Daring Greatly

The Birth of Shame, and the Shame-Subversive Vulnerability: Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

A culture of scarcity, and the pressure to be stronger than before. This is the primary message our culture delivers to its constituents.  For we are falling short of our standards. That is why we have to be stronger. We have put in more effort, investing our time in more work, and spends more energy on accomplishing more, all in order to gain people’s recognition. Why? Because that’s the only way for us to wash away our sense of self-lacking eating away at our identities? Brené Brown says otherwise in this book. Rather, a pursuit of power as an attempt to cover up our perceived fragility paradoxically gives birth to shame. This is how Brown begins her book Daring Greatly. Then what is shame that finds its rooting in the midst of such cultural landscape, how does it adversely affect us, and what should we do to heal ourselves of shame? Responding to these questions through sharing what she has found in her research constitutes Brown’s book Daring Greatly. How would you answer these questions?  Do you all have your own responses to them? Chances are, since many of you call yourselves Christians, you might be tempted to say declaratively that “Jesus is the answer.” But, does that really solve everything? Have you ever suspected your worthiness as a person? Can you confidently say that you have never felt any anxiety over your own worthiness? No matter how firmly you assert that Jesus is the answer, if you still feel some anxiety, is that because you lack in your faith in God? These are the questions I am throwing at myself and at all of you as readers of this review.

One thing to keep in mind before reading Brown’s Daring Greatly is that all the insights she shares in this book are gained from her interviews on the topic of connection. In order to write this book and some subsequent works, Brown has conducted interviews with 1280 people, has some 400 graduate students assist her in doing research, referred to 3500 secondary articles and other materials, throughout the staggering 12-year period of research, with additional 9-month research wrapping-up period. Originally Brown writes that her research interests center on connection, for she had found in her previous research that we are hardwired for connection.  Surprisingly and unexpectedly, however, in her interviews, she has bumped into the topic of shame over and over again.  Shame is the power of cutting off all relationships. For shame is the emotion we feel in a situation where we are downsized than we think of who we are.  In such situations, we tend to cut off whatever relationships at hand and cave in to our own instincts for self-preservation (This is why Adam and Eve hid themselves before God after they were deceived by the serpent, fearing that God will no longer accept them and love them as they are.)  There is a famous research conducted by the Harvard scholar and his associates on what makes us happy. They traced meticulously through the longitudinal study to discover what makes people truly happy, and surprisingly enough, the usual suspects (money, power, fame) were not the ones making us happy, but good relationships were. According to Brown, shame is the most insidious yet powerful factor inhibiting any strong relationship, for it makes us hide behind our vulnerability armory, which in Brown’s research are three. They are 1. Foreboding joy; 2. Perfectionism; 3. Numbing our feelings.

Brown has found out is that what all of these three vulnerability armory have in common is their deep connection to our proclivities to cover up our vulnerability. As a consequence, shame is our feeble and futile attempt to deny our vulnerability, and the direct antidote to that is to acknowledge it as honestly as possible. Let me explain how Brown goes about unfolding her case here.

There is a Korean show I regularly watch nowadays. It has a former pop music star renting out her house to guests, and there is a well-known singer coming alongside her as an assistant. In the show, they were driving somewhere, talking to each other about happiness. This singer playing the role of assistant tells the host that she tends to suppress any moment of delight, because she was afraid that something awful will visit her if she relishes in any such moments. Brown, to my astonishment, diagnoses that this is one of the common vulnerability armory, foreboding of joy. We forebode our delight and joy because we feel that we are not worthy of such moments, and if we lose ourselves in enjoying such moments, something horrible will happen. So we instinctively shut ourselves off from any moments of joy and delight. Thinking more inferentially, I think this means that joy comes only when we become vulnerable, which Brown affirms to be one of the unexpected yields of her research. Anxiety disappears when we let go of our desire to predict and control what cannot be predicted nor controlled. Shame is what visits us when we are gripped with such anxiety over predicting and controlling, for we feel ourselves to be utterly inadequate. Thus, only when we positively accept our own fragility and vulnerability are we able to feel joy and delight coming from living in this world, which is inevitably impregnated with possibilities of pain, suffering, and tragedy. Well, that is life.

The second vulnerability armory we commonly take is perfectionism. This will not need as detailed explanations as did the foreboding of joy. I can personally confess that I have a perfectionist tendency in things I am passionate about, so I was able to identify myself in Brown’s descriptions of perfectionism. When we feel anxiety over our worthiness, we feel shame, and the most immediate cover-up we do is to try to be perfect in the eyes of those whom we regard as the judge of our performance. But no one can be perfect, especially in the eyes of others. So shame breeds another shame, a vicious circle. Brown even goes so far as to say that perfectionism is not just an environment in which shame grows, it is a form of shame, with which I fully agree. Again, the way out of our shame is to acknowledge our vulnerability. Not in a cynical fashion, but affirmatively and affectionately, accepting that our worthiness does not hang on our performance. However, a critical perspective I would like to bring is that Brown never goes into the question of why we are worthy. Doubtless Brown is a social scientist, and she is more interested in the question of “how” rather than “why.” Nonetheless, the question of “why” never goes away just because you are focusing on social scientific aspects of shame and vulnerability. I suspect that Brown might well have answers as to the question of “why.” She just doesn’t mention them because it is not part of her work. At the end of the day, this one thing is certain: if we are unable to answer why we are worthy, no matter how shrewd our research findings say that we are hardwired for connection and the way out of shame is acknowledging our own worthiness, it will be a house of cards.

Our last vulnerability armory is numbing our feelings, particularly negative ones. Our lives are replete with negative experiences. Such experiences always entail negative emotions, bringing us into the place of questioning our own worthiness. This is basically what Job did in his conversation with himself, his three friends (including the fourth one), and with God. Shame mushrooms itself when we are unable to deal with them. Brown urges us to be more courageous, as shame is contagious force. We should never be afraid of confronting what we feel. We should acknowledge them, bring them to light, and process them. This is why Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian church says, “every emotion of ours should be processed in prayer.” That is the only way to healing from shame. That is the only way to more joy of life. That is the only way for being human, no matter how vulnerable it is.

As a student of theology, I believe that Brown’s emphasis on vulnerability suggests many things to chew over among church folks. More often than not the church’s gospel is more about the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ than it is about his Incarnation. I think Jesus’ Incarnation is a wellspring on the reflections of our vulnerability, for it is God clothed with human form, taking on all its vulnerability. This ought to mean that God affirms such vulnerability. It is okay to be human. It is okay to be vulnerable. This is where the ground of our own worthiness should stem from.

For Christians, one merit of reading Brown is that she suggests a clearer direction for what is means for humans to flourish. The church had many chances to speak of shame, which she did not. (I would not go into why the church was uninterested in shame, since I have dealt with it in detail elsewhere.) The gospel heals shame, and it means that the gospel has important things to tell about human flourishing. Additionally, the gospel also provides for the answers of “why,” which Brown did not. We are worthy because God has loved us. We are worthy because we are created in God’s image.

Having said that, the question is the complex relationship between social science and the gospel. If social science is able to tell people how we live happy and flourishing lives, what is the role of the church then? Well, the immediate answer should be that the church has the answer about “why.” However, the church has more important missions to carry out, for its missions never stop at human flourishing only. Looking back on the history of the church and God’s people, someone was commanded to never marry (Jeremiah), and someone else was not to go into the promised land after all the hard journey and difficult struggles over arriving there (Moses), all the while someone was crucified on the cross (Jesus). The gospel we preach contains in it the message of human flourishing, yet it surpasses that, which is a point of distinction between the gospel and the social sciences. The gospel message is the message of salvation for the world, not just humans. For this reason, Christians are commanded to take up their cross and follow Jesus.  For this reason they are included into the flock of God to be willing to suffer for the world. This can never come out of the mouth of someone whose purpose is human flourishing only.

These are some of the important things to think further as I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. On human flourishing and happiness. On the importance of paying attention to the mundane. On the harmful power of shame. And on the relationship between the church and the social sciences. If you are willing to engage these important topics, I am heartily recommending reading Brown’s book. I am going to read other works by Brown.

Below are books frequently bought together with Daring Greatly at Amazon. If you install Kindle application and purchase the electronic version, you can read on your computer, smartphone or Kindle E-reader.