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The Science of Courage, Compassion, and Connection
Jul 1, 2014

I'm not happy with how I look ... I'm terrible with money ... My parents are so disappointed in me ... I have a mental illness ... I have an embarrassing health issue ... If anyone knew this about me, they would hate me ... I'm a bad parent ... I'm always late ...

With so many expectations and obligations in our lives, it is a surprise we are not all insane. Dr. Brené Brown of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work program is a shame resilience researcher, learning how people deal with issues like those above that can trigger feelings of shame, negatively impacting our relationships and ability to function. She has published three books covering the topic of shame and shame resilience. Dr. Brown has been gaining attention in recent years as she has appeared on CNN, NPR, PBS, and the internet video site TED. The topic may seem unusual, but the research has far-reaching implications, widely applicable beyond the social work field. Everyone experiences shame, and overcoming shame is necessary to function, instead of being held back and isolated by shame. Responding in a constructive, shame-minimizing way by working through shame issues is what Dr. Brown calls living in a more "whole-hearted" and "authentic" way.

Researching people

Social sciences have different methods of researching, and Dr. Brown used the grounded theory, a method which allows qualitative data, and inductive and deductive reasoning to gather data without having a hypothesis to start with. Using the grounded theory method, consensus from individual interviews was taken based on the language and terms they used to describe their experiences, "and maybe stories are just data with a soul," posits Dr. Brown in her TED talk. Dr. Brown decided she wanted to study shame, and so she did so without any of her own theories to start. She just had the questions: What is shame and how does it work? According to Robert Hilliker, a licensed counselor, former student, and collaborator of Dr. Brown's, she has gathered over 11,000 interviews with people, investigating their shame experiences and where applicable, their shame resilience.

Owning our own story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.

Dr. Brown found that some of the people she interviewed showed impressive resilience to shaming experiences. She focused in on these people and studied what made them resilient to the effects of shame. The people were dubbed, "the whole-hearted."

How shame works

The positive side of shame research is that there are tools to combat the feeling and the experience of shame, and to make our everyday lives less like shame minefields and more like a day at the office, picking up the kids, going to the grocery store, and making friends along the way. Simple exchanges with fellow parents or children, with bosses or teachers, spouses, friends, and acquaintances can easily turn into huge triggers for shameful feelings. When a weak spot is hit, a mistake is made, an accident happens, or someone runs late, short exchanges can become terse and tense, full of hidden meaning and innuendo, implied or imagined incompetence and inadequacy.

Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy--the experiences that make us most vulnerable Whether a situation goes smoothly or blows up in someone's face has a lot to do with his or her shame triggers, something everyone has. Detailed in I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power, social and family situations can become nightmares when our lives are ruled by shame. For people that cannot deal with their shame (everyone to some extent, according to Dr. Brown) the options are limited: numbing the feelings of shame and fear through addictions, attempting to become "invulnerable" through perfectionism, making the uncertain certain by becoming dogmatic, and pretending that our actions do not hurt others. But these negative actions do harm others, and they break down our connections to others.

How whole-heartedness works

Even more exciting than learning that shame is universal and awful was that there are strengths that can be cultivated to overcome shame. The title of Dr. Brown's second book says it all: The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. The main components of whole-hearted living were courage, compassion, and connection. Being authentic requires accepting ourselves for who we are and living that truthfully. "Owning our own story can be hard but not nearly as difficult spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy--the experiences that make us most vulnerable," says Dr. Brown in her book.

There are so many ways to apply such a broadly useful set of concepts, especially for a person of faith. The "guideposts" in The Gifts of Imperfection evoke many concepts from holy books. "Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think" calls to mind the story of Prophet Noah, who everyone thought was crazy as he built an ark. The chapter on cultivating gratitude and joy clearly connects to faith. Dr. Brown's perspective on gratitude is especially relevant to modern life: "For me and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is 'I didn't get enough sleep.' ... Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it ..."

As I read this passage, it makes total sense to me why we're a nation hungry for more joy: Because we're starving from a lack of gratitude.

Opportunities for growth

Dr. Brown and counselor-protégé Robert Hilliker have developed a curriculum called Connections which covers many of the concepts from her books and research. They are also developing a certification program for counseling professionals such as social workers and clergy who would like training.

"Spiritual leadership has a responsibility to make faith communities safe and supportive ... We actually train spiritual leaders in the curriculum," says Hilliker. "[Shame resilience] would be a wonderful thing for faith book clubs to sort of rally around ... Her work has really reached a tipping point where people are talking about shame, this very pervasive feeling that everybody has and few people deal with well," he says. Such a common feeling that can be very debilitating may not be the most cheerful topic of conversation, but learning to deal with shame may be one of the most liberating acts in a person's life. To learn more, please visit:

Dr. Brené Brown, from her website.

Defining Some Broad Terms

Shame is simply defined as the fear of disconnection, that a person will be rejected when he or she becomes vulnerable.

Courage from the Latin cor, originally (and by Brené Brown) meant to speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.

Compassion, defined as deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it, starts with self-compassion according to the shame-resilience research.

Connection is defined as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.