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Guilt, Shame, & Fear: Why Brene Brown's Work Can Change Your Life

brine brown fear guilt shame and belonging

What Everyone Needs to Know About Guilt, Fear, & Shame

Brene Brown, PhD’s work and research is pure genius. Of all the material, mentors, research, and education I have come across, Brene Brown’s work has been the most impactful on my personal and professional life. In this blog entry, I am going to do my best at summarizing her theories, writings, and genius. I implore you to read her books, watch her Ted Talks, and listen to her lectures and interviews. She is worth it. Some of her material: Her famous, Rising Strong (2015), Daring Greatly (2014), The Gifts of Imperfection (2012), “The Power of Vulnerability” (Audio CD), “The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting” (Audio CD), various interviews on podcast stations

Who is Brene Brown and What Does She Research:

"I was raised to believe vulnerability was weakness. That you get up, armor up, kick some ass, and don't show emotion. You mitigate uncertainty and risk as much as you can....However, that's not how vulnerability ended up in the data. Vulnerability ended up being our best measurement of courage. Vulnerability was important."

--Brene Brown, from The Tim Ferris Show podcast

Dr. Brene Brown is a research professor who interviews thousands of people, reads thousands of stories and finds patterns and themes in everyone’s stories. That doesn’t sound that intriguing, does it? Well, I can guarantee that once you read her work, listen to her stories, you start realizing that she is GENIUS at putting words to the feelings/actions/things we do (or don’t do) when we never even realized we were doing them or feeling them. Her work allows us to understand the deeper motivation and meaning behind our actions and feelings (Thereby, understanding the deeper meaning behind the actions/feelings we’d like to change or make better). As she says, her research isn’t a “How-To” list of things to do to create happiness. Her work allows everyone to finally understand the ways we inhibit our own joy, happiness, and fulfillment.

Some of Her Main Research Points:

1) We (humans) are created and are neurobiogically reinforced (rewarded and punished) to connect with others. We have lots of “feel good” hormones that come out when we fall in love, have deep talks with loved ones, have babies, etc. Conversely, we have “yucky” feelings when we argue, feel guilty for our behavior, disappoint someone, or lose connection with loved ones.

2) We are built with an innate, unavoidable urge to connect with others, be loved by others, and “belong”. Wherever there are issues of feeling disconnected, there is great suffering (disconnection with family, not fitting in, feeling like you're abnormal/flawed/wrong, trying to assimilate within a culture or race).

3) We regularly “fight” subconscious and unconscious “voices” or “shame triggers” in our thought process that tell us that we are unworthy of love and belonging. We are FEARFUL of disconnection from others. Therefore, we “hide” parts of ourselves (things we’re ashamed of) in hopes of keeping connection. We become AFRAID of making ourselves vulnerable or “fully exposed” to others, so that we don’t have to feel abandoned or unloved, if they were to stop loving us, wanting to be our friends, or reject us in some way.

4) SHAME IS THE VOICE TELLING US THAT WE ARE UNWORTHY OF LOVE AND BELONGING. Fears and shame of being unworthy or unloved stop us from living authentically and experiencing true joy and contentment in life.

Those not living authentic lives are often empty inside and seek "intensity" outside themselves in order to feel alive (i.e. drugs, sex, over-spending, over-eating, overly focusing on looking good or becoming successful)

The Whole Hearted

During Dr. Brown’s research she continued to find patterns of people who were happy, content, and living a fulfilling, worthwhile life. She was curious to know the causation and correlations involved with their happiness and contentment. She found that these people, who she called “The Whole Hearted”, lived their lives loving others and loving life whole-heartedly regardless of histories of trauma, hurt, failed marriages, addiction, and other painful experiences. They were not happy because they avoided “unhappy experiences”. They were happy because they lived their life believing that their painful experiences or character flaws or whatever their issues are DID NOT EXCLUDE THEM FROM THEIR WORTHINESS OF LOVE AND BELONGING. THESE PEOPLE BELIEVED THAT LOVE AND BELONGING WERE NON-NEGOTIABLE. She also found some other characteristics that the Whole-Hearted tended to have (see below)


