Psycho-spiritual development, vulnerability and creativity

Last week I was on a panel for One Just World at Federation Square’s Edge theatre for a discussion on the post-2015 international development agenda called The Recipe for Eradicating Poverty: Is there a Missing Ingredient? It was a great discussion and a fun night, with some terrific questions from the public. If you’re interested, here’s the video:

One young woman stood up and asked about the role of creativity and innovation in dealing with the multiple crises we are facing. I was glad she asked because we’re going to need an awful lot of creativity and innovation! I mentioned that a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable is a critical aspect of creativity, because we’re putting ourselves on the line whenever we try to do something new and authentic. For me this illustrates the whole issue of the role of psycho-spiritual development in responding to the challenges of poverty reduction, climate change and the transition to a sustainable pathway for humanity. Judging by comments afterwards, including on twitter, the idea of psycho-spiritual development seemed to resonate with a lot of people. It’s not something you can make an international development goal out of, obviously, but our individual development as human beings certainly plays a critical role in whether we can achieve the goals to eliminate poverty and achieve ecologically sustainable development.

When I talk about ‘psycho-spiritual development’, I am not simply talking about the roles of religion, ethics and psychology in development, though of course these are all relevant. My friend Matthew Clarke for example has recently published two books on religion and development here and here, and the newish field of behavioural economics is booming.  I am talking primarily though about our individual  psychological and spiritual development and how that contributes to those larger goals: how we treat people, how we express ourselves, whether we develop or stifle our creativity, how we conduct ourselves in resolving conflicts, whether we can forgive and move on or whether we cling to bitterness, and whether, in the end, we flourish as human beings. Much has been written about all of this of course, and I would like to explore different facets in future posts. For this first post on this topic, I want to highlight the work of Brené Brown on vulnerability, shame and ‘wholehearted living’ and how they are connected to creativity and behaviour change.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work who has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Her talk at TED in 2010 went viral. If you watch it, you will see why:

Brené Brown – The Power of Vulnerabilty TEDxHouston 2010

Brené also did a follow up talk last year:

Brené Brown – Listening to Shame TED 2012

I am a huge fan of Brené’s work, which includes:

Brené makes the point that there can be no creativity or innovation without a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable – to put ourselves out there. In fact, she says, “The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.” (The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 96). And the more supportive the culture we’re in, the more free we’ll feel to be creative, whether we’re talking about the culture of our school or university, our work place, our family or household, and of course, our country. In a fabulous series of talks on The Power of Vulnerability, Brené tells a story of how, after her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability went viral, she received a number of calls from Fortune 500 companies who wanted her to speak. Most of them also wanted her to ‘nix the stuff on vulnerability’, because, “We don’t do vulnerability here.” What did they want her to talk about instead? “Our biggest problem – the lack of innovation and creativity.”

In a corrosive, hyper-competitive culture, where ‘failure’ is punished, where people are torn down, where anonymous trolls lurk in the sewers of the internet spewing bile over anyone they disagree with, and where our political and corporate leaders attack each other and those who work for them with monotonous savagery (especially in Australia it seems!), is it any wonder that so many people stifle their creativity? Is it any wonder that it is so difficult to have sensible, nuanced, and creative public policy discussions about how to extract ourselves from the mess we’ve created?

One of the biggest challenges that Brené highlights is that while shaming our opponents may be tempting, it is invariably counter-productive. In a recent take-down of a New York Times article advocating shaming as a means of behaviour change, she wrote:

Here’s the rub:

Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

You can’t depend on empathetic connection to make a campaign effective, then crush the needed empathy with shame. …

A man is convicted of domestic abuse and the judge sentences him to stand downtown during rush hour holding a sign that says, “I am a wife beater.” Would you like to be the woman he comes home to that night? Are you safer when he’s in shame or repairing shame? …

I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution. 

Making the distinction between good and bad shame, and promoting so-called good shame is like saying there’s “good starvation” and “bad starvation” and that we need to address the obesity epidemic with “good starvation.” Just like there’s no such thing as “good starvation,” there’s no such thing as “good shame.”

The “good shame” that Reeves describes is actually a combination of guilt and empathy. And, interestingly, there is actually significant research on the important roles both guilt and empathy play in pro-social, positive behavior.

Is this just a case of semantics? No. We don’t refer to balanced, healthy eating as “good starvation” because it’s confusing, inaccurate, and misleading. It also obscures and confuses what we really need to do to move toward positive social outcomes.

The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. …

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling. When we are empathetic, we can listen and respond authentically to others, and we have the skills to consider how our actions will impact others.

Again, why don’t we just refer to guilt and empathy as “good shame”? Because it’s inaccurate. It clouds the fact that being empathetic and communicating with others (colleagues, children, partners, friends) without using shame requires most of us to develop new skills. Labeling these skills “good shame” moves us away from the hard work of understanding, identifying, and acquiring the knowledge we need to change.
… shame never works as a catalyst for healthy, lasting change.

Shame is at the core of violence, addiction, disengagement, and fear. Shame is about anger and blame, not accountability and change.

Why all this focus on shame and empathy? Because I think there is a strong temptation for those of us working on social issues, poverty and the environment to climb onto our moral high horses and to ‘name and shame’ our opponents. We need to be very careful about that. Sometimes it can work – such as when particular corporations are challenged on their behaviours. But I think we need to focus on playing the ball, not the individual person and where possible, to appeal to people’s higher selves. Martin Luther King didn’t lead the civil rights movement by demonising and attacking his opponents, but by painting a picture of a brighter future together – a shared vision – and by appealing to the best instincts of the American people, calling that country to live up to its promise.

I am reminded of a scene from the 2001 film The Last Castle, set in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. Robert Redford’s character, a highly decorated Lieutenant General, who has been court martialled and sentenced for insubordination, at one stage grabs the raised arm of a guard who was about to beat a prisoner and says to him, “You are better than that.”. He makes a critical distinction between the guard’s inherent worth and potential as a human being, and the destructive behaviour he was about to engage in. He called on the guard to live up to his potential – to embrace his higher self.

For what it is worth, I think that is where we need to begin. We are all broken. We are all imperfect. We all struggle. We are facing an unprecedented, potentially nightmarish future. We need our best selves. We need to be out there, showing up, being authentic, being creative, treating each other with respect and kindness and encouraging friends and opponents alike to do the same. I am not talking about platitudes and warm fuzzies – I am talking about some of the most challenging and difficult work we will ever do: taking the risks to be creative, learning better interpersonal skills around negotiation and conflict resolution, letting go of perfectionism, taking off our armor, showing up, letting ourselves be seen, working on our hangups, phobias and assorted personal demons with a counsellor, therapist or spiritual director, and learning to live ‘wholeheartedly’. We will still cop brickbats and sniping from armchair critics and trolls, but so what? The title of Brené’s book Daring Greatly, comes from a 1910 speech by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, which is worth quoting:

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 up 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 …” (Daring Greatly, p. 1)

This imperfect post is the tip of an iceberg, and I’ve hardly even touched on the spiritual side of psycho-spiritual development. More in another post. I’d like to hear your thoughts.