce and telling me she wants children, but not with me
  • Shame is my DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol
  • Shame is infertility
  • Shame is telling my fiancé that my dad lives in France when in fact he is in prison
  • Shame is internet porn
  • Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
  • Shame is hearing my parents fight through the walls and wondering if I am the only one who feels this afraid.

Raw and uncomfortable as these examples are, there is a pathway through these paralysing and all consuming emotions. This Brown calls stress resilience, the result of which is empathy and healing.

I appreciate this is only a relatively superficial overview, but what reflections, comments and insights does this evoke for you?

(Also see A Different Kind Of Freedom Fighter)