Shame and Vulnerability


Shame has toxic power. It can cause us to withdraw, aggressively defend, or viciously attack. Nothing has the power to get people stuck quite like shame. I have seen shame drive people to near total isolation, to almost complete denial, deep deception, and life-wrecking substance abuse.

I listened to a talk last week (link below) about vulnerability and shame. The speaker, Brene Brown, made a couple of brilliant points. First, she said that shame is highly correlated with anxiety, addictions, depression, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Interestingly, she followed up by saying that guilt is    inversely correlated to those things. In other words, shame drives people into dysfunction and guilt drives people away from it. Are you surprised? Shame is about personhood. Guilt is about actions. With guilt, an apology or repentance might offer some relief. But what about shame?

Another of  Brown‘s great points was that shame thrives on secrecy. The antidote to shame’s toxic power? Empathy. Empathy absolutely kills it. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced bringing a long-held secret to someone who responded with empathy. Perhaps it was a friend, a lover, or God. In the gospels, Jesus gives us a model for this by confounding shame several times by knowing peoples’ secrets and responding with empathy and kindness.

What does it take to receive empathy? A willingness to be vulnerable. If I could inject my clients with this willingness, I would be one successful shame-therapist. And honestly, for many people, the therapy relationship is the first place to test out vulnerability and see what happens. But the willingness to take the first step is, for some, like taking a swan dive into the Grand Canyon.

If this wisdom can touch our culture, what will be unlocked? What if women don’t have to look perfect and men don’t have to hold it all together? What if failure becomes acceptable and vulnerability is seen as strength? What would the world be like?

Take 20 minutes to listen to Brene Brown’s 20-minute TED talk, (CLICK HERE) or if you’re short on time, check out the last 7 minutes when she focuses on shame. It could be the most important click of your week.


  1. This was an excellent entry Janice…so worth talking about. I think that one of the most interesting correlations that was made in the TED talk was that of shame to bullying and eating disorders. I would love to hear more about that. Imagine the freedom we could provide our children if we empowered them with the ability to be vulnerable and empathetic!

  2. Like “taking a swan dive into the Grand Canyon”? Yup. it feels exactly like that… but, oh so WORTH IT!

    Here’s to kicking shame to the curb.

    Thanks, J!

  3. I’ve always loved the story of when Jesus met the woman at the well. He expresses love to her when he communicates to her that he KNOWS her better than anyone ever has. It seems that it is in the knowing, really knowing someone else that we provide a place of safety for others to be completely vulnerable and thus, able to leave their shame behind and to be able, as that woman did, run to her town and shout, “come meet a man who knows everything about me!” I’m pretty sure shame was lifted from her that day.

Leave a Comment:

Your email address will not be published.