Shame, Vulnerability, and Connectedness

When I listened to a talk by Brene’ Brown, PhD (sociologist and researcher, author of The Gifts of Imperfection), I was touched deeply. She spoke articulately about shame and vulnerability, and I could feel those forces working inside of me. I am able to facilitate deep transformation in others only because I have dived 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.”

Shame is a based on the belief, “There’s something wrong with me.” 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 often comes from an admonition, an expression of power or domination. It feels like verbal or emotional abuse (“What’s wrong with you? You have no sense!“).

The founders of the Catholic Church discovered a profitable secret that brought them immense wealth and power: If you make people feel ashamed of themselves, you can control and manipulate them easily. They will do anything (and pay any amount of labor or money) to be relieved of that shame, to achieve salvation. The Church sold “indulgences,” a sort of “Get Out of Hell Free” card.

If there is something wrong with me, I cannot reveal this fact to you because you might reject me, leave me, or disconnect from me. You are the Source of my being okay – or not. This is true for all of us in our infancy – we need to be taken care of by our parents. If they disconnect from us, or stop taking care of us, we could die. Connectedness – being cared for – is a matter of life or death.

No one enjoys feeling “excruciating vulnerability.” We avoid it at all costs. And when we feel it, we do everything we can to suppress it, stop it, or push it away. When I was an infant, I was wholly dependent on my mother, but she wasn’t there. Like most infants of my generation, I was bundled up and put in a bassinet next to other screaming babies in the newborn room in the hospital. I felt separate, alone. I felt terror. I needed my Mommy, and she wasn’t there. Babies cry to communicate, “My needs are not being taken care of!”

As a baby, I observed my parents and older siblings able to do things I could not yet 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. Shame is an easy belief for us to take on, and an awful feeling to feel. That uncomfortable feeling 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 begin to hide our brokenness, our inadequacy, and our vulnerability.

I can’t let you see my badness, my brokenness. I must hold that part of me back. I must create a wall around those bad parts of myself. Sometimes, the wall we build is so thick that we can’t even see those parts of ourselves. We disown them. They get pushed into the background, and become our Shadow, forever hidden from view — until they come back up to bite us in the butt.

Imagine being told as an infant, “You’re imperfect, and you’re hard-wired to struggle. You will continue to learn and grow. You are beautiful just as you are, and you are worthy of love and belonging.” If your parents told you this, you do not have shame at your core. You have self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-love. Unfortunately, few of us were told that. We were not treated that way by our parents, family, or community. Our shame creates the fear that we’re not worthy of connection, not worthy of love and belonging.

Brown defines vulnerability as “the willingness to be seen.” You may have heard intimacy defined similarly: “Into-me-you-see.” This is counter-intuitive: It is our vulnerability that allows us to be intimate with another person. It is our willingness to feel, and tell the truth about our feelings, that engenders compassion in the other person. When we admit the truth to another, the other person can feel it and say, “Me too. We are the same, you and I.”

There is no guarantee that the other person will respond this way, so it takes an act of immense courage to reveal ourselves, to let ourselves be seen fully, with no hiding or filtering. This is authