This is pertinent to what I am studying right now – for myself, intellectually and intuitively I get it, but when it comes to practice, it can be a whole other story.
Showing vulnerability both excites me and scares me.
. . . vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. (Applause) 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.
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. Here’s why.
We heard the most compelling call ever to have a conversation in this country, and I think globally, around race, right? Yes? We heard that. Yes? Cannot have that conversation without shame, because you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege. And when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame. We heard a brilliant simple solution to not killing people in surgery, which is have a checklist. You can’t fix that problem without addressing shame, because when they teach those folks how to suture,they also teach them how to stitch their self-worth to being all-powerful. And all-powerful folks don’t need checklists.
. . . There’s a great quote that saved me this past year by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the “Man in the Arena” quote. And it goes like this: “It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins,and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”
And that’s what this conference, to me, is about. That’s what life is about, about daring greatly, about being in the arena. When you walk up to that arena and you put your hand on the door, and you think, “I’m going in and I’m going to try this,” shame is the gremlin who says, “Uh, uh. You’re not good enough. You never finished that MBA. Your wife left you. I know your dad really wasn’t in Luxembourg, he was in Sing Sing. I know those things that happened to you growing up. I know you don’t think that you’re pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough or powerful enough. I know your dad never paid attention, even when you made CFO.” Shame is that thing.
And if we can quiet it down and walk in and say, “I’m going to do this,” we look up and the critic that we see pointing and laughing, 99 percent of the time is who? Us. Shame drives two big tapes — “never good enough” and, if you can talk it out of that one, “who do you think you are?” The thing to understand about shame is it’s not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
There’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. And here’s what you need to know. Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression,bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here’s what you even need to know more. Guilt, inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.
The other thing you need to know about shame is it’s absolutely organized by gender. If shame washes over me and washes over Chris, it’s going to feel the same. Everyone sitting in here knows the warm wash of shame. We’re pretty sure that the only people who don’t experience shame are people who have no capacity for connection or empathy. Which means, yes, I have a little shame; no, I’m a sociopath. So I would opt for, yes, you have a little shame. Shame feels the same for men and women, but it’s organized by gender.
For women, the best example I can give you is Enjoli the commercial: “I can put the wash on the line, pack the lunches, hand out the kisses and be at work at five to nine. I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man.” For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. I don’t know how much perfume that commercial sold, but I guarantee you, it moved a lot of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. (Laughter) Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket.
For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one, do not be perceived as what? Weak. I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. And it wasn’t until a man looked at me one day after a book signing, said, “I love what you have to say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.” And I said, “I don’t study men.” And he said, “That’s convenient.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?” I said, “Yeah.” “They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerablewe get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads, because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.”
So I started interviewing men and asking questions. And what I learned is this: You show me a woman who can actually sit with a man in real vulnerability and fear, I’ll show you a woman who’s done incredible work. You show me a man who can sit with a woman who’s just had it, she can’t do it all anymore, and his first response is not, “I unloaded the dishwasher,” but he really listens — because that’s all we need — I’ll show you a guy who’s done a lot of work.
Shame is an epidemic in our culture. And to get out from underneath it, to find our way back to each other, we have to understand how it affects us and how it affects the way we’re parenting, the way we’re working, the way we’re looking at each other. Very quickly, some research by Mahalik at Boston College. He asked, what do women need to do to conform to female norms? The top answers in this country: nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. When he asked about men, what do men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were: always show emotional control, work is first, pursue status and violence.
If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.
And so I’ll leave you with this thought. If we’re going to find our way back to each other,vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena,because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster when you got in there, that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.