16 Aug Shame, Vulnerability, and Connectedness
Brene’ Brown, PhD (author of The Gifts of Imperfection) has spoken articulately about shame, and I can feel the force of that emotion inside of me. I am able to facilitate deep transformation in others only because I have looked deeply into myself, into the core of my own shame-based personality.
Brown defined shame as “the belief and fear that you are not enough – and if the other person really knew you, they would disconnect from you.”
In my view, shame is the feeling produced by the belief, “There’s something terribly wrong with me, and it can’t be fixed.” Variations include “I’m bad,” “I’m broken,” “I’m not enough,” and “I’m a sinner.” Most shame is indoctrinated – programmed into us by a parent, caretaker, sibling, or an individual with power – such as a priest or teacher. It most often appears as a negative opinion or admonition delivered strongly as an expression of domination, a label applied to the recipient’s whole self. It is verbal and emotional abuse, meant to lower the person’s status and view of themselves:
- What’s wrong with you? You have no sense!
- That was a terrible thing to do! You should be ashamed of yourself!
- You’ll never amount to anything. You’re a waste of my hard-earned money.
- You’re a screw-up, and will always be a screw-up. You’ll be lucky to get a job with your name sewn into the pocket of your shirt.
The early Catholic Church discovered a secret about people that brought the church immense wealth and power. If you make people feel shame, you can easily control and manipulate them. They will do anything (and give any amount of free labor or money) to get relief from that awful feeling. By mixing it with a belief in God, they called this shame-free state “salvation.” The Church sold indulgences, a sort of “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Except it wasn’t free.
Brown is right about shame producing the fear of being exposed. If there’s something terribly wrong with me, I must keep it hidden. If you found out, you would likely reject me, abandon me, or hurt me. Our primitive ape brains know that being pushed out of the troop equals death.
During our infancy and childhood, when we cannot fend for ourselves, the “other” is the source of our being okay and alive – or not. If our parents disconnect, leave, or stop taking care of us, we will die. Connectedness, and being cared for, is a matter of life or death.
Vulnerability literally means “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” No one enjoys feeling vulnerable. It is excruciating. We avoid it at all costs. And when we do feel it, we do everything we can to suppress it, stop it, or push it away.
As a newborn infant, like most infants of my generation, I was bundled up and put in a bassinet next to other screaming babies in the hospital baby room. I have a distinct memory of feeling separate, alone, and terrified. I needed my mother, and she wasn’t there. A baby’s cry means “my needs are not being taken care of!”
Growing up, I observed my parents and older siblings doing things I could not do. They could walk, talk, and control their environment. My conclusion was logical: “I can’t do what they can do. There must be something wrong with me.” I did not understand that I was growing and learning, slowly and appropriately.
Shame is not always indoctrinated – it is often self-induced. It is an easy belief to take on, and very difficult to take off. That uncomfortable feeling of inferiority motivates us to learn, to change, and to figure out how to do things. It may be nature’s spur that pushes us into growing up.
Most of us feel inadequate at some level, and we all fear disconnection. Put these together and you can easily create the belief, “If she knows I’m inadequate / broken / bad / unworthy, she will go away and leave me alone – to die.” Thus, we hide our brokenness, our inadequacy, and our vulnerability, separating from a part of ourselves.
We build a wall around that part of ourselves so others can’t see it. Sometimes, the wall gets so thick, we can’t even see those parts of ourselves. They become our Shadow, forever hidden from view — until they come back up to bite us in the butt.
Imagine that your parents told you this when you were a child: “You’re perfect just the way you are, and you’re also an imperfect human. You will experience uncomfortable feelings, and you will survive them. You are young, so you don’t have the same skills we do. You will continue to learn and grow, and we’re here to teach you, and keep you safe. You are beautiful, and you are worthy of love. You belong here, with us.” If you heard this when you were young, it’s likely that you don’t suffer from shame at your core. You probably have a solid sense of self, confidence in your ability to handle life, and you can love yourself and others.
Unfortunately, few of us were given this message. We were not treated as precious and unique beings. We were related to as vessels to be filled, or objects to be used. We didn’t get our core needs met, and we blamed ourselves for the deficit. Shame is the result.
Brown defines vulnerability as “the willingness to be seen.” You may have heard intimacy defined similarly: “Into-me-you-see.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it is our vulnerability that opens true intimacy with another person. It is our willingness to feel, and tell the truth about our feelings, that allows another to feel compassion. When we speak the truth about the pain at our core, the other person can feel theirs, and say, “Me too. We are the same, you and I.”
It takes an act of immense courage to reveal ourselves that way, to take down the wall and allow ourselves be fully seen, without filters or screen. We call this authenticity. It is risky business. But when we do, love and compassion spring forth. We let go of who we’re pretending to be in order to be who we really are.
When the other person sees the real me, and doesn’t reject me or go away, I can finally feel safe. I belong. I am loved. I am connected.
A person who is “wholehearted,” in Brown’s terms, is one who is willing to be vulnerable without a guarantee. They will invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They live with this vulnerability, which is the birthplace of joy, love, and gratitude. It opens the possibility for happiness, creativity, and security. We learn that we cannot control others, or anything, really, and allow that to be okay. We offer our whole heart to others, and treat everyone with kindness, knowing that this core pain belongs to everyone. We take a risk – and find true love.
What makes us vulnerable also makes us beautiful. Vulnerability is not comfortable, but we can survive it. It’s the path to deep and authentic human connection.
I am still learning and practicing, allowing myself to feel what we call “negative feelings.” They aren’t negative – they are just feelings that are uncomfortable: hurt, loneliness, shame, guilt, disappointment, sadness… The more I allow myself to feel them, accept them, and communicate them, the more mature I become.
When we wall ourselves off from a part of ourselves, we also wall ourselves off from intimacy with others. This is a downward spiral that can lead to depression, anger, and numbing. Pick your favorite medication: food, drugs, alcohol, sex, television, work, isolation, shopping, striving, looking good…
Brown points out that we are the most addicted, obese, medicated, in-debt adult population that the world has ever known. Is it any wonder that we can’t find love, joy or happiness?
The first step seems simple: Become willing to feel the uncomfortable feelings you’ve been trying not to feel. (See Dorothy and the Very Bad Awful Disowned Feelings for more on this topic.) Walls begin to drop. Compassion and love emerge. You connect more deeply with others, and feel connected and safe. This is the ultimate state we are seeking, and have sought from the time of our infancy. Begin here, and begin now, and take one step at a time.
Listen to one of Brene’ Brown’s TEDx talks here.
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