Exploring the Swampland Of the Soul — Shame

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the topic of shame and its relevance to living in the 21st Century, as I thought it might be an interesting topic to explore. In my research, I came across a TED Talk on the topic of shame. I love TED Talks and always find something relevant and educational in them. This particular talk was given by Dr. Brené Brown that truly spoke to me and gave me some unique insights.

Brené Brown studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She’s a researcher-storyteller and author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, a book about embracing vulnerability and imperfection and to live a life wholeheartedly with engagement. In this particular TED talk — she’s done a few — she brings us into the “unspoken epidemic” of shame and explores what happens when people confront their shame head-on.

With that I give you an edited version of the transcript: 

Listening to Shame

By Brené Brown 

“…There's [something] that I've learned in the last year. That is: vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives. And I've come to the belief — this is my 12th year doing this research — that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage — to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest. 

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? We 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. 

There's a great quote by Theodore Roosevelt. A lot of people refer to it as the Man in the Arena quote.

‘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.’ 

Life is 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, smart, talented, or powerful enough.’ 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 your way 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 [a man], 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, or, 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 the old Enjoli commercial. ‘I can put the wash on the line, feed the kids, get dressed, pass out the kisses, and get to work by 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. 

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 thing, do not be perceived as what? Weak. I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. It wasn't until a man looked at me after a book signing, and said, ‘I love what 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 vulnerable, we 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, here’s some research by [Dr. James] 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 to 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 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.”

And that's what I wish for each and every one of you: to live your life daring greatly.


Cooking for Joan

My dear friends Kitty and Tom were in a terrible car accident in early December in upstate New York, near Woodstock. They were on their way to close on a new vacation home in the area when the car went off the road and hit a tree. Kitty got the brunt of the damage and was in the hospital for 6 weeks. In January, she was released to recuperate at their new country house in the woods, which fortunately, had a large and accessible downstairs since she would be in a wheelchair for a number of weeks. 

The weekend that they were getting settled in, our mutual friend Vicki and I went up to help set up the house for their temporary stay. As you all know, I love to cook and thought a great gift to offer them would be to cook a number of meals so they would have home-cooked food for the first week or so. I bought 13 lbs of meat and gave a list of other ingredients that I would need to Vicki who was already at the house.

The forecast predicted a blizzard to hit the area around 5 pm on Saturday and fortunately, me and my suitcase stuffed with meat made the very last bus to leave NYC before the onslaught. And it did snow and snow and snow, so much, in fact, I was snowed in for an extra day. It was quite a spectacularly beautiful setting.

Despite the terrible reason that brought us all together, we had a wonderful time reconnecting, getting to know the house, and enjoying each other’s company. And as is our way, with a great dose of humor, we focused on all of the positive things that came out of this unfortunate situation. Number one, of course, they were alive and well on the way to full recovery.

That weekend, I spent hours cooking in the open kitchen, which was perfect as we could all converse while I cooked. I made one of my favorite winter dishes, Ribollita with Sausage, a tasty Italian soup made with kale, cannellini beans, tomatoes, and sausage. It was a fan favorite. I made a huge vat of it and we were able to enjoy it for dinner and then again for breakfast with a fried egg stirred in right before serving — delicious!

 Ribollita with Italian Sausage


Prep Time: 30 | Cook Time: 2 hours | Makes: 6 | Difficulty: Easy 


  • 2 cups coarsely torn day-old sourdough bread
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more
  • (or just use store-bought croutons or Texas Toast)
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled, finely chopped
  • 3 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 2 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 bunch of kale, ribs removed, leaves torn into 2” pieces
  • 1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes, drained, chopped
  • 1 15-oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 8 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 4 ounces Parmesan, shaved


Preheat oven to 350°

 If you’re making your own croutons:

Toss bread and olive oil on a foil-lined baking sheet, making sure to get oil on every piece; season with salt. Toast, tossing occasionally, until golden brown and crunchy, 15–18 minutes. Let croutons cool.

Using your hands, mix sausage and wine in a medium bowl until mixed with small crumbles. Cook in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until firm but not browned, about 4 minutes.

Add onion, carrots, celery, anchovies, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender but still hold their shape, 20 minutes.

Add kale, tomatoes, beans, and broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until kale offers no resistance when bitten and flavors have melded, about 1 hour.

Just before serving, add vinegar.

Divide croutons among bowls and ladle soup over.

Serve topped with Parmesan and drizzled with more oil. 

(If you don’t want to croutons to get soft so quickly, just add them to the top.)

bon appétit!

Categories: Relationships - Personal Interactions , Change - Challenges

Tags: life coach , shame , the power of shame , understanding shame , vulnerability is not weakness , Brené Brown