Saturday, March 23, 2013

Vulnerability, Shame, Connectivity, Empathy

Friends have turned me on to Brene Brown's work on vulnerability and shame.  (Click on the links for her TED talks on each.)

So I spent the week reading her recent book, Daring Greatly (2012).  (It actually goes quite quickly: it took me the whole week because I had, you know, work and other stuff I had to do instead...)

I really liked this book and what it has to say about how so many people--so many of us, I should say--function, particularly in American culture today.  I love when a book makes me self-aware and gives me food for thought about how we interact with one another, and Brene Brown's TED talks and her book did both of these things for me.

Brown talks about the prevalence of narcissism in contemporary culture.  We all seem to have a bit too much grandiosity (I call it a "love of drama"), we're a bit too inclined to consider ourselves the necessary center of attention, and we're a bit too quick to judge each other negatively.

Empathy is fast becoming a dying art.

Brown argues that, "What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame.  Which means we don't 'fix' it by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness.  Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure" (21).

We judge the person, not the choice.  This is something I am TOTALLY guilty of.  It is just so, so, SOOOO much easier to do.  As Brown points out, "Labeling the problem in a way that makes it about who people are rather than the choices they're making lets all of us off the hook: Too bad.  That's who I am" (22).

If we look at choices, we see patterns of behavior, not people or personalities.  And patterns can change (which means that, over time, people can change too).  But that can't happen if we label the person, and if we shame them into thinking they're just bad people.

Brown systematically looks at patterns of behavior through the lens of her research on vulnerability.  People are afraid of being "ordinary," they're afraid of going unnoticed because they think they might be "unnoticeable"--in effect, not "worthy" of love, somehow. 

The underlying emotion in all of this is a sense of shame.  Shame shapes our experience of vulnerability--from our essential unwillingness to experience it to our reaction to its presence in our lives.  Brown distinguishes "shame" from "guilt": "guilt" is feeling bad because of something you've done.

"Shame" is believing you yourself are (or might be) "bad."  So when we experience shame, we fight back, or hide, or both.

As Brown observes, "When we apologize for something we've done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn't align with our values, guilt--not shame--is most often the driving force" (71).

By contrast, "shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better" (72).  After a while we think, "Oh well.  Whatever.  This is who I am."

Brown also distinguishes "shame" from "humiliation."  I had a personal experience with this recently: a conversation that I found downright humiliating.  It made me beyond upset.  I walked away feeling beaten down and sad and frustrated and judged for who I was.

But as the day wore on, I began to feel what one of my friends once referred to as my trademark "very healthy sense of anger."

I don't bottle things up.  I speak.  Or write.  Usually, write.  Because when I speak when I'm in this mindset, I cuss like a sailor.  (Another friend once told me, "It's downright shocking the extensive vocabulary you possess--at both ends of the spectrum.")

Brown cites Donald Klein's observation that shame is something we believe we deserve; humiliation is something we realize we don't deserve.

This was the realization I came to in the aftermath of this conversation, and it enabled me to write to the person who had done the humiliating and politely say, "Hey, hold on a second.  Look.  I didn't deserve that."

Brown argues, "Humiliation feels terrible and makes for a miserable work or home environment" (73).  If you live or work among people who function on the principle that shame is "good" (somehow) and that humiliation is the way to instill an (allegedly) "healthy" sense of shame in those around you, you will find yourself doing one of several things: shutting down, acting out, or fighting back.

It feels like you're beating your head against the wall, quite frankly.  But it's still not as corrosive as shame, because shame is internalized and eats away at you from the inside out.

I have an odd, but effective policy.  I write, and I often get feedback from people about what I write.  Even an email from me is an epistle.  I write.  That's who I am: a writer.

Over the years, I've become very aware of others' insecurities on this issue.  When someone complains about my "long emails" or laughs at them, I no longer internalize that, because I realized years ago that this would render me unable to write.  It would foster a sense of insecurity that would slowly and insidiously eat  away at me and eventually, I would stop writing.

I'd be letting people make me feel ashamed of the fact that I write--and yes, I write prolifically.  (So did Dostoevsky, actually.  So do a lot of wonderful people.)

Writing makes me happy.  It's how I define who I am.  I write and I read, and I define my life's purpose in sharing those ideas and experiences.

