“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” -Theodore Roosevelt

1984 was an incredible year for movies, especially ones that feel very “80s.” The top three grossing movies from that year were Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Other classics released that year include The Karate Kid, Police Academy, Footloose, Romancing the Stone and Splash. The Oscar for best picture in 1984 went to Amadeus. All of these are movies I have seen countless times.

The fourth highest grossing film from 1984 was Gremlins, a comedy horror film that I saw when I was 8 years old and that freaked me out. The film tells the story of a young man who receives a strange creature called a mogwai as a pet, which then spawns other creatures that transform into small, destructive, evil monsters. There are three rules an owner of mogwais must remember: don’t expose them to water, don’t let them eat after midnight and don’t expose them to light. If you break the first two rules, the creatures will multiply. Break the third rule, and the mogwai will be destroyed. The movie had a profound impact on our culture, and gremlins entered our vocabulary to represent things that are invisible, cause trouble, bring difficulties and can multiply easily.

The Importance of Vulnerability

Why am I bringing this up (besides the fact that I like talking about movies)? Gremlins can be anywhere in our world, and I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about this. This past week, I was on vacation and read and listened to a lot of teachings by Dr. Brené Brown. Dr. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and has become well-known for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. In a series of lectures called “The Power of Vulnerability,” she compared shame to gremlins. Like gremlins, when shame is exposed to light, it cannot survive.

So for the second week in a row, I have decided to go dig deep into emotions to try and unlock peak performance for both myself and my colleagues at Learning House. The last several years have seen a lot of research and conversation around concepts like flow, grit, growth mindset and deliberate practice. These are all positive. But there is a negative that we also need to explore: vulnerability and shame. Dr. Brown has done outstanding work in this field, especially in her TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” In particular, she has discovered through her research that being vulnerable is absolutely essential to wholehearted living, the feeling of being enough — something I think most of us strive toward.

A Beginner’s Guide to Brené Brown

There is a lot to unpack from her books and lectures, and I am just beginning to really explore all that she has to say. However, I wanted to share with you 11 quotes that I think best sum up her findings and teachings as well as some added commentary and reaction from me.

