Last week New York Magazine published a feature all about plot. It dissected the many historical treatises about what drives story, and it showed just how enduring basic human dilemmas can be—standing the test of time from Shakespeare to modern day and beyond.
The author of the article, Christian Lorentzen, noted an interesting trend in modern plots: “I’ve seen a different pattern, another prevailing feeling recently in literature, both in novels I’ve admired and many I’ve detested. The feeling is shame.”
If the popularity of Brené Brown’s work on shame, authenticity, and vulnerability is any indication, Lorentzen is probably on to something. Since Brown gave her compelling TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” six years ago, it has become the fourth most-viewed TED Talk of all time. She has become America’s go-to guru for the universal emotions no one wants to talk about.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says authenticity is the antidote to shame. She defines authenticity as “a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
Shame can debilitate us if we let it fester, but we can also overcome it. If actions speak louder than words, honesty is purest when we express it through what we do. Embodying this kind of authenticity can do a lot more for us than combat shame. Here are five important lessons we should all learn about authenticity and shame from Brené Brown.
01. You Must Let Go of Shame to Be Authentic
Whenever Brown tells people she studies shame, the conversation gets awkward—or flat-out ends—pretty quickly.
Shame is such a viscerally painful emotion that no one even wants to mention it, even while its effects on our lives are profound. Because our desire for connection is so strong, we’re afraid reveal our innermost selves at the risk of being examined, found lacking, and rejected.
“We cannot share ourselves with others when we see ourselves as flawed and unworthy of connection,” Brown says in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t). “It’s impossible to be ‘real’ when we are ashamed of who we are or what we believe.”
Yet, rather than worsening our chances of connecting with others, authenticity enables it. Brown explains in her vulnerability TED Talk what true connection requires of us: that we let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we are. When we choose to believe we are worthy of love, we marginalize shame and become more comfortable expressing our authentic selves.
The good news is that we can choose how we work through shame in our lives. In I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), Brown uses the term “shame resilience” to explain how we should handle feelings of unworthiness that challenge authenticity: “recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain our authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
02. Being Authentic Does Not Mean Baring All
Vulnerability is the source of authenticity, Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly. But being real doesn’t mean flaunting the details of your private life. Rather, sharing your story with only a select few is wise, not closed-off. Healthy vulnerability recognizes when to share and when to remain silent. This helps you strike the balance between guarding who you are at your core and expressing it.
Brown explains that vulnerability is neither good nor bad; its merit depends on the situation. So it’s okay to speak the truth without speaking all of it. In some cases, “I’m having a rough day” really is better than saying “I’m doing great.”
Tasteful vulnerability is the foundation of authenticity. Oversharing can actually make you seem fake. Take Schmidt from New Girl—his frequent TMI moments tend toward eye rolls rather than understanding nods, so the moments in the show where he connects with his friends come not when he’s binge-sharing, but when he’s sharing less, and sharing something that matters deeply to him.
03. Boundaries Support Authenticity
Those who have a strong sense of their own identity and the ability to express it always have healthy boundaries. Brown says setting healthy boundaries is simple: it comes down to letting others know what’s okay and what’s not. If you’re uncomfortable with something, tell the person so and you two can work towards a solution. Letting others have their way and people-pleasing don’t make you a kind person; they make you a resentful one. When you let someone cross a line that’s important to you, you’re not doing either of you a favor by staying silent.
Brown uses the acronym B-I-G to explain why boundaries are important: we must set boundaries to maintain our integrity and still make the most generous assumptions about others. In this way, we express our authentic selves by sticking to our principles, while also being as compassionate as possible.
What theme runs through the most cliché villain backstory ever? The passive, underrated character becomes fed up with being walked over and eventually turns violent. Lady Edith in Downton Abbey, while far from a villain, spends most of the show trying to usurp her sisters because she doesn't muster the courage to demand respect for her own needs. But when she finally expresses who she truly is as a person, she discovers empathy and develops the emotional capacity to notice others’ needs, too.
04. We’re All ‘Should-ing’ Ourselves
Authenticity is threatened by two common pitfalls: perfectionism and comparison. Society’s contradictory ideas of who we should be, especially as women (“Be confident, but don’t be pushy!”), make it difficult to be authentic. “We simply can’t speak our truths when we are held hostage by what other people think,” Brown writes in I Thought It Was Just Me. As we grow up, she says, we filter our experiences through others’ expectations. When we learn to desire normalcy over authenticity, we become fake.
In another TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,” Brown explains that failing to meet the standard of perfection contributes to women feeling shame. Thus, we get trapped in a vicious cycle of feeling shame after missing the perfectionist mark and maintaining shame because our imperfections make us too afraid to express the authenticity that turns shame away. In the full title of Daring Greatly, Brown sums the solution up well: “Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are."
05. Authenticity Is Key to Compassion
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says we can’t be compassionate unless we’re authentic. Being real with people, then, is not only essential to connection but also to compassion. You have to be kind to yourself first, and then to others.
C. S. Lewis famously said, “Friendship . . . is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .’” Without authenticity, these moments are impossible. Authenticity makes way for compassion by expressing trust and allowing us to connect with others over shared experiences. When we begin to live authentically, we recognize our worth, express vulnerability, and set boundaries. Only then can we turn outward and express compassion.
Shame may be universal. But rejecting it? That’s up to us.
Photo Credit: Fernando Farfan