If people don't want to participate in that, there's a delete button.  Hit it.  Okay?  Great.  Bye.  Or you can skim.  There's always an option available to you. 

The point is: control your own voice and behavior, don't try to control mine.  Because shame is a power-play, plain and simple, in which people try to get you to eviscerate yourself.

This leads me to my odd but effective policy.  I don't allow anything negative about me to enter my home.  So, if you write me a scathing email or scathing comments, I delete them.  Instantly.  I read, but I don't reread.  GONE.  If I open a rejection letter, I scan it, and if it has any useful criticism, I put it in a folder and set it aside for a while, because usually, if someone is offering you helpful criticism, the sting of rejection will pass quickly and you'll be grateful for the input.

If it's just someone giving me a trashing, I throw it out.  Immediately.  As I tell friends, "I refuse to have anything with hurtful or negative comments about me or my work in my home."

For me, this behavior is symbolic of my unwillingness to internalize humiliation or negativity, to turn it into shame.

As Brown points out, if you're able to realize, "This isn't about me," you're better able to "stay aligned" with your values "while trying to solve the problem."

Recently, as part of the conversation I found humiliating, I was given a lecture about compassion.  As this "advice" was unfolding, I was of two minds.  Compassion doesn't mean you don't hold people accountable for deceitful or hurtful behavior.  You don't pretend it never happened because you'd rather not deal with conflict.  And if you're compassionate, you practice it with everyone.

I was not being treated compassionately in that moment.  Not at all.  I was being humiliated and shamed.

So what to do?  In my experience, you often find yourself embroiled in conflict when you attempt to assert your self-worth in the face of humiliation or shame-spawning conversations.  It turns into a drama of competing narcissisms.

This isn't useful or healthy, in the long run.  It's exhausting.

So, I walk away when I realize what's happening, and I'm trying to get better about achieving that realization sooner rather than later.  There's no shame in any moment in which you learn something about yourself and about others--in which you begin to understand what's best for yourself and for others.

And thanks to Brown's book, I now have something I can think about when I'm away from such situations: cultivating what she refers to as "shame resilience."

When we cultivate shame resilience, we see shame and shaming words or behaviors for what they are, products of "biology and biography" (74).  We run reality-checks on what we're being told and on what others' expectations for us are.  We identify why we ended up feeling the way that we did.

And then, we reach out.  We tell others our story.  This is what I do, both with my good friends, and here on my blog.  One of the greatest realizations I've come to over the course of the past several years is the extent to which people would read my blog and try to use it as a way to play on any expressions of vulnerability it might contain.  In short, they'd try to shame me into silence, through fear or humiliation, or fear of humiliation.

So what I've learned is, discretion is one thing, but empathy is another--and if you value being an empathetic individual as part of your life's purpose, you have to be willing to put yourself out there.  To be vulnerable.  And if someone tries to shame you for doing that, to make you regret the fact that you were vulnerable, you have to see that action for what it is.

It is not a reflection of your self-worth.  If I don't feel guilty about what I've written, why should I be ashamed?  It isn't "bad," and therefore, neither am I.

As Brown argues, "Shame resilience is a strategy for protecting connection--our connection with ourselves and our connections with the people we care about.  But resilience requires cognition, or thinking, and that's where shame has a huge advantage.  When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system" (76).  We go into fight-or-flight mode.

So this has been my mantra lately: don't fight, don't flee.  Step aside and think.

For the past few days, I've been thinking of a favorite song of mine, sung by Edith Piaf, called "Cri du coeur."  It means "Cry of the heart" and the lyrics were written by French poet Jacques Prevert.  One of the verses I especially like reads,

D'autres voix chantent un vieux refrain
C'est leur souvenir, c'est plus le mien
Je n'ai plus qu'un seul cri du coeur:
"J'aime pas le malheur! j'aime pas le malheur!"
Et le malheur me le rend bien
Mais je le connais, il me fait plus peur
Il dit qu'on est mariés ensemble
Même si c'est vrai, je n'en crois rien.

In English:

Other voices sing an old refrain
That's their memory, it's no longer mine.
I have nothing left but a single cry of the heart,
"I don't like unhappiness!  I don't like unhappiness!"
And misfortune repays me in kind
But I understand it, it doesn't frighten me anymore
It says that we're married to each another
But even if that's true, I don't believe it. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."