Vulnerability and Shame

Last summer, a friend of mine recommended Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown. The post-it note on which she wrote the title sat on my coffee table for months before I ordered the book. It then took some more time before I read the introduction on my way home from a business trip. When I finally did, I understood why I didn’t want to go near it before then. As the saying goes, “When the seeker is ready, the master will appear.” Before then, I simply wasn’t ready to become intimate with vulnerability, not until I set a conscious intention to follow Rumi’s advice to break down whatever (previously unknown) internal barriers I had built against love.

Daring GreatlyShame: Hers vs. His?

I’m reading Daring Greatly slowly with my book group and really diving into it. Just got through the chapter that looked at shame as one layer of why we’re afraid of vulnerability. Dr. Brown delineates from her research the different ways women vs. men experience shame. To paraphrase her findings, women she studied experience shame as feelings of not enough no matter what they try to be or do, or when they don’t feel they can pull everything off in different parts of their lives with effortless ease and grace—because they feel somehow this is expected of them.

OK, check, I can relate to the women’s list of shame. However, what really hit me was the visceral reaction I got when reading about the ways men experience shame according to Brown’s research. They include a sense of failure, being wrong, revealing any weakness, and showing fear. To quote Brown, “Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.” That really—REALLY—describes at a deep level shame as I fear it.

Because of my rigorous academic training and as a professional researcher, I tend to be skeptical about anything chalked off as gender differences, even with conclusions drawn from empirical research. This experience reading about men’s shame experiences further validates our need to be super careful about declaring any attitudinal or experiential difference to be male vs. female. Rather, the label of gender often simply obscures other factors that shape our beliefs, perspectives, emotional triggers and subconscious/ automatic interpretations of experiences. Allow me to suggest two possible causes disguised as gender differences on this topic.

Previous Life Experiences

When I contemplate shame being caused by appearing weak, I can trace this to a series of life experiences—from being constantly criticized by a former boss for being weak because I cared about the rank and file all the way back to what was drilled into my heart since early childhood. The vast majority of the authority figures who shamed and punished me for being weak in the different decades of my life were women. What they themselves must have been through in their lives to be so terrified of appearing weak, wrong and/or fearful that they had to teach me the hard way to be utterly ashamed of being perceived similarly.

Granted that my acquired sensibilities regarding shame and weakness are partly rooted in a rigid culture and family dynamics (childhood), and partly in a particularly bad case of fear-based leadership, this is the key: I am not a man, and yet I very much experience shame as Brown’s research shows men do. And, though I don’t know the precise count, I’m quite sure I am not the only Chinese and/or professional woman who feels this way. For instance, my part of the world is full of smart, educated and accomplished women who would not dare to show any sign of weakness if their lives depended on it.

Personality, Not Gender, Differences

think differenceLast Friday, while on the phone with my boss, I broke down crying. Because the message that crying is a sign of weakness was still alive and well in my subconscious mind, my shame wire was tripped. I immediately told him I was glad we were on the phone, because I couldn’t allow myself to cry in front of my boss. In response, he took me off speaker and told me it was ok to cry. He knew how hard things were. Then, to assure me further, he told me that he had cried in front of his direct reports even as recent as in 2013 (clearly before I joined!). Crying in front of his team didn’t make him less of a leader, nor would it make me less of one.

Here is a man who is not afraid of appearing weak by showing emotions—and is very comfortable with making it safe for others to show theirs. He embodies more positive traits of feminine leadership than the female boss I had a decade ago, who tore me down day in and day out. I happen to know that he is an intuitive feeler, a personality preference that is supposedly more common among the female population. (I have my doubts about the validity of that conclusion, too, but that would be another post!) I would say that the shame experiences Brown found to be male are really associated with thinking preferences, whether among men or women, especially intuitive thinkers whose core need and motivation is competency. Unfortunately, socialization has created expectations around gender roles that obscure the picture.

What Does This All Mean? Why Does It Matter?

My intention for raising the above isn’t to dismiss Brown’s research or the tremendous contributions she has been making by helping the masses break free from shackles of shame to be authentically vulnerable. Incidentally, she is a top 10 Ted speaker. Indeed, my book group friends and I are finding her book to be extremely valuable and thought-provoking—just the right master for this particular ready seeker. Rather, by writing this post, it is my heartfelt intention that we develop acute awareness and sensitivity to the triggers of shame all around us—our teams, children, friends, community members, etc.—regardless of gender, so that we can help each other shed the unnecessary burdens of shame keeping us from living fully and engaging meaningfully.

If we truly want to create great places to work, groom future generations of authentic, heart-centered leaders, build vibrant and engaged communities, or simply minimize how much unlearning of shame our children will need to do when they grow up, we must do our part—and begin doing so NOW. It starts with being brave enough to examine our own shame triggers, lest we pass them onto those we influence. We can all start with whatever we are ready to do right now and take however long it takes to meet these unsavory feelings, to learn not to be afraid of them, and to release their stranglehold on us.

No matter where you are and who you are, would you consider joining this call to action to transform shame with love? Would you consider daring greatly?


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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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Great insights Alice. I love her work and have watched the Ted Talk and other talks she has given. While this distinction did not stand out for me in the talks I have reviewed, I can completely relate to the points you make here about the book. I have seen these behaviors on both sides of the perceived "gender divide". I tend to operate much like your current male leader and have also worked with female leaders who were grossly insensitive and compelled to be "tough" minded. Perhaps because of these very perceptions and a flawed belief that those "male labeled" behaviors are necessary to succeed. I'm not sure. But as you said, the important thing is to be aware of our own triggers, regardless of gender, and to work at embracing the power of vulnerability. Thanks for another great piece of wisdom.

DrAliceChan moderator

@scott_elumn8Thanks, Scott. You definitely are another proof defying the gender divide. On the point of being tough minded, that does seem to be the common belief that that's what's desirable in a leader in the corporate world. The female CEO who was my boss 10+ years ago certainly believed so. It's based on fear. What can we do to change this erroneous belief?

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