A friend and I had dinner last night, and one of the topics we talked about was shame. Something else in our conversation made me think that he would like to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability (one of the most-watched TED videos)
I hadn’t quite processed at that time, that she had a second video about shame, but when I watched it again, I knew I’d seen it before.
Shame is one of the hardest things for people to talk about. It is painful to live through, and just as painful to hear, and so we try to hide it. But shame thrives on secrecy and isolation.
Dr. Brown defines shame this way:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.
The last time I had an intense bout of shame was during my first semester when I started working at a university after a long sojourn as a software developer. I gave a talk to the Numerical Analysis seminar, about a paper I had recently gotten published. The talk was too short, and I didn’t have to do anything beyond some fairly basic mathematics to get my result. It felt like everyone filed past me, not speaking to me, and I had days of crisis, tears, trying to get help from my therapist, not knowing where to go or what to do. But definitely not talking about the incident with anyone who was there; I wanted to avoid all of them. I think I told a friend who advised me to ask someone there how it went, and one thing I knew for sure was that I couldn’t do that. I was completely terrified of what the response would be. I am still not sure I could ask someone who was there that day about it, and that was 5 or more years ago now.
This stirs up all the memories of my graduate school experience, where, no matter what I did, I felt like I had disappointed my advisors and hadn’t met the standard. I remember going home from an oral exam that I passed and crying for hours, feeling like a failure. I remember words, “Maybe you are like a retarded third grader who can’t learn how to read.” I remember many days where my one success was not starting to cry until I got out of the building. And the sense that my Ph.D. represented my ultimate failure as a human being to be what I wanted to be.
Clearly one of my shame triggers is being unworthy as a mathematician. Of being unable to do anything but second rate or easy work.
Today I was videotaping a lecture. A student asked how I knew a certain equation was the equation of a plane, and on tape, I couldn’t figure out what to say. I was stumped, although I know I know this answer. I said it was because a linear constraint in 3 dimensions solves to a 2 dimensional space. Because I just do. You’ll learn more about this in the next section on the cross product, and more yet in linear algebra.
In office hours I struggled with a few questions (some were hard) and eventually managed to put together the neat answer to the plane equation for my student, after several tries to write the notation properly. It’s not like I don’t know the notation. I was feeling queasy and uncertain and anxious and uncomfortable. That was enough to keep the notation from coming out properly.
I kept thinking, I caught that on videotape. I can’t show that videotape to anyone, They will think I am stupid, or that I don’t know my subject matter, that I am incompetent.
And that is shame. Not as bad as those other, earlier, times. But shame. I am writing here, so that maybe these things can see the light of day. So that they can be exposed to empathy. Because openness and empathy are the two antidotes to shame.
And I wonder, dear readers, what stories you might be brave enough to tell me about shame. Maybe not publicly. Maybe not here. Maybe in person, sometime, or by private message. I hope that if you honor me with your confidence, that I can provide the empathy that helps ease the experience of unworthiness and isolation.