There’s no denying it – people are tribal animals.
Even as early as the dawn of the species, humans discovered that there were definite benefits to banding together; joining forces to work toward common goals. Survival. Growth. Learning. And passing it all on.
And those bonds of belonging were so deep and so strong that humans came to depend on them even long after basic group survival was no longer a concern. As such, things like loneliness, rejection, and isolation can actually harm our physical and mental wellness even at this stage of our development.
So why is acceptance often such a hard thing for some of us to find…much less to give?
“Belonging is being part of something bigger than yourself. But it’s also the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.” – Dr. Brené Brown.
My guest on this special rewind episode of The School of Greatness – long one of my most-requested guests, even after this appearance – has carved out a very prominent place for herself in the world of emotional well-being.
Dr. Brené Brown studies shame.
Often, when she’s on a plane and isn’t in the mood for talking, this one-liner will easily shut down an unwanted conversation (or even a wanted one). Typically, we don’t like to talk about shame or anything that can make us feel vulnerable. But Dr. Brown isn’t afraid to talk about shame, vulnerability, and loneliness, because sadly, it is at the heart of humanity today. These are feelings that we all feel at some point in our lives.
We don’t like to talk about vulnerability, mostly because it makes us feel “weak” or “powerless.” We feel like if we admit our fragility, we will be broken in two by the opinions of others and even ourselves. The reluctance to discuss shame has attached a stigma to a very common emotion that we all experience.
In her work as a research professor at the University of Houston graduate school, Dr. Brown noticed this pattern. Many people dealt with their feelings of shame and isolation in ways that weren’t really helping them to overcome them. People closed up and shut others out, which only made things worse for everyone.
In 2010, Dr. Brené Brown was invited to give a TED Talk about vulnerability, and even though there’s no such thing as an overnight success, her message went worldwide almost immediately. Her presentation, entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” has been viewed a staggering 57 million times just between TED.com and YouTube alone. Her 2012 follow-up TED talk, “Listening to Shame,” has also reached multiple millions of people.
In the years that followed, Dr. Brené Brown has seen an absolute explosion in terms of her reach. She’s appeared with Oprah Winfrey as a Super Soul Sunday guest, been an in-demand speaker at high-ticket events, and written multiple books on the subjects of courage, shame, and vulnerability, including her New York Times Bestseller Daring Greatly. Her Netflix documentary, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage, has brought her message to a streaming audience. And her newest book, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, was just the latest in her string of #1 New York Times bestsellers. In March 2020, she will also be coming out with a podcast called Unlocking Us which is all about unlocking who we are as human beings.
So obviously, even though shame, vulnerability, and belonging aren’t always the subjects we want to talk about, they are the subjects we need to talk about. Dr. Brown has been vital in making these conversations happen. She has long been one of my most-requested guests, even after this appearance, and I was honored for her to share her wisdom with us.
Even if you’re the most secure person on the planet, there has probably been a time when you just wanted to fit in. I remember being the youngest on these sport teams growing up and just wanting to feel like I belonged there. I wanted them to like me, feel like I mattered, and that I was “cool” to them. But sometimes, they’d do things I didn’t agree with, like bully kids or make fun of people, but I didn’t say anything. Why? Because if you stand up for something, it often means you’ll stand alone, and that was my biggest fear: Being alone.
We all just want to belong somewhere.
Dr. Brené Brown has a lot to say about belonging. She defines belonging as “being part of something bigger but also having the courage to stand alone, and to belong to yourself above all else.” In that case, belonging is actually the opposite of fitting in! Fitting in means that we are changing ourselves to make other people like us. Fitting in means that we betray ourselves.
The minute you become who someone wants you to be, to fit in and make sure people like you, is the moment you no longer belong anywhere
Have you ever felt like a social chameleon? Always changing your colors depending on what environment you’re in?
Yeah, me too.
It’s not a bad thing to be adaptable, though. It’s great to make people feel comfortable talking to you and to notice their specific needs so that you can adjust to meet them! But if your only purpose in adapting is to make sure that people like you – that’s when you betray yourself.
Becoming secure in who you are is difficult for anyone, but kids have it especially hard. Often, they’re told who to be and who to become, and this pressure can have devastating consequences.
In this episode, Dr. Brené Brown shares some of her own childhood stories. She came from what she calls a “lock-and-load” family. They were taught to outrun vulnerability – if they were feeling sad or angry, all they needed to do was “suck it up” and move on. This is what both her parents were raised in and so what else would they know to pass down to their kids? It’s a vicious cycle of trying to ignore weaknesses.
In order to break this cycle, we need to learn to be changeable. In all the conversations she’s had with parents, Dr. Brown says the hardest ones are with the parents who refuse to grow and change. They see anything that a child is trying to do differently as criticism of what they did as parents.
But most parents aren’t trying to shame their children intentionally. In fact, Dr. Brown believes that “99.9% of parents are truly waking up every day and doing the very best they can with what they have.” It’s just that embracing vulnerability and confronting shame are so taboo in our culture that breaking that mold is difficult and uncomfortable.
“There are only two kinds of kids you raise,” she says. “Kids who will ask for help when they need it, or kids who won’t. That’s as good as it gets – to raise a kid who will ask for help.”
I never asked for help as a kid. Thankfully, I’m learning how to ask for help as a man.
If there’s anyone who doesn’t like to be vulnerable, it’s men.
I remember when I was in third or fourth grade, I was picked last in a co-ed dodgeball match on the playground. So as a boy trying to fit in, it was devastating. And I told myself in that moment, “I will never again be picked last in any sport.” I became a dodgeball machine that day, and honestly for the rest of my life. I was an All-American in two sports, I broke world records, I played professional football, and now I play on the USA Handball team.
Being chosen last that day helped me to achieve many things, but it left me feeling very unfulfilled every time I achieved them. Any time my team lost a game, it was like an attack on my life. Because if I didn’t win, that meant no one was gonna accept me, or I wasn’t good enough, or I was gonna be picked last.
As a boy growing up, I was never given any information about how to connect or how to communicate feelings and feel like it was okay to do so. I didn’t know I was allowed to. I didn’t know that it was okay for a man to be vulnerable.
Dr. Brown has had a lot of men ask her to speak at different conferences for their organizations, but they rarely want her to speak about “vulnerability and shame.” In fact, they specifically ask her not to.
Men want to hear about courage. They want to hear about how they can be braver and better.
But what is courage, really? Dr. Brené Brown thinks that courage is vulnerability.
Think about it: What situation that ever involved courage did not also involve uncertainty, fear, and emotional exposure? Is it really courage if there’s no risk at all? It doesn’t take much courage to cross a tiny creek, but it takes immense courage to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. See the difference?
Vulnerability is not knowing the outcome but doing it anyway because it’s the brave thing to do. Dr. Brown explains that the greatest “shame trigger” for men is to be perceived as weak, and in our culture, we believe that vulnerability is weakness. Suddenly, it’s shameful to be vulnerable. And men usually do one of two things in the face of shame: We’re either pissed off or we shut down entirely.
I asked Dr. Brown that if somehow she could speak to all the men in the world at once, what would she say? Her answer will shake you in the best way possible:
“Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s about the willingness to show up and be seen, when you can’t control the outcome, and it is actually our greatest measure of courage. So, show up, in an authentic way and let us see your hearts because we know how lonely you actually are.” – Bréne Brown
I don’t think anyone can say it better than that.
This interview with Dr. Brown was life-changing for me. It was, at its very core, vulnerable, but that is what made it so powerful.
If you’re struggling with feelings of shame – whether you can’t forgive yourself from something that happened in the past or you’re afraid to show any weakness whatsoever – this episode is for you.
For 25 years I held on to the shame of being sexually abused by a man I didn’t know. And I was sure that if anyone knew that about me, my life would be over. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and abused. I finally had the courage to share my story, and it took me a couple of years to share it over and over many, many times, but now I don’t feel ashamed anymore.
Dr. Brené Brown says that we have two choices when it comes to shame:
“Shame can’t survive being spoken,” she says. When dealing with shame, try talking to yourself like you’re talking to someone you love because “shame can’t survive empathy.”
The truth is, we may never be able to rid ourselves completely from a shameful experience, but we can develop a resilience to shame. If you want to take that first step, I invite you to listen to this episode and learn from the expert on shame herself, Dr. Brené Brown.
Be hopeful. You are loved.