Firstly, I love this book. It was recommended to me ages ago by a counsellor as something that would validate my frustration at being seen as weak because I am comfortable being vulnerable and showing my emotions, when I believed it was a strength. Brene Brown has done decades of research on this very subject and found that vulnerability is strength, precisely because you are taking a risk, showing softness, and trusting that you are resilient enough to deal with it if you are hurt in the process. It’s not about never, getting hurt or never taking risks, it’s about being able to do it knowing that if it all goes completely and utterly wrong, you will survive. And most importantly, that the things which make us most happy in life; love, trust, belonging – inherently require us to be vulnerable in order to experience them fully and meaningfully.
The most enlightening part of the book for me, however, was the link between vulnerability and shame. People often find being vulnerable difficult because they may feel ashamed of the reason they feel vulnerable or would feel ashamed if they were hurt in showing their vulnerability. Brene has a brilliant and necessary way of showing how to build shame resilience as a way of becoming more comfortable with being vulnerable and more connected to people we love, including ourselves. The most important part of this is that shame cannot exist in the light of empathy, and that empathy can only come from those who have proven they are worthy of our vulnerability. When I thought about this, I realised that it makes so much sense in the context of my own experience. Shame, as a result of other people’s and our own judgements of our behaviour as morally wrong, is endemic in our society. It is one of the most effective, cruel, and widely utilised ways of controlling people on an individual and societal scale. We live in a culture where ‘You did a bad thing’ becomes ‘You are a bad person’ and ‘I did a bad thing’ becomes ‘I am inherently a bad person’ and this is seen as a irrefutable truth we are taught from childhood. The shame that stems from this is a part of our socially mandated expectation of people to be perfect, with no room to change, grow, make mistakes and develop. This results in people keeping their mistakes secret because they feel an overwhelming shame and fear that they are a bad person because they did a bad thing. Unfortunately, the fear of being rejected is well founded, as people can treat shame as a disease they catch by association, and their fear of being seen as a bad person prevents them from responding with empathy. The horrible irony of it is that shame can only be overcome with honesty and empathy. It takes bravery to admit a mistake, and bravery to hear someone confess a mistake and respond with empathy instead of judgement. If you are able to confess something shameful to someone you trust and they respond with empathy, you can face your behaviour, learn from it, and do better. You can also admit that humans make mistakes, that it’s ok, and be able to be more empathetic towards others.
The most damaging form of shame that exists in our culture is the shame that is created by society to maintain some people’s privilege, and other people’s disadvantage. There are many examples of this, but the one I’ll concentrate on now is to do with my experience of the UK benefits system, currently called Universal Credit. As our jobs are one of the main ways our social status and value is judged, being unemployed puts you right at the bottom of the hierarchy. Capitalism has convinced us of a narrative that your worth as a human being is intrinsically linked to how much money you have, and that can be easily determined by what job you have. Therefore if you do not have a job, you are worth nothing. In the capitalist narrative, it doesn’t matter what your other qualities are, what else you spend your time doing, or how you are effected by disadvantage, if you do not have a job and have to rely on the state to fulfil your basic needs, your worth is zero. This is intrinsically linked to shame and vulnerability, because if you are in a position where you rely on the state, you are inherently vulnerable. Our fear of vulnerability makes being in this position a source of shame, and therefore makes people who are not in that position distance themselves from those who are. You are also vulnerable even if you have a job, but you still have the state as a safety net, so you’re one step further away. It also wouldn’t be good for the capitalism narrative to admit that all jobs are precarious and it’s a system which is designed that way. Instead, it falls back on the same idea as before, but centred on work. We buy into the idea that because we earn our jobs through working hard, those who don’t have jobs just didn’t work hard, so didn’t earn them. If we were all to admit that privilege and chance play a much bigger part than our own work ethic, we would realise almost everyone is one or two months redundancy away from relying on the benefits system themselves, and that is understandably terrifying. Any government which champions capitalism, austerity and a reduced state safety net wants to exaggerate this narrative further, because it upholds their ideology. That ideology is that some people are worth more than others because they have more money. And if people don’t have money because they don’t or can’t work, the only way for them to gain worth is to gain money, but of course, only within the capitalist system we currently have. The trick is, without the privilege that comes with money, it’s very hard to actually make more money, so the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.
So what if you are a disabled person in this scenario, and your disability means you can’t work within the capitalist system? My mental health issues have made it impossible for me to hold down a ‘normal’ job, and I’m from a working class family, so we rely on the benefits system. Shame is endemic within this system, and it goes against everything Brene Brown has learnt about well-being, and what is championed by mental health professionals. In order to access benefits payments as a disabled person, you are required to prove you are disabled. You are required to prove you cannot work, and are treated as a potential liar and fraud unless you do. But the way in which you prove you cannot work is entirely dictated by the people upholding a system which wants to reduce state support. It’s in their interest to make it as difficult as possible, and they do. Shame is used here because it is implied at every stage that you need benefits payments because you are either worthless to society because you can’t work or you are a bad person because you are a fraud. Making people feel ashamed of their inability to work particular kinds of jobs is trying to convince them that they should just be grateful for whatever they get, even when it is shrinking. It’s dehumanising so that people don’t feel like they deserve their basic human rights. And it is dangerously detrimental to mental health.
Brene Brown says that in order to combat shame, we need to talk about it with someone who is empathetic and has earned our vulnerability. The benefits system makes you feel ashamed of being disabled, something that you have no control of, that doesn’t make you a bad person. Then it makes you prove that you are disabled by making you tell complete strangers about your disability, relying some of the most vulnerable parts of yourself, to someone who’s job it is to judge your worth based on what you say,and has a vested interest in judging you as unworthy. It is literally the opposite of what we need as human beings to be mentally healthy, happy and resilient. The saddest, most ridiculously thing of all, is that this system doesn’t even make the rich happy. In order to ‘succeed’ in this system, you need to be driven by shame, fear, judgement, callousness, and no real self – worth. Brene Brown found that those who lived their best lives were vulnerable, empathetic, shame resilient, and believed in their own and other people’s inherent worth as human beings.
As it happens, I do work. You’re reading it right now (hi!) you may have listened to it on the podcast, and you may have bought a gift from Etsy. I can’t work a ‘normal’ job, so I created my own. I’ve struggled with mental health issues, so I’m trying to use my experience to help others through it, to combat shame and to encourage empathy. But in the eyes of the benefits system, the current government, and capitalism, what I’m doing isn’t worth anything, because I’m not making a profit. I could be doing exactly the same things, but if I earned enough money, I would suddenly be worthy (hopefully one day I will and can escape the nightmare that is Universal Credit). But until then, I refuse to believe that what I do isn’t worthy. I refuse to believe that anyone isn’t worthy. And I’m proud of creating a space for people to feel worthy, to self-care, to be vulnerable, to be empathetic and to be human. I encourage you believe in your worth, your kindness, your vulnerability and your humanity, and to know that you are not alone.