Brene Brown on shame, vulnerability and compassion

echidna 1 scaled

Australian echidna not enjoying having its photo taken

Recently I’ve offered a couple of retreats and courses exploring the theme of “Transforming Poison into Medicine – working with the mind’s difficult energies.”   That phrase about “poison and medicine” was borrowed from a chapter in a book by Pema Chodron, an American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition who has written many inspiring books about transmuting life’s obstacles into resources.  The titles of her books say it all:

The Wisdom of No Escape
Start Where You Are: How to accept yourself and others
When Things Fall Apart
The Places that Scare You
Comfortable with Uncertainty
No Time to Lose …

There’s definitely a theme there!  And perhaps she (and we) need to keep coming back to that theme because it IS so counter-intuitive that “the way out is through.”  Even to hear or read words such as shame and vulnerability can send some of us scurrying back into our “wombat holes,” to borrow a phrase from a recent course participant.

But in case we need any further convincing, there’s a growing body of research that’s starting to come to similar conclusions.  For example, Brene Brown, who is a professor of sociology at Houston University, has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame, and although (as far as I know) she is not a meditator, the conclusions she comes to sound a lot like this alchemical process of transmuting poisons into medicine.   In one of her latest interviews, she even quotes Pema Chodron.  Here is a short extract from that interview:

If you have a petri dish and you have shame in there, this pervasive feeling of not being good enough and not being ‘whatever’ enough—thin enough, rich enough, popular enough, promoted enough, loved enough. It only needs three things to survive in this little Petri dish and actually to grow exponentially and creep into every corner and crevice of your life and that is secrecy, silence and judgement. If you have the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and you douse it with some empathy, you share your story with someone who can hear you and look back at you and say you’re not alone, shame dies. 

Pema Chödrön … defines compassion as knowing your darkness well enough that you can sit in the dark with others. …

Which is why, it’s so ironic to me that people think that vulnerability is weakness, when really, letting ourselves fully soften into feeling is one of the most courageous things we do. I mean it’s ballsy to let yourself feel. I don’t know if there’s an emotion more vulnerable than joy. I think it is one of the most difficult emotions to feel. Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.

So what’s the antidote?

To increase our tolerance for discomfort … you practice being uncomfortable.

Because to lean into joy is to lean into discomfort.


The whole text of the interview is available here:


2 thoughts on “Brene Brown on shame, vulnerability and compassion

  1. Thanks Jill. I found this interesting. Although my initial thought was ‘if another person tells me about life and how it works I think I will scream’. However, I decided to read it anyway and I am glad I did.
    The primary challenge for me in relation to what she said was near the end ‘I want my children to do work they love and I want them to grow up seeing me doing work I love.’
    Certainly I agree with this and I am not doing work I love. So that is a challenge for me….

  2. Good read, Jill. Recently I discovered that some of my teeth are losing bone and will be lost. This freaked me out so much and I had all these reactions of blaming myself for sloppy eating habits, eating too much sugar and even wrong speech! Also wild thoughts like ‘I am too young to lose my teeth!’ It was really harsh and denying of organic processes. Of course bone is about as basic as you can get in relationship to the physical manifestation of human life and death and impermanence were staring me right in the face. Also the body image of a western woman culturally cannot tolerate toothlessness, that is for the crones in the fourth world. More harshness and judgements…and attachment to appearances. In fact this event has been perfect for cultivating the understanding of impermanence and this precious human life, kindness, compassion and calling upon a Source higher than myself….and for all those who have no teeth at all. Blessings and bows, Shen

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