  1. “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” All I can say about this one is that I feel incredibly grateful for coming from a family that has always loved and supported each other, and now I am building my own family where love and support are at the center and foundation of the unit. I feel the same way about business, which is why we are investing so much in building the right culture for people to thrive.
  2. “Through my research, I found that vulnerability is the glue that holds relationships together. It’s the magic sauce.” I have always believed that if I am not willing to be vulnerable and act my true self with the people I surround myself with, then I am not living my definition of an authentic life. My life has not always been perfect, but I think this belief has allowed me to have many rich and meaningful relationships and experience virtually no drama. However, there is good reason to believe that I have not been vulnerable enough, which possibly has curtailed many other relationships I could have had. I have a tendency to go inward (competing in triathlons is a monastic endeavor), and this is something for me to ponder as I move forward.
  3. “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” This is where I find the genius of Dr. Brown to shine through. So many pundits and leadership gurus talk about courage and the importance of it. What they don’t talk about is the massive roadblock getting in the way: our own unwillingness to be vulnerable and talk about our shame. I know I have not been vulnerable enough in business and in life, and I know I have much more growing to do.
  4. “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” So this analogy might seem rather crude, but just go with me. In college, my fraternity had a tradition of streaking, which came about long before I arrived on campus. We seemed to streak all the time, including public events like football games. Mostly, we streaked if we got shut out in a beer pong game. I cannot think of a better way to be “vulnerable” than streaking (aka running in the nude) around your house at 8 p.m. on Saturday when across the street was the President’s house and two doors down was a sorority house. Fortunately for me, I was pretty good at beer pong, so this rarely ever happened, but it did happen and frankly, it was frightening. The point is not to tell you tales of my youth, but to remember that letting ourselves truly be seen and not walking away mortified takes a lot of courage.
  5. “Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” Dr. Brown defines the difference between shame and guilt in the following example of hurting someone else’s feelings. Guilt is I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame is I’m sorry. I am a mistake. In a sense, shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is the gremlin that says things like, “you are not smart enough, you are not pretty enough, you are not worthy, your spouse left you because you are worthless, you never get the promotion because you have no skills,” etc.
  6. “Empathy’s the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.” This is possibly the single most important ingredient Dr. Brown gives us in combating shame. Empathy is the “light” to eliminate the shame or “gremlins.” She uses another analogy of a Petri dish by saying, “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.” I struggle with this one for a couple of reasons. First, I cannot say I am the best with empathy, which is simply defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The good news is that Dr. Brown says that there are two types of people: those who can experience empathy and sociopaths. Last I checked, I was the former! Second, I am not willing to concede that we cannot eliminate or minimize shame on our own through deep introspection and finding strategies to provide empathy to ourselves. In reflecting back to last week’s blog post about anger, I am certain that becoming the observer can take a similar effect. If I am ever with Dr. Brown, I will certainly ask this question.
  7. “Men walk this tightrope where any sign of weakness elicits shame, and so they’re afraid to make themselves vulnerable for fear of looking weak.” Dr. Brown says that shame feels the same for both men and women, but it is organized differently. For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat. For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is all about not being perceived as weak. I feel like there is something ancestral about this evolution, but the point really hits home for me. As I reflect on my life and decisions, I am constantly motivated by the fear of not looking weak. Every time I see a weakness pop up, I get out the sledgehammer and go to work. It’s exhausting, frankly. A perfect example of this is around getting sick or getting injured. When I get a cold or a new injury from training, which is rather frequent with my rather intense lifestyle of travel and participation in endurance sports, I feel a strong sense of weakness as if it all could unravel. I really don’t know where this comes from, but clearly I need to work on this. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone!
  8. “I’m just going to say it: I’m pro-guilt. Guilt is good. Guilt helps us stay on track because it’s about our behavior. It occurs when we compare something we’ve done – or failed to do – with our personal values.” This one was right down the middle for me. Guilt comes naturally to me and the rest of my clan. I have almost always seen this as a crutch. However, I interpret this quote as guilt is a way for us to reflect on our decisions and decide where we might have gone wrong. As long as we are OK with apologizing and then forgiving ourselves, I see guilt as a very powerful and positive emotion used correctly and not hung on to for too long.
  9. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” When Dr. Brown meets with corporations, they would prefer her not to talk about vulnerability and shame, but she forces them to do so as she believes that this is where it all begins. She explains that there is nothing more vulnerable than to do something or making something that has never been done before.
  10. “First and foremost, we need to be the adults we want our children to be. We should watch our own gossiping and anger. We should model the kindness we want to see.” This goes a bit off the shame and vulnerability path, but it is one of the best pieces of advice I give myself daily, reflected succinctly in the Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in this world. Raising children is challenging. When I have a moment to reflect, I know that the best the way I can raise my children is by modeling the behavior I would love to see in them one day. Kids have “hypocrite radar,” which allows them to know immediately if you are saying one thing and doing another. I have lots of work to do here.
  11. “I’ve learned that men and women who are living wholehearted lives really allow themselves to soften into joy and happiness.” They allow themselves to experience joy. This is another powerful concept. I sometimes find myself hedging when real joy sweeps over me. Whether it is something great at work or home, I find myself not really allowing myself to experience the joy fully because I know that something painful is right around the corner. I justify this through my role as CEO or father/husband in that I need to be prepared for the downside. Interestingly, we selected Celebration as one of our values at Learning House, and I am not sure I have ever really allowed myself to experience the joy of what we are creating. A lot to ponder here.

Brené Brown could go down as one of the great researchers of our time by exposing the epidemic of shame and lack of vulnerability that resides in our culture. She states that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide and eating disorders. What Dr. Brown is doing is attempting to get at the root cause of our problems and start working on not seeing vulnerability as a weakness, but rather paradoxically a strength to fulfilling human potential and living what she calls a wholehearted life. As we look to build the best culture possible at Learning House, I recognize we need to create an environment where shame is eradicated on one end and being vulnerable is supported and rewarded on another. I am going to look for more ways both to be more vulnerable and practice empathy when the opportunity arises. To be clear, there will not be any streaking!

About Todd Zipper

President & Chief Executive Officer

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1 Comment on "The Shame Gremlin"

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Zoe Herold

I will absolutely be looking more into Dr. Brown’s work, thank you so much for sharing! Looking forward to reading more of your blog posts, and her interesting and important research.