[The photograph show the head and shoulders of a smiling woman with short blond hair. She is wearing oval-shaped earrings, a light brown scarf and a blue jacket.]
I first ran across Brene Brown’s work after several friends told me that I absolutely, positively had to watch her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability. They thought I’d love it. They thought it would be just the thing.
Despite their encouragement, I kept putting it off. I suppose it would be easy to psychoanalyze myself and say that I was resisting the need to confront my own vulnerability, but the answer is much simpler: I have hearing difficulties and there was no closed captioning on the video. So I needed a transcript of the talk to go along with the video, and I was too busy to go looking for one.
This lack of built-in access around disability is important, because it’s an indication of larger problems with the talk itself. Once I got around to it, I found a transcript and watched the talk, along with its companion piece Listening to Shame (for which I found a transcript as well).
I liked quite a bit about the talks, at first. It all felt so affirming and familiar, you know? I mean, who doesn’t grapple with being vulnerable – in personal relationships, in the body, in the world? Who doesn’t struggle with shame? Who doesn’t struggle with connection? Very few people.
But something was missing. A lot was missing, actually. In fact, so much was missing that what Brown had to say ultimately didn’t have much staying power for me.
What was missing was both utterly vast and stunningly simple: social context. Nearly everything that Brown talked about – our fear of vulnerability, our lack of connection, our sense of shame – was with reference to individual psychology, with absolutely no acknowledgment that different people occupy different contexts that bear on all of these questions. For example, early in The Power of Vulnerability, Brown poses the question of why people feel so disconnected from each other, and she answers it with a very simple response: Shame. Shame, she believes, is the culprit:
I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way that I didn’t understand or had never seen. And so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. (Brown 2010)
Now, I don’t know about you, but I can think of a whole number of other reasons that people experience deep wells of fear, alienation, and disconnection from one another: racism, ableism, homoantagonism, transantagonism, fatphobia, classism, ethnocentrism, poverty, white supremacy, the tyranny of normalcy, unequal distribution of wealth, violence, warfare, the prison-industrial complex, the disability gulag, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, and binarism. Just to name a few.
As much as I’d love to have a simple answer to the problem of disconnection, I’m sorry, but it just can’t be boiled down to personal shame.
Do all of the bigotries that people face cause them to feel shame? At one time or another, yes, but let’s face it: Disconnection is not going to be solved just by overcoming shame. People from any marginalized group can do all the personal work on themselves they want, but that work is not going to magically get them off the margins and connected into the larger society. If you’re on the margins, it’s not your attitude that’s got you disconnected. It’s stigma and systemic exclusion. I can be the most psychologically healthy, spiritually evolved, kick-ass disabled person on the planet, and that is not going to solve the social, sensory, and architectural barriers that enforce my disconnection from the able-bodied world every single day.
In my experience of having sat in front of a number of therapists over the past 30 years, a refusal to consider social context is not unusual. I have had only one therapist in my adult life who could talk to me about my feelings and struggles in the context of being a disabled woman in America. Just one. For the rest? Going into their offices was like entering a sound-proof booth in which the clamouring exclusions and bigotries of the world simply did not enter.
Let me give you an example of what it feels like to talk about disability with most therapists. The following is a conversation I had with a therapist when I was just beginning to grapple with being disabled in mid-life. I posted it to my old Journeys with Autism blog three years ago, right after I decided that therapy was no longer serving the cause of my mental health:
Me: When you write up your paperwork about our sessions, do you include a diagnosis?
My therapist: No.
Me: If you had to give me a diagnosis, what would it be?
My therapist: Well, you definitely have a mood disorder.
Me: I do?
My therapist: Yes.
Me: How do you define that?
My therapist: Well, you’re anxious and sad a lot.
Me: That means I have a disorder?
My therapist: Yes.
Me: But look at my situation. I’m dealing with being disabled in mid-life. The world is not set up to bring someone like me into full membership in the community. In fact, I feel invisible most of the time. It makes me sad. I’m grieving. Anyone would feel sad and upset in that situation. Why does that mean I have a disorder?
My therapist: Because it’s your problem.
Me: What do you mean it’s my problem? I live in a society that renders me invisible. Why isn’t it society’s problem?
My therapist: Because it’s your problem.
Me: But I can’t solve it alone. I realize that I have to deal with what I’ve been given, but you can’t possibly expect me to just bear up cheerfully under the weight of all this difficulty. There’s a relationship between me and the world here. What about the world’s dysfunctionality? Why is this all on me?
My therapist: [benign smile]
Me: Do you understand what I’m saying?
My therapist: Yes, and it’s still your problem.
Me: I can see we’re not getting anywhere.
As you can imagine, this conversation did not improve my mood. Suddenly, all of the responsibility for my feelings of vulnerability and disconnection fell on me alone. I somehow had to solve the problem of living under the burdens of exclusion and bigotry with absolutely no reference to those burdens at all. It wasn’t that the world had a problem called ableism. No. It was that I was disordered. And yet, I’d have to be completely dissociated to walk around cheerfully oblivious to the social forces that were pounding on me every single day.
In psychotherapy, I have experienced this omission of social context as deeply shaming, deeply disconnecting, and deeply alienating. It has put all of the responsibility for changing my attitude, my outlook, and my internal narrative on my shoulders without ever addressing the outside forces that make that change so difficult. Do I bear responsibility for how I walk through the world? Absolutely. No question. But that’s not all there is, and the idea that it’s all up to me dooms the whole project of “feeling good about myself” to failure.
In all of the years I was in therapy, only one therapist addressed all of the shaming, disempowering, disconnecting social forces that made it so difficult for me to get my head clear and have a positive sense of myself. Before I met that therapist, my inability to find this base-level self-esteem became an index of a personal failing. I poured a great deal of emotional energy into solving the “issues” of my feelings of disconnection and alienation as though they were some sort of maladjustments, while the systemic injustices to which they were a response remained in place. When I could not get away from these feelings, I was told that I just had to work harder at it. Thank God I figured out that my feelings were a perfectly reasonable response to a harsh and unjust world. If I hadn’t realized this simple fact, I’d still be in therapy, wondering what was wrong with me that all my hard work was not getting me anywhere.
Do I think that people in the field of social work, like Ms. Brown, or anyone with therapeutic training means to be shaming or disempowering? No. I don’t. In fact, I think most are quite well-intentioned and want to help people, and I think that their work has its place. It has certainly helped me in other respects. But without social context, their work becomes deeply problematic, and many of the issues that arise are reflected in Brene Brown’s videos.
[Cover Image Caption: Photo depicts a large green highway sign with the words “Vulnerability Just Ahead”. The background is a full grey sky with some clouds.]
dotsub. “Transcript for Brene Brown: Listening to Shame.”http://dotsub.com/view/38df2a78-893c-472b-b898-1edd59e86a44/viewTranscript/eng. Accessed September 19, 2013.
dotsub. “Transcript for Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability.”http://dotsub.com/view/a51d0f78-3541-4262-b032-5d7e0438ac22/viewTranscript/eng?timed=true. Accessed September 19, 2013.
TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. “Brene Brown: Listening to Shame.”http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame.html. March 2012. Accessed September 19, 2013.
TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. “Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability.”http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html. June 2010. Accessed September 19, 2013.