Transformational spaces that explore + cultivate wholehearted living


The Quest sits down with Brené Brown

Navigating the gap between Shame and Pride

Brené Brown PhD, LMSW is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestsellers Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. She is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and has spent the last 12 years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

Brené became a global sensation after her TEDx Houston talk on The Power of Vulnerability went viral and became one of the most watched talks on with over 10 million views. In 2012, she returned to TED and gave the closing talk – Listening to Shame – at the Conference in Long Beach. Brené and her work have been heavily featured in media all around the world, and Oprah recently interviewed her on Super Soul Sunday.

In our work at The Quest we spend time exploring shame and how it relates to the journey of gay men. Brené defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” In her research, Brené found that shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence and depression and that this ‘shame’ is ultimately what prevents people from ‘Wholehearted living’, which she defines as the ability to engage in our lives from a place of worthiness, and feel love and belonging.

Brené explains that for us to feel love and belonging, we need to embrace vulnerability, share our story and let ourselves be seen; this is the essence of our Weekend Exploration Workshop for Gay Men and lies at the heart of The Quest.

We sat down with Brené on her recent visit to London to discuss the insights from her research as it relates to the lives of gay men.

Adé Adeniji: Thank you so much for this opportunity.

Brené Brown: My pleasure.

Adé: Darren and myself set up The Quest about two years ago and we run workshops for gay men where we get to explore shame. We take gay men on a journey going back to their childhood and look at the life experiences that they went through to become who they are today.

We reference your research in our own work, which is why we are so excited to be here with you. We’re very conscious that when it comes to shame, there is still a taboo around it, as it seems to be something that people don’t necessarily want to talk about. But somehow, you’ve been able to help in breaking that taboo, so people now want to have those conversations.

Brené: Strange, isn’t it!

Adé: Yeah. I’m very curious about what’s been your approach in getting to that place?

Brené: I just wear people down (laughs). No, really, I think it was 14 years ago that I told my husband when I was pregnant with my daughter, and we were talking about how that might change my career. I was in the middle of getting my PhD, and he said, “What’s the one thing you really want from your career?” I said, “To start a global conversation about shame and vulnerability, just the conversation.” I didn’t care if people agreed with me, as long as they’re talking about it.

I think it has been tenacity on my part, but it’s also been I think that the world is ready. I think they see that the alternative of not talking about it has not worked. I think the recession in the US, the economic crisis in Europe and all over the world, hard things about violence and uncertainty has really pushed people.

People who struggle with oppression don’t have to be reminded that hiding out, that secret keeping, that pretending doesn’t work. But there are people with privilege across every line, straight privilege, race, class, who get to pretend sometimes that things are better than they are. Then when I think the world starts falling apart, it gets to a point where no one can pretend anymore, and then I think it leaves us with no choice but to start having really difficult conversations. I think the uncertainty of the last decade has, in some strange way softened people up for more difficult conversations.

Adé: With the TED talks and the books, is there any resistance that still comes up when you go into organizations or are invited to give presentations? I remember you saying that there was a time when people would say, “Can you just leave out the shame thing?” Do you still get any of that?

Brené: Yes.

Adé: How do you handle it?

Brené: I still get that a lot. The thing is that there is one of two reactions when I mention shame. First is, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it has nothing to do with me,” or “I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

I often personify shame when I’m teaching or talking about it because it’s helpful. Shame is such a formidable foe because it keeps us terrified of speaking it. In turn, it grows in silence. As soon as you can start putting words around shame, it loses a lot of its power, and so shame works very hard in our lives to make sure it’s never spoken.

I think as long as people are asking me to speak, they’ll always be saying, “Hey, can you tone down the shame stuff?” Shame is still really terrifying to people, but it is the heart of the conversation and it’s about what it is that keeps us feeling small and not good enough?

Ernesto Moreno: How do you respond when someone says they have no shame?

Brené: What I usually say often depends on what kind of mood I’m in. But what I usually say is that we have about 50 years of data that show us that you either have shame or the only people who don’t have shame are people who have no capacity for empathy or connection, which is simple in sociopathology.

I think this is true in the gay community. It’s true in every community. It’s true of humans. We are wired for connection. The fear that there is something about us that makes unworthy of connection will always be there. As long as you have the capacity for connection, there is the fear that something about who you are, what you’ve done, what you’ve failed to do in your life will make you unworthy of love and belonging. Because ultimately, it’s about love and belonging. That will always be real.

It’s interesting, June Tangney does a lot of research with offenders in prison and what you find there is the highest rates of shame and no shame. The people that are the scariest are the people that have no shame because that means they have no capacity for empathy, which makes people very dangerous.

A lot of times, I don’t beat people over the head with it. If I’m talking to a large group, that might be my response, but the bigger issue is some people have to deny their shame or deny to stay alive.

You talk about what gay men went through growing up and that level of trauma and survival. It’s been very interesting the conversations I’ve had in the gay community about the gay Pride movement and does it help or hurt when there is not side by side coexisting with the gay Pride movement, a place to address shame, heterosexism, homophobia and fear.