Make time to play

Make time to rest

Have a profound sense of hope

Have and use creative outlets

They do not “waste” their suffering/painful experiences by becoming bitter and resentful

They remain willing to be vulnerable in relationships



Use exhaustion (over-working or performing) as a status symbol


Spend a lot of time worrying about what other people think

Focused on performance and productivity

Concerned about proving oneself

On a quest for certainty

One who compares him/herself to others


Dr. Brown’s research continued to show that VULNERABILITY WAS AT THE CORE OF A MEANINGFUL HUMAN EXPERIENCE. Being vulnerable to others can open us up to pain and hurt (i.e. when people leave us or betray us, when we fail at something) so we tend to avoid making ourselves vulnerable or we feel like it’s a form of weakness or lack of control. However, vulnerability is also the birthplace of the greatest forms of love, creativity, and the foundation of all fulfilling experiences in life (i.e. loving someone, raising children, accomplishing something that was challenging). None of those things can be accomplished without a willingness to make yourself vulnerable. Your capacity to live whole-heartedly is only as full as your willingness to courageously chance getting hurt or failing. Vulnerability is the courage to show up and BE SEEN in life without fear of disconnection, hurt, or failure--because you're always "good enough, smart enough, and doggonit, people like you." --Stewart Smiley, SNL

Vulnerability and Gender Roles

Dr. Brown became an international sensation when she implored us all to be vulnerable and courageous in our lives. However, she found that our social norms and gender roles created an environment that was extremely intolerant of flaws and ability to sit with another person’s vulnerabilities. She explains (and this is paraphrased): Show me a woman who can sit with a man in a vulnerable state and continue to be truthful, vulnerable and not fearful and I will show you a woman who has done great work on herself and doesn’t derive her power from that man. Conversely, show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle but just see her, hear her, and hold space for it while not trying to fix it and I will show you a man who has done great work on himself and doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing. Dr. Brown tells a story about a man reporting to her that he wants to be vulnerable (and possibly weak and imperfect sometimes) but his wife and kids wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. “They would rather I die on top of my white horse before watching me fall off it.” In summary, our culture and family system don't allow men to be “weak”. Women’s shame triggers are different. There are direct and indirect messages telling women to do it all, look perfect, and make it all look effortless. Any delineation of that is a shame trigger.

We need to know our shame triggers. We need to be tolerant of others attempts to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not weakness.

When We Struggle and Experience Compassion

When we struggle its our first instinct to hide our “weakness” and put on a façade to others. However, those who live whole-heartedly, do not hide their struggles. They say, “Yeah, this is hard and I’m struggling but I’m still worthy of love and belonging”. The whole-hearted also name their emotions (shame, guilt, sadness, frustration, anger) and do not blame others (Blame is a discharge of pain onto someone or something else). Compassion is not about one “healed” and whole person sitting with a broken person in distress or pain, its about two people able to sit in the sadness and the pain, together, and tolerate it.

Final Points:

1. You can only love and give others as much grace as you give yourself. For instance, you can try to raise your children without shame but if you’re constantly using shame self-talk, they will watch and learn.

2. Life is uncertain. People fall short because we’re all imperfect and fallible. We hurt others on purpose or indirectly. Does the pain you’ve experienced from disappointment and fallible people cause you to avoid becoming close to others or take chances? People try to control uncertainty by trying to manipulate their circumstances. For instance, we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable to rejection by others, so we only present what we feel others want to see versus showing others our TRUE, AUTHENTIC SELF.

3. The most miserable people are the biggest “control-freaks”. The more one tries to control/manipulate the people and circumstances around them, the more miserable that person becomes (Why? See #2).

4. Vulnerability is not weakness. Its freedom from the insanity of trying to manipulate and control what is not controllable. It’s the contentment of giving yourself grace because you’re flawed and showing others the same grace because they are flawed, too.


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