The Wholehearted Life: Oprah Talks to Brené Brown
Brené: Yes. We all have it. It's our most human, primitive emotion.
Oprah: How do you define it?
Brené: The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
Oprah: And does it occur after a particular incident? Or over many life experiences?
Brené: Both. Sometimes specific memories bring up shame. But there are also very insidious, quiet messages that we just marinate in over a lifetime.
Oprah: But the thing about painful memories—take abuse, for example—is that they're not about the acts themselves. It's keeping them secret that damages your life.
Brené: That's so true. There are researchers who have studied traumatic events such as sexual abuse and found the shame that follows them to be more detrimental to physical health and emotional well-being. Shame is lethal. And we are swimming in it.
Oprah: Do most of us even recognize it, though?
Brené: When I say I study shame, people say either "I don't know what you're talking about" or "I know exactly what you're talking about, and I'm not talking about that." But the less you talk about it, the more you've got it. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. So if something shaming happens to me and I call you and say, "Oh, Oprah, you're not gonna believe what happened," and you express empathy—shame can't survive that. It depends on my belief that I'm alone.
Oprah: But in your previous book, The Gifts of Imperfection, you wrote, "If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm."
Brené: Oh, yeah.
Oprah: You say that we need friends who will respond with empathy, not sympathy. "If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: 'Oh, you poor thing.' Or the incredibly passive-aggressive, Southern version of sympathy: 'Bless your heart.'"
Brené: That just gives me the shivers!
Oprah: So what are we looking for when we open ourselves up?
Brené: Well, I'm looking for the person who loves me not despite my vulnerability and imperfections but because of them. I'm looking for the folks who are going to wade through the deep with me. You need only one person in your life who, when you call and say, "I just told a bald-faced lie and I'm in a shame-storm of epic proportions," will say, "All right, let's do this thing. I'm with you. I've been there, too. Let's talk it through."
Oprah: And if you have two or three—
Brené: You've won the lottery. But you know what we do, myself included? We steamroll over those people to get the attention of people who will never show up for us like that.
Oprah: Wow. So here's a question: If you don't even know you're carrying shame, how do you unpack it?
Brené: Well, I think one of the biggest things is to get clear on the difference between shame and guilt. It's the difference between "I am bad" and "I did something bad." Let me give you an example. I drink too much on a Thursday night and I'm so hungover on Friday that I miss a meeting. With shame, my self-talk is "God, I'm an idiot. I'm such a loser." With guilt, it's "That was a really stupid thing to do. I wasn't thinking." We measure shame and guilt based on how people talk to themselves. So, this is gonna freak you out—
Brené: —but shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying...whereas guilt is inversely correlated with those things. People who are able to change the self-talk have better outcomes.
Oprah: So how do we do that? How do we change the self-talk?
Brené: The first thing I try to do, which is so hard, is to talk to myself like I would talk to Ellen or Charlie, my kids.
Brené: I say, "You've made a mistake. You're human. We're gonna get through this." And then—and this is the harder thing—you've got to reach out and tell the story. You've got to speak your shame.
Next: What it means to dare greatly