Shame, Vulnerability And 'That' Ted Talk by Brené Brown
Updated: May 30
In the 1930’s a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst called Ronald Fairbairn was working with children and made an interesting discovery. He observed that no matter how badly the children were treated by their parents, they retained a strange loyalty to them. Rather than blaming their parents for their abuse or neglect, the children blamed themselves. He realised that children have a desperate need for attachment to their caregivers. If the children believed there was something wrong with their parents, then there was nothing they could do to change things. However, if they thought there was something wrong with themselves, if they ‘tried harder’ there was still a chance they could win their parent’s love. What Fairbairn has identified was the origins of shame, the feeling that many people carry with them throughout life that they’re not 'good enough.’
To some people the idea that they feel shame can seem over the top. It can conjure up images of a medieval peasant with a bad bowl haircut having eggs thrown at them for having stolen a sheep. But shame is often the driving force behind many client’s issues, generating a host of unconscious defences. Shame is different from embarrassment. Embarrassment means feeling bad about something you’ve done. Instead of sending a text to your partner saying ‘I can’t wait to kiss you,’ you send it to Ron, the strangely silent man installing your kitchen, as happened to a friend. (She subsequently considered moving out for the duration of the build.) Whereas shame is feeling bad about who you are, or as Joseph Burgo puts it having a ‘core sense of intrinsic defect.’
Shame can manifest in many ways, suddenly hijacking your emotions and making it hard to function: It’s feeling sick about going to a party, convinced no one’s going to like you. It’s lying in bed at night going over and over a recent conversation with the rigour of a CIA operative, analysing if you said something wrong. It’s cringing as you remember giving a presentation, convinced you were as impressive as The Apprentice candidate who told potential buyers all the downsides of his product. It’s wanting to tell someone how you feel about them, but being sure you aren’t attractive or clever enough to have your feelings reciprocated. Shame is the enemy of connection and the ability to make ourselves truly vulnerable. It makes us feel like we need to hide ourselves or our ‘defects’ will be discovered.
Of course there are other reasons people can come to feel shame, bullying or prejudice to name but a couple. But Ronald Fairbairn’s discovery all those years ago, points to how the way we are looked after in our formative years, will have a bearing on how well we are able to cope with future difficulties. There are many ways of tackling shame, both in and out of therapy. The first step is to recognise it, name it and to understand it isn’t that you’re not good enough, but rather that you feel that you’re not good enough. This is why I encourage people who struggle with self-esteem to watch Brené Brown’s Ted talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability.’ In it, with wit and empathy, she talks about vulnerability and the feeling of not being enough. She gave the talk in 2010 and it rapidly went viral, to date clocking up over 12 million views. It’s a testament to how many people this issue resonates with and how, if you do feel shame, you’re definitely not alone.