If a community and a movement go right from exploration, questioning, coming out to Pride – that’s probably the work you see and are doing – there is a piece in there where we have to heal and re-excavate the worthiness that’s been pulled away. Does that make sense?

Darren Brady: Yes, absolutely. It’s why this is perfect because we’ve been talking about pride and shame. We just had Pride over here and we were on the march with The Quest and I was being ironic and saying to the guys – “You don’t need to do our work. Look. Look at this.” That’s the illusion actually, that one day you feel good about it and everyone is in on the party. And the legislation is going our way, so why do we need to go back? But there is that massive gap between coming out, Pride and all that stuff.

So, my question for you is, do you think there is a specific challenge for people who have had persistent exposure to shame in their childhood?

Brené: Yes I do, because we all experience shame as trauma. If something shaming happens to me, you have the prefrontal cortex where we think and organize, rationalize, and then you have the limbic system, which is fight, flight, and para-sympathetically freeze. Shame hijacks the limbic system. When something shaming happens, it’s not like we stay in that real rational part of our mind where we’re, like, “Wow. I’m feeling small.” It’s like time slows down. We don’t have anything smart to say back.

For children, shame is the threat of being unlovable, which is a real physical trauma because for children, especially through elementary school – in the US that would be nine, ten years old – shame is trauma. Even if you grow up with the most supportive, loving family of origin as you explore who you are and what your orientation is, even if you have the best case scenario – I’m going to quote my agent Murdoch who said – “When you grow up surrounded by institutions that are there to support and nurture you and those institutions continually say you are worthless because of who you are, then you grow up with the trauma of being worthless.”

To me, I think a community, and I’m going to go a little brave here, I think any community can measure its health, well-being and pride by markers like the addiction rate in a community, the suicide rate. That’s not saying it’s just the gay community that still has a lot of problems because it has high addiction rate. So do the military. So do a lot of people. The thing is this, that when you have to shut down a part of yourself in order to survive, in order to find a sense of belonging, then the sense of belonging you’re finding is not true belonging, and you’re constantly under the stress and pressure of hustling for your worthiness. That’s traumatic and that stuff has to be healed.

Darren: Relating that to gay children, who at seven, eight, nine have a growing understanding of their difference, how can that be healed when they have that trauma day after day after day, from six, seven, eight, nine?

Brené: It’s work, and it’s trauma work, and it’s healing work, and it’s talking about shame, and it’s walking through the darkness to find the light. You know why people want to go from ‘coming out’ to ‘pride’ and why people want to go from, in my case, from a ‘feminist cautiousness’ to ‘I am woman?’ The part that we all want to skip is grief.

We want to skip grieving what we didn’t get, what we should have gotten while we were six or seven or eight. There’s grief work to be done there. That’s a hard thing to build a grate around, but it is the work that truly gets us to the place we want to be. I’m not saying that I’m against Pride Week or I’m against any other celebration. I’m just saying that there needs to be more organizations like yours doing the work that bridges ‘self-identifying’ to ‘pride’ in a homophobic and heterosexist culture, which is what we still live in.

Yeah, things are going our way legally, that’s great. Things are going our way in the US too. It’s getting better and better. But it doesn’t change the fact that if you go to the movies and you’re holding hands, you could invite disastrous violence. While if I go to the movies with my husband holding hands, people choose to wink or nod, like, “How sweet.” My fear is that as things start to go our way and legislation becomes more equitable and more humanized, I think there will be a backlash. We’ve seen with every movement that, as the world changes, there is no one more dangerous than people who stay in fear. I think there is just a lot of work to be done. I don’t think you can skip over the six or seven or eight-year-old who still has some grieving to do. Even though you’re an adult with an intellectual awareness, that doesn’t heal that six or seven or eight-year-old. Does that make sense?

Darren: Yeah, absolutely, yeah.

Brene Interview - 2Adé, Darren, Brené & Ernesto

Adé: In Daring Greatly, you talk about how men experience shame and how women experience shame. I was wondering from the data, is there anything you learnt about gay men, and how gay men experience shame?

Brené: For gay men, I think some of the big shame triggers are appearance, body image, and the one that surprised me the most is age and aging. At least in the US, there seems to be a sense of invisibility when you hit your mid-40’s within the gay community because it has become so appearance focused. To be honest with you, among straight men, appearance and body image is also becoming a much more relevant shame trigger.

Darren: Additionally I think something else which is a shame trigger and which is quite edgy is penis size. I think that is directly related to the porn industry and the prevalence of porn and what people look at as being powerful.

A lot of male clients of mine come and say, “This is the hardest thing for me to talk about, that I feel ashamed that my penis isn’t big enough.” Even for me, that is edgy. I’m, like, “Ooh. OK. We’ll have this conversation.” But yeah, it ties in with what you’re saying.

Brené: Yeah, the porn industry has not helped anyone because we have the same thing with women in the US. There was a recent study where they showed young straight boys or young men – probably 18 years old – pictures of breasts from porn and then showed them 10 photos of real women’s breasts, and they then used words like “disgusting.”

Yeah. It’s really hard because if you take something like pornography, it really taps into a more difficult conversation about internalized oppression because we’re consumers of the things that hurt us. It’s like if you go up to my room right now, you’re going to probably find a magazine that I’ve picked up somewhere. I know. It’s terrible, right? But I’ll read anything while I’m traveling that helps me feel like ‘I’m not going to crash’, I don’t want to read anything heavy duty.

I think those images go back to worthiness. They go back to – what is enough? If people moved past that, it will be a new outcome for whatever is enough. We’re comparing ourselves to things that don’t exist in reality.

Ernesto: What is the link between shame and self-esteem which develops as a result of the derogatory comments we hear from others when growing up, and our own realization that we are different – and how is this linked to our belief of ‘I am worthy’ – which you say is what Wholehearted people have in common. Also what would you say to the gay guys who do our intensive weekend workshop, who find it challenging to consistently practice the insights they have during the workshop in their day-to-day life after they walk out the door and face reality?

Brené: It’s an interesting question because we do a lot of our work in intensives as well. One of the things that we have really found in terms of a model is that I think it’s all about worthiness. I think it goes back to this idea of owning our story and owning who we are. The choices are that we own our story and we own who we are, or we stand outside of our story and we hustle for our worth.

I think for young gay boys who realize – “Oh my God, I’m different” – this is dangerous and could threaten belonging, not just with their friends and community, but with their family of origin; the people that they need the most. You can talk about the struggle that the GLBT community has, and you can talk about race, and you can talk about class, but it is really the only struggle where in owning your story and who you are, you jeopardize or potentially jeopardize the group of people who can help you through it, which is your family. If you’re Latino or Latina or you’re Black or you’re Asian and the world is racist, you still have parents who look like you who give you strategies for dealing with the world, who help you with your worthiness. Sexual orientation is different in that way.

To me, the connection is you either stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness, or you own it. When you stand outside hustling, it’s a double punch because you feel shame for the things you do to try to get people’s approval — money, sex, work, status, appearance, whatever it is — and then you also feel ashamed because you’re not being authentic. You know you’re hiding something about yourself.

The thing that we’ve learned about these intensive weekends is the most helpful component of them are the integration groups that happen four weeks after the group, eight weeks after the group, and 12 weeks after the group. Because even if they’re for two hours, the group has a chance to go back into their lives, see where this stuff pops up, keep journals, come back and say, “Here is my lived experience of what you talked about. I love that skill you taught me, but when this happened, I totally went blank.” So integration groups are super helpful because then they can take the content, go back to their life, come back and meet, integrate, go back, integrate. That’s part of the model that we’re looking at because like you, we run weekend intensives.

Then what ends up happening, which is really neat with integration groups is they start building community. Even after we stop facilitating them, they keep meeting for coffee. That’s building a network of emphatic community that’s connected. It is a huge part of what I think something like The Quest can do because there’s only so much we can deliver, and then people have to go out and live it. To give them the gift of having a group with whom they can come back to is such a good thing.

Adé: Our final question, what message would you give to the gay men that engage in our work? I’m asking because one of the things that I found in reading Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection was that I kept looking for a message to me. I heard the humanity message, but I was also looking for a message to me as a gay man. What would you like to say to the gay men out there who are on this journey of cultivating a Wholehearted life?

Brené: Let me think about this for a second. It’s a very important question.

I think I would say that you are the gift, not what you know, not what you make, not what people see on the outside, but who you are is the gift that you give our world. Even though it seems at times unsafe and not supported, we need all of who you are; because the world needs what you have to bring and what you have to contribute. There are a lot of us out there wanting to support you. We want you to show up and be seen just like you are. That’s what I would say.”

Adé: Thank you so much. That ties in really beautifully actually with what we got for you. We published a book last year (hands over copy of book).

51eCX2sPfnL._SL500_Brené: Oh my God, Love Me As I Am! (laughter all round).

Adé: I know!

Darren: Who knew!

Adé: We had 24 of the men who have been on our workshop contribute to the book – It’s about them owning their story. In the book, they’ve written a letter to their 16-year-old self, and they’re also looking at where they are now – It’s a now and then. In the book, we talk about the gay man’s journey from feeling ‘oddly out of place’ to ‘developing limiting beliefs’, like “I’m bad. I’m not good enough,” to ‘striving to survive’ where we look at the coping mechanisms that were put in place. Then the final chapter is about gay men finding ‘their way back home’ – finding their way back to authenticity, to Wholehearted living.

Brené: I love it! Thank You!

Adé: Thank You!

The Quest © 2013

You can find out more about The Quest and our work with gay men here on our website or drop us an email at, if you have any queries.

6 thoughts on “The Quest sits down with Brené Brown”

  1. This is fantastic. As an HIV positive gay man I can see that I need to read these books and bring it to Birmingham UK in a big way.

    many thanks

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