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Brené Brown explains the misconception around feelings of guilt and shame

Research professor Brené Brown has spent a large part of her career looking at shame, which she says has now become an epidemic in society. So how can we better deal with our feelings?

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the last two years have been an emotional rollercoaster.

With tough lockdowns, border closures and separation from our loved ones, the world has been navigating an uncertain environment.

But what if we could better deal with our feelings, like fear, sadness and anger?

Emotions expert professor Brené Brown tells 7.30 that we can, by using a more expansive language vocabulary, help name our emotions.

"We know this from neuroscience — language does not just communicate emotion, it shapes … how we respond to emotion," she said. 

Blonde woman wearing black shirt and jacket smiling.Blonde woman wearing black shirt and jacket smiling.
Brené Brown is a research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.(Credit: Randal Ford)

"What we know from the data is that the ability to accurately name an emotion helps us move through it, helps us heal, [and] helps us replicate it for the positive emotions."

Part of the problem, according to Brown, is that we're not especially good at showing our emotions.

Her own research found that people can typically only name three emotions – happy, sad and mad.

"We just don't have a vocabulary that is as expansive as our human experience," she said. 

Her new book Atlas of the Heart identifies 87 emotions, but she explains there's an infinite amount because we can often feel mixed emotions — like bittersweet.

"There's a real swirl of them all the time," she said. 

Being human is 'messy' 

Brown has been studying human connections for the last two decades and says the complexity of emotions ultimately comes down to the fact that human beings are "so messy".

"The pandemic is such a great example," she said.

"We're kind of worried all the time, but also trying to experience joy.

"We feel disconnected, but we're holding on to moments of connection."

Brown says the pandemic has brought out the very worst and best in people because it is a "default human response to fear and uncertainty."

Crowd of people wearing face masks walking across a scramble crossing in Brisbane CBD.Crowd of people wearing face masks walking across a scramble crossing in Brisbane CBD.
Brené Brown says the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a 'flight or flight' response in people. (AAP: Darren England)

"[COVID-19] is a threat to survival for us," she said.

"An uncertain environment that poses a huge threat — it's fight [or] flight."

Brown says it's not always easy to choose the brave path because it isn't as intrinsic to humans. 

"You'll see the very best of people because they have consciously decided to choose courage in the face of uncertainty," she said.

"But during times of great uncertainty, we have to intentionally choose courage. It is not the default."

The epidemic of shame 

Brown has spent a large part of her career looking at shame and she believes it's now an epidemic in our society.

"I think in our culture today we just see the vitriol, we see people humiliating, shaming each other, name-calling, belittling, putting down [others]," she said.

"It's a really powerful way to discharge anger and pain and discomfort, just to tear into someone else.

"One, it feels good, and number two, we do not know how to hold people accountable.

"It's just easier to name call and move on and rage."

Anonymous woman with long hair holding smartphoneAnonymous woman with long hair holding smartphone
Brené Brown believes shame has become an epidemic in society.(Unsplash: Tim Mossholder)

Brown says we're also too hard on ourselves when it comes to feelings of shame.

"We berate ourselves … very few of us talk to ourselves in the face of a disappointment or failure," she said. 

"Very few of us talk to ourselves the same way we would talk to someone we love and respect."

Brown says the reason we do that is because we've bought into the idea that we can shame ourselves into changing — but "there's literally not a scrap of evidence that says that's true". 

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"What we know from studies is that shame does nothing to move people in either direction," she said. 

"Empathy, understanding, listening … that is actually the only thing that's effective. And so you can't shame or belittle people into changing.

"We can hang the picture of our worst selves on the refrigerator, hoping that it'll … stop the snacking," she said.

"But most the time we just end up standing there looking at it, eating the peanut butter, because it makes us feel like crap.

"You just can't hate yourself into being better and you can't hate other people into it."

How shame differs from guilt

Brown says one misconception is that shame and guilt are the same thing.

"What's interesting is guilt gets a really bad rap, but guilt is a very socially adaptive emotion," she said. 

"Guilt is 'I did something bad', and shame is 'I am that.'

"Guilt is cognitive dissonance. Guilt says, I've done something or failed to do something that is aligned with my values. And it feels awful. I need to make amends, make a change and hold myself accountable. I need to fix it."

A young man slumps over with his chin resting on his arms, at a dining room table.A young man slumps over with his chin resting on his arms, at a dining room table.
There's a difference between feeling shame and guilt, according to Brené Brown.(Pexels: Andrew Neel)

Shame, however, is a lot more damaging according to Brown, as it says "you are a bad person", and as a social species, "shame is death".

"Shame is the fear of being unworthy of love, connection and belonging, and the absence of love and connection and belonging as a human being, and there's always suffering," she said. 

"So, we have to say to ourselves, 'Look, I'm not a bad person, but I did a bad thing. And I've got to fix that thing and make amends.'

"So, when you see people making amends, being accountable, it's not because it's driven by shame, it's because it's driven by guilt and a combination of guilt and empathy."

Contempt is toxic 

Of all the human emotions, Brown warns contempt is one of the worst emotions because it's destructive.

"If you and I are in an argument about something and you're really angry with me, that's OK. We're still connected, [but] we disagree, we're angry," she said. 

"But contempt is, 'You have been dismissed.'"

She refers to the research done by John Gottman that observed thousands of couples who argued — he could predict divorce with over 90 per cent accuracy and the key determinant was contempt.

"[Contempt] is really like, 'I'm not just angry, I'm done. I diminish you, you mean nothing'," she said. 

"So, contempt is … a dangerous emotion."

Watch the interview with Brené Brown on 7.30, tonight on ABC TV and iview.

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