Friday 22 July 2016

Vulnerability and Shame

Last week we had a very interesting CPD session at Cumbria Coaching Network. Our guest speaker was Jacqui Sjenitzer, who introduced us (by both word and experience) to the work of Brené Brown on shame and vulnerability.

We explored themes of emotional exposure, and how the flight from that is one of the things that prevents us from truly turning up and being ourselves. We talked abut armouring up (to protect ourselves from the risk of emotional exposure), and the three strategies for that: moving away, moving towards and moving against. I was interested in the relationship of these to the Hogan HDS, where the Dark Side behaviours fall into the same categories.

And we spent a lot of time talking about The Arena. This metaphor is drawn from the famous Roosevelt speech, Citizenship in a Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 
This is a powerful metaphor, and the idea of turning up (see above) is closely linked to it: unless we turn up in the Arena, we are not really being true to ourselves. But the steps of the Arena is when vulnerability is most likely to strike: just as we go into that meeting when we can tell a difficult truth (ie enter the Arena) or hold our peace (stay on the steps) etc.

Such vulnerability is fed by ideas of scarcity (not enough time, money, expertise, courage, experience...) comparison (someone else is .... than me) shame, and the idea is that we can overcome it by self-compassion and empathy.

There was lots here that resonated with me, both with regard to myself and many people I work with. But I do have reservations about the Arena as a metaphor: building a philosophy on the metaphor of fighting for survival seems to me to lead to a particular way of looking at things - a particular set of possible stories - that may not be the most helpful.

Nonetheless, I found this a very stimulating and thought-provoking session, and am keen to read more of BrenĂ© Brown's work, and reflect on her TED talks: which may be seen here (on the power of vulnerability) and here (listening to shame). 


  1. Interesting post, Andrew - thank you. I hadn't come across Roosevelt's speech. The idea of the Arena reminds me of the opposing ideas - in Greek political philosophy - of the oikos (the home) and the agora (the public realm). It isn't quite action oriented in the way that the Arena is, but I wonder whether agora might in some respects be a better word?

    1. Yes, I think agora might be preferable, in terms of its resonance; but does it then lose Brown's (and Roosevelt's) idea of faltering on the steps of the Arena - failing to show up when it counts?


  3. I enjoyed reading this Andrew (sorry for taking a while to get to it!) as a really thoughtful summary of the session. I have had to dig deep to recognise where metaphors of struggle and fighting have dissonance in them for me. The metaphor is relevant for Brene because she came across the quote when googling presidents at the time of Downton Abbey, after a binge-watch to try and numb out unkind comments following her second TED talk. That led her to her Roosevelt's quote and her philosophy of not taking feedback from people who weren't also in the arena (showing up and being seen with no guarantee of the outcome)

    Interesting discussion! Thanks for taking the time to write this!