On the power of vulnerability

“You can’t shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”

This one sentence began Brene Brown‘s career in social work and shame research. Some time ago, I watched Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability, and I was inspired to think about the ways in which I choose to open myself up to vulnerability. I put her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), on hold at the library right away. It finally came in this week, and I read quickly and excitedly.

You see, the idea that you cannot shame children into changing their behavior is fundamental to my parenting and educational philosophy. I am passionate about this subject, and I was eager to get a more in depth look than a TED Talk can provide.

Having finished the book, I am left with mixed feelings. For the most part, I really recommend the book to women who are trying to overcome perfectionism, body image issues, mother guilt, etc. Brown gives many, many examples of women who have faced these issues, acknowledged the shame that they feel, and worked to practice compassion. She even provides some really concrete tips in some sections on how to respond to people to try to use shame against you. Her argument for not using humiliation techniques as punishments in schools or in legal settingswas quite convincing.  (Remember the This American Life episode that talked about punishing teens for shoplifting by making them hold a sign in front of the scene of the crime? Yeah, not cool.)  Of course, I am the choir on this particular subject so take that as you will.

All that was the good. The bad, for me at least, was that I found myself skimming sections that seemed to go on at length about stories from either her own life or that of her friends or research participants. There was too much of this, and it threatened to lose my interest in what was otherwise an excellent book.

Also of note is that there are a few points on which I disagree with Dr. Brown. In particular, she advocates “taking things personally,” using shows like American Idol as an example. She says, “When our children are watching reality TV shoes that rely on shame and degradation as entertainment, we turn them off and we explain why.” I personally have never watched these types of shows so perhaps I am not understanding the issue fully, but a lot of people reference American Idol and bullying together. To me, the solution would lean more toward teaching kids about the role that criticism can play in our improvement.

I am reminded of a quote from one of the musicians I spoke with in my post about inspiring the next generation of musicians. A local musician said, “Learn to be excited about criticism. If someone is taking the time to try to help you get better, take the time to listen and understand the best you can. Consider the source, and carry on with your work.”

Perhaps it’s a minor quibble.  In any case, her TED Talk is great:

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