Vulnerability, Guilt, Shame, Belonging

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on October 26th, 2018.

A few weeks ago I let it rip on my personal blog. I posted an over 9,000 word blog postabout my thoughts and feelings that showed up for me around leaving a role I have loved for almost a decade. It has been years since I have had the courage to just dump out my feelings in such a public way, and I have been uncomfortable ever since hitting “Publish”. Why? Because I exposed myself. I shared things that I have never shared publicly, and not all of it was popcorn and puppies. Now, several weeks later, I am still uncomfortable. I am worried that I may have unintentionally offended someone, or that I did not thank someone, or that I just plain shared too much. Vulnerability is scary, and yet that is exactly what the world needs right now. In fact it always has.

I have been thinking a lot about vulnerability over the past few months. Perhaps this is because I have been trying to do a lot of work on me, and by that I mean I have been working on self-awareness, especially around my own power and privilege. In that context, I have been pushing myself out of my comfort zone in terms of places I have showed up in, who I have engaged with, the questions I have asked, and what I have been willing to share. While I have been pursuing this, I just so happened to listen to an incredible interview with Brené Brown and Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast on the topic of Belonging. Holy moly. It is simply incredible, and it hit the nail on the head in terms of so many things I have been thinking about.

If you don’t know about Ms. Brown’s work, she is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Endowed Chair. She has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and is the author of five books: The Gifts of ImperfectionDaring GreatlyRising StrongBraving the Wilderness, and Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. I just received the last one, which was released in 2018, and it will be my travel companion as I wonder the hills of Ireland and Scotland over the next couple of weeks.

So why did I love this podcast so much? Why did I love it enough to want to share it here, on a platform designed for professional engagement? Because, as I said above, what the worlds needs now is courage, which includes the courage to be vulnerable, and you cannot invite that in without addressing the behaviors of shaming and blaming that are absolutely everywhere in our culture. This podcast wraps these ideas so powerfully together and offers a way through the complexity. Let me make some connections.

What I know about myself is that I have a huge need to belong to and be a part of a community. Many communities in fact. This need has been a common thread through all of my major professional roles and affiliations. It is likely the main reason why transitions of most kinds are hard, and especially hard for me. When we leave a current situation, we are leaving something predictable, known, and usually comfortable. Even if we are not happy in the role, we are familiar with it, and we are known in that context. More importantly, we have a sense of belonging around it. I shared in my blog post a nugget of advice that a friend recently gave to my daughter Allie: “People come into your life (and become your friends) for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. You may not know which one someone is until much later.” Boom. When we transition from or leave a role, not only do we leave a community and a sense of belonging and identity, but we also leap into the uncertainty of knowing whether or not the people we thought we were connected to were only there for a reason. That reason being work. I am sure we all have stories to share about ‘that person’ with whom we were best, best, best friends with at work, and yet when work was no longer a common denominator the friendship ended as well. I wonder if this a gender thing? Not sure, just wondering.

More on belonging. They, Krista and Brené, say that having this need to belong is in large part what it means to be human. Furthermore, in our souls we know that what creates a sense of belonging is connection, and authentic connection can only happen in the presence of authenticity, and vulnerability is the key to authenticity. Of course, this is my interpretation of their conversation. And yet…when we do choose to be vulnerable, to open up and show our true and less than perfect, deeply flawed selves, we are so often shamed.

In this context, I love how Brené goes to lengths to differentiate guilt from shame. Guilt is how we may feel when we have done something wrong, while shame is the feeling that we are wrong. We put guilt and shame upon ourselves and upon others, especially when they are being vulnerable, whether it’s by choice or by circumstance. In fact, you cannot turn on any form of media without this pouring out and it is wrong. Shaming others is quickly becoming a new social norm in this country and we all need to stop it. I invite you to do a little exercise. When you see or hear an act of shaming, just make note of it. It could be a comment on social media, a tweet, something in a movie or on TV, or of course in person. I think you will come to see just how common it is and how normalized it has become.

This is why I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between shaming and holding someone accountable for their behavior. The latter is completely appropriate. For the former, there are sometimes cases where there is so much evidence of bad behavior that shaming feels appropriate. But is it? Ever? I leave that as a question. What I want to bring this back to is how we engage with one another, especially at work, and especially in this #MeToo moment that we are all making our way through. There were a couple of incredible men at our Women Moving Millions summit earlier this month talking about engaging men to advance gender equality. There was talk about the concept of toxic masculinity, and for this I highly recommend the documentary film The Mask You Live In for more on this topic. There was also talk about the shaming of men. When men shame other men for not being “man enough” (whatever the F that means), it silences them, and invites them to be bystanders to bad behavior in all its forms. And of course, this is true for women shaming men and women shaming women in all forms as well. I believe that most men are good men, who believe in gender equality and want to be part of the solution, but because of the fear of making mistakes and of being shamed, they are left paralyzed. There is so much more that needs to be unpacked here if we truly are going to move towards more inclusive and respectful work places, but what I know for sure is that blaming and shaming as a strategy is not the most helpful way to move forward. Accountability yes. A big friggin YES. But shaming? Generally speaking, no.

So back to my post about leaving a position I loved. I thought I was writing a quick goodbye post, mainly to my colleagues at Women Moving Millions, but what poured out was so much more than that. Included were feelings of guilt, shame, confusion, and more that I recollected over my now many professional contexts and identities, and there was so much more I could have written. In just “letting it rip” and choosing to hit Publish, I am in so many ways liberating myself of those feelings, while at the same time opening myself up for a potential whole new set of them. In Krista and Brene’s podcast they talk a lot about paradoxes, and this indeed is yet another one.

This is beginning to feel like it is turning into another 9,000 word post, and that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to invite you to listen to the talks highlighted, as well as others by Ms. Brown highlighted below, and to think about these big concepts of belonging, vulnerability, guilt, and shame. Please feel free to add your thoughts below.

Link to the On Being Podcast to listen, and to the transcription which may be easier to give a skim through.

Link to Brené Brown’s website for more information on her, her books, and her work. I have never met her, but gosh I really would love to.

Link to Brené’s two TED talks on vulnerability and listening to shame. I have listened to both a million times.

And of course subscribe and listen to the On Being Podcast. I have the privilege of now knowing Krista Tippett, because, well, I kind of stalked her. Stalked her in the must get to know you because you are absolutely incredible type of way. Not the creepy and scary kind of way. She rocks.

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