Full text of researcher Brené Brown on Listening to Shame at TED Talk conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Brené Brown on Listening to Shame at TED Talk
I’m going to tell you a little bit about my TEDxHouston Talk. I woke up the morning after I gave that talk with the worst vulnerability hangover of my life. And I actually didn’t leave my house for about three days.
The first time I left was to meet a friend for lunch. And when I walked in, she was already at the table. I sat down, and she said, “God, you look like hell.”
I said, “Thanks. I feel really — I’m not functioning.”
And she said, “What’s going on?”
And I said, “I just told 500 people that I became a researcher to avoid vulnerability. And that when being vulnerable emerged from my data, as absolutely essential to whole-hearted living, I told these 500 people that I had a breakdown. I had a slide that said ‘Breakdown.’ At what point did I think that was a good idea?”
And she said, “I saw your talk live-streamed. It was not really you. It was a little different than what you usually do. But it was great.”
And I said, “This can’t happen. YouTube, they’re putting this thing on YouTube. And we’re going to be talking about 600, 700 people.”
And she said, “Well, I think it’s too late.”
And I said, “Let me ask you something.”
And she said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Do you remember when we were in college, really wild and kind of dumb?”
She said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Remember when we’d leave a really bad message on our ex-boyfriend’s answering machine? Then we’d have to break into his dorm room and then erase the tape?”
And she goes, “Uh… no.”
Of course, the only thing I could say at that point was, “Yeah, me neither. Yeah — me neither.”
And I’m thinking to myself, “Brené, what are you doing? Why did you bring this up? Have you lost your mind? Your sisters would be perfect for this.”
So I looked back up and she said, “Are you really going to try to break in and steal the video before they put it on YouTube?”
And I said, “I’m just thinking about it a little bit.”
She said, “You’re like the worst vulnerability role model ever.”
And then I looked at her and I said something that at the time felt a little dramatic, but ended up being more prophetic than dramatic. I said, “If 500 turns into 1,000 or 2,000, my life is over.”
I had no contingency plan for four million.
And my life did end when that happened. And maybe the hardest part about my life ending is that I learned something hard about myself, and that was that, as much as I would be frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small, staying right under the radar.
But I want to talk about what I’ve learned. There’s two things that I’ve learned in the last year. The first is: vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous.
Let me ask you honestly — and I’ll give you this warning, I’m trained as a therapist, so I can out-wait you uncomfortably — so if you could just raise your hand that would be awesome — how many of you honestly, when you’re thinking about doing something vulnerable or saying something vulnerable think, “God, vulnerability is weakness, this is weakness.” How many of you think of vulnerability and weakness synonymously? The majority of people.
Now let me ask you this question: This past week at TED, how many of you, when you saw vulnerability up here, thought it was pure courage? Vulnerability is not weakness. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I’ve come to the belief — this is my 12th year doing this research — that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.
One of the weird things that’s happened is, after the TED explosion, I got a lot of offers to speak all over the country — everyone from schools and parent meetings to Fortune 500 companies. And so many of the calls went like this, “Hey Dr. Brown, we loved your TED talk. We’d like you to come in and speak. We’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention vulnerability or shame.”
What would you like for me to talk about? There’s three big answers. This is mostly, to be honest with you, from the business sector: innovation, creativity and change.
So let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.
The second thing, in addition to really finally understanding the relationship between vulnerability and courage, the second thing I learned, is this: We have to talk about shame. And I’m going to be really honest with you. When I became a “vulnerability researcher” and that became the focus because of the TED talk — and I’m not kidding that — I’ll give you an example. About three months ago, I was in a sporting goods store buying goggles and shin guards and all the things that parents buy at the sporting goods store. About from a hundred feet away, this is what I hear: “Vulnerability TED! Vulnerability TED!”
I’m a fifth-generation Texan. Our family motto is “Lock and load.” I am not a natural vulnerability researcher. So I’m like, just keep walking, she’s on my six.
And then I hear, “Vulnerability TED!”
I turn around, I go, “Hi.” She’s right here and she said, “You’re the shame researcher who had the breakdown.”
At this point, parents are, like, pulling their children close. “Look away.” And I’m so worn out at this point in my life, I look at her and I actually say, “It was a fricking spiritual awakening.”
And she looks back and does this, “I know.” And she said, “We watched your TED talk in my book club. Then we read your book and we renamed ourselves ‘The Breakdown Babes.'” And she said, “Our tagline is: ‘We’re falling apart and it feels fantastic.'” You can only imagine what it’s like for me in a faculty meeting.
So when I became Vulnerability TED, like an action figure — Like Ninja Barbie, but I’m Vulnerability TED — I thought, I’m going to leave that shame stuff behind, because I spent six years studying shame before I really started writing and talking about vulnerability. And I thought, thank God, because shame is this horrible topic, no one wants to talk about it. It’s the best way to shut people down on an airplane. “What do you do?”
“I study shame.”
And I see you.
But in surviving this last year, I was reminded of a cardinal rule — not a research rule, but a moral imperative from my upbringing — “you’ve got to dance with the one who brung ya”. And I did not learn about vulnerability and courage and creativity and innovation from studying vulnerability. I learned about these things from studying shame. And so I want to walk you in to shame. Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul. And we’re going to walk in. And the purpose is not to walk in and construct a home and live there. It is to put on some galoshes — and walk through and find our way around.