I'm a big fan of Brené Brown's TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability. I keep coming back to watch it again every few months, and it never fails to move me each time I do. It reminds me that authenticity, connection and vulnerability are the keys to freedom while guilt, fear, shame and disconnection are the bars of the jail cell in which I've lived so much of my life. If you haven't watched it yet, I highly recommend you watch it now.

And then watch this awesome follow-up titled Listening To Shame where Brené talks about the impact on her life of having the first talk go viral. After telling the conference of her research-induced breakdown (a.k.a. spiritual enlightenment), the video went viral with four million hits on the Internet. She went into a meltdown and didn't leave the house for three days because of a vulnerability hangover. That's the feeling that we get when we reveal something we're ashamed of in front of other people. It's the reason we avoid revealing our true selves to others: we know there's likely to be an unpleasant emotional reaction within us at the thought of other people knowing the parts of us and our story that we don't like. Even for a shame researcher, this isn't always easy to deal with.

I've experienced vulnerability hangovers myself in conversations with other people, after getting up on stage doing Improv, and in groups oriented towards personal sharing. I would do or say something fooling, or share what was really happening for me and then feel ashamed when I was done.

The antidote to shame is empathy: having someone else respond by acknowledging our feelings. The more empathy we get when we share our vulnerabilities, the more healing we receive and the more freely and deeply we are able to share ourselves next time around.

Empathy is also a core skill for connecting with other people. It's particularly important in connecting with women since they tend to be more emotionally connected to begin with and generally run rings around men when it comes to connecting empathically with others.

Brené describes the shame she felt after revealing her breakdown to the world as being like her life ending. “I learned something hard about myself and that was that as much as I would be frustrated about not being able to get my work out to the world, there was a part of me that was working very hard to engineer staying small”. Indeed, part of her life had ended: the part that wanted her kept small.

It's the same for every man too: part of us needs to die in order for us to grow up and transition from an insecure little boy into a confident man. That part is our old self-image which is terrified of being vulnerable because it doesn't think it would be able to survive. Afraid of being embarrassed or getting things wrong. Needing other people's approval all the time. Always asking for permission before doing what is right for him. It's right: it won't survive. This part of us needs to die in order for us to be free.

“Vulnerability is not weakness.” Most of us think of them synonymously, yet when we see it in others we see courage. Vulnerability means emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. “It is our most accurate measure of courage. It's also the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Yet part of me doesn't believe it, or rather is afraid of going there.

“We have to talk about shame... Shame is this horrible topic, nobody wants to talk about it... I did not learn about vulnerability, creativity and courage by studying vulnerability, I learned about them by studying shame”, she says.

If we want to be successful in life, we need to overcome our fear of failure. Failure is part of the road to success. We hide our failures from others because of shame: it's the gremlin that says “You're not good enough”. That really hits me; I feel that a lot deep down. “The critic is who? Us. Shame drives two big tapes: 'never good enough', and 'who do you think you are?'”

“Shame for women is a web of unattainable conflicting competing expectations about who we're supposed to be... For men, shame is one: 'Do not be perceived as weak'”. Ouch, that's raw.

A man at a book signing said to Brené “When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us... and it's not by other men, it's by women”.

So do women really want men who are vulnerable? Many of us have been through the painful experience of noticing that nice guys don't get laid, whereas bad boys seem to have the women pursuing them. Women say they want a decent guy, but often jump on guys who are elusive or unavailable while the decent guys look on in bemusement, hurting inside. I've certainly been there.

The problem is that while women want men to be emotionally available, which requires the strength of vulnerability, they also want to know we have the capacity to protect them when they're feeling vulnerable. It's the strength of the bad boy that women are drawn to: he does whatever he wants and protects what's important to him regardless of what other people think. Biologically women are wired to seek out men with this sort of attitude because if she becomes important to him, she'll be protected too. The problem with the bad boy is that he's the most important thing to him and so he never really ends up caring for her.

So what women really want is men who are both emotionally available with the capacity for connection and vulnerability; but also the strength to know and protect what is important to him. They want a masculine man, not a wimp. A good guy, not a nice guy. Practicing this can be a delicate art especially if you haven't had good male role models to begin with, which is one reason I've just joined a men's group where I can learn to man-up with support from other men.

Often us recovering nice guys kid ourselves by saying that we actually relate better to women than we do to men, and pretend that this is a good thing; when in fact it just means we're out of touch with our masculinity. We're ashamed of who we really are, so we started pretending to be something we're not so long ago that after doing this most of our lives we think that's who we actually are. To break out of this, we need to take the risk of exposing the true self that we've been denying; and that's going to make us feel vulnerable at first. The first hurdle to overcome is shame.

“Shame is an epidemic in our culture... It grows in secrecy, silence and judgment... Empathy is the antidote to shame... If we're going to find our way back to each other vulnerability is going to be that path.” Don't wait until you're perfect before going out to “kick some ass”.

Check out the video here:

Graham Stoney

Graham Stoney

I struggled for years with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of self-confidence before finding a solution that really worked. I created The Confident Man Program to help other men live the life of their dreams. I also offer 1-on-1 coaching via Skype so if you related to this article contact me about coaching.


Neilon · September 12, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I've experienced and witnessed that shame hangover many times and the contraction that comes with it.

It's good to be able to put a name to it

    Graham Stoney

    Graham Stoney · September 14, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Yes, absolutely! I hadn't heard it called that before either, but it totally fits.

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