I accidentally stumbled upon a TED Talk given by Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, entitled “Listening to Shame.” Her YouTube presentation was so engaging and powerful that I was drawn in immediately.
“Shame is the gremlin who says, uh, uh. You’re not good enough…for women, shame is to do it all, perfectly and never let them see you sweat….shame is the web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be.”
Her antidote: “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Brown’s talk resonated with me. I thought about it for days.
I began to consider what seemed like shameful moments in my own life. And, yet how something that felt embarrassing to me, didn’t seem that way to others. I delved deeper into what shame was about. What was behind it? Who was more likely to suffer from a shameful moment? What was at the heart of it?
Failure and vulnerability came to mind.
I thought about a character, who, at the top of her game suddenly suffers a terribly humiliating incident. One that is so devastating that it becomes a life changer. What would that be like? What if that happened?
When I was a secretary in the entertainment business a young woman was promoted to vice president of a division. She must’ve been in her late twenties. It enraged many who felt they had earned that promotion. She was derided for being too young, too inexperienced, too naïve. Schadenfreude was everywhere. No one wanted her to succeed.
For some reason that memory, hidden for many years, awakened me to a new idea about a young woman who seemingly has it all. But within a timeframe of a few months, she loses her mother to cancer and then a humiliating moment occurs during the most important speech of her life and suddenly, her career is over. Just like that.
I named her Kenzie Armstrong, and gave her a new job grooming horses at a run-down racetrack. It seemed to be the perfect place for Kenzie to become anonymous, to escape. If you’ve ever been around horses, you know they are intuitive creatures who have a calming affect. However, an unplanned encounter with a fortune teller complicates matters. Kenzie laughs when she hears the psychic say the ring she found on the beach belongs to her future husband. It is a crazy prophecy and one that she’ll never consider possible. And besides, she’s had it with wishful thinking, which saved neither her mom, nor her career.
According to Brene Brown, the only thing that could save a Kenzie Armstrong from wallowing in shame, is a good dose of empathy. And who better to offer that than Kenzie’s three – rather unlikely – girlfriends. Women who comfort her and are unafraid to dream the impossible.
Women need to help each other. It’s amazing what they can achieve working together. I believe in the power of female friendship. That’s a very important theme in “The Secret Life of Wishful Thinking” and in “Primetime Princess.” But, perhaps former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, said it better: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”