This is an excerpt from the book, “I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST ME: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” by Brene Brown.
What is authenticity? We may not know how to define it, but we certainly know it when we see it. In fact, when we are in the presence of an authentic person, many of us can even feel it in our bones. We gravitate toward people whom we perceive as honest, real and sincere. We love women who radiate warmth and that “down to earth” feeling. We gather around the people who can “tell it like it is” and laugh at themselves in the process.
Authenticity is something we revere in others and strive to maintain in our own lives. We don’t feel good about half-truths, disingenuous connection and fearful silence. We all want to have a clear sense of who we are and what we believe, and to feel confident enough to share it with others. I’ve always liked the saying “We want to feel comfortable in our own skin.”
Shame often prevents us from presenting our real selves to the people around us — it sabotages our efforts to be authentic. How can we be genuine when we are desperately trying to manage and control how others perceive us? How can we be honest with people about our beliefs and, at the same time, tell them what we think they want to hear? How do we stand up for what we believe in when we are trying to make everyone around us feel comfortable so they won’t get angry and put us down?
Social work educators Dean H. Hepworth, Ronald H. Rooney and Jane Lawson define authenticity as “the sharing of self by relating in a natural, sincere, spontaneous, open and genuine manner.” We cannot share ourselves with others when we see ourselves as flawed and unworthy of connection. It’s impossible to be “real” when we are ashamed of who we are or what we believe.
Shame begets shame. When we sacrifice authenticity in an effort to manage how we are being perceived by others, we often get caught in a dangerous and debilitating cycle: Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our authentic selves. We tell people what they want to hear, or we don’t speak out when we should. In turn, we feel shame for being dishonest, misrepresenting beliefs or not taking an important stand. You can see the cycle in these quotes:
* I sometimes say whatever people need me to say. If I’m with my liberal friends I act liberal. If I’m with my conservative friends, I act conservative. I guess I’m so afraid that I’ll say something that upsets someone that I just go with the flow. It makes me feel very shallow and dishonest.
* My faith is a very important part of my life. I want to feel free to talk about my spiritual beliefs just like people talk about their politics or their social beliefs. But I can’t. If I even mention the word church, people get offended. They look at me like I’m crazy and I’m trying to convert them. I used to have a voice mail message at work that said, “Thanks for calling, have a blessed day,” My boss made me erase it because it was “offensive.” The people in my office use the ”f-word” all day, but they try to make me feel like I’m the outcast because I say “blessed.”
* As a Japanese-American woman I constantly hear people make sweeping assumptions about Asian women. Some of them portray us as perfect minorities — smart, hardworking and overachieving. Some of the stereotypes are sexual in nature — Asian women are often portrayed as both permissive and submissive. All of these assumptions and stereotypes diminish our humanity. I often want to say something, but I feel too much shame. It’s partly because of my culture and partly because I’m a woman. I’d like to speak out more often, but it is very difficult and makes me feel very vulnerable.
* I work with a group of men and women who are absolute bigots. They always say demeaning stuff about minorities. They tell horrible jokes and send around racist e-mail messages. I’d report it to the human resources manager, but he’s the worst of the bunch. One day I was in the break room and a small group of these people told a horrible joke about the gay man, Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming. I didn’t laugh, but I didn’t say anything either. I just looked down. I felt horrible. When I watched The Laramie Project on television I cried the entire time. I kept thinking, “Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I tell them how hurtful they were being?” I was really ashamed of myself.
* I watch the news and read the newspaper. I’m very interested in politics and what’s going on in the world. I try to think through my opinions and my positions before I talk about them, but invariably, I screw up. I get nervous when someone disagrees with me or challenges my facts. Sometimes I react by shutting down and sometimes, if I really feel backed into a corner, I get louder and more emotional. Either way, I look stupid. I hate it. Why do I have to practice? Why can’t I just say what’s on my mind?
* Over the past two years I’ve become trilingual. When I’m at work I use “white language.” When I’m at home I speak naturally, like we did growing up. I recently met new friends at church and they shunned me at first because my natural speech was not “black enough.” I quickly started speaking a third language so they wouldn’t think I was trying to act white. It is one thing to not feel “real” in the white world, but it feels far more dishonest to change who you are to feel accepted by members your own community.
Below is a list of the messages and expectations that women described in relation to speaking out. If we look at the characteristics of authenticity — natural, sincere, spontaneous, open, genuine — we can start to see how difficult authenticity can be if we try to filter our actions and thoughts through these narrow expectations.
* Don’t make people feel uncomfortable, but be honest.
* Don’t sound self-righteous, but sound confident.
* Don’t upset anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings, but say what’s on your mind.
* Don’t be offensive, but be straightforward.
* Sound informed and educated, but not like a know-it-all.
* Sound committed, but not too reactionary.
* Don’t say anything unpopular or controversial, but have the courage to disagree with the crowd.
* Don’t seem too passionate, but don’t come off as too dispassionate.
* Don’t get too emotional, but don’t be too detached.
* You don’t have to quote facts and figures, but don’t be wrong.
On the face of it, they seem ridiculous — they are completely contradictory and totally subjective. Who gets to define offensive or emotional? What is too passionate and what is too dispassionate?
These “rules” are built around rigid gender roles that leave women with very little room to navigate expectations while maintaining authenticity. If we break one of these rules, we are automatically labeled and stereotyped. If we assert ourselves, we become the pushy, loudmouthed bitch who everyone loves to hate. If we clarify or correct, we become the arrogant know-it-all who no one can stand to be around. If we’re honest about something that is taboo or makes other people feel uncomfortable, we’re labeled as a weirdo or freak. If two women get into a heated political debate on television, it’s a “catfight.” Whereas, if two men get into the same debate, it’s a lively discussion on important issues. When we start to examine the messages and expectations that fuel our unwanted identities, it’s easy to understand how shame can undermine our authenticity. We simply can’t speak our truths when we are held hostage by what other people think.
Copyright (c) Brene Brown, 2007. (Published by Gotham Books; February 2007; $26.00US/$32.50CAN; 978-1-592-40263-2) Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.
Author Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., is an educator, writer and nationally renowned lecturer, as well as a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where she recently completed a six-year study of shame and its impact on women. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and two children.
For more information, please visit www.brenebrown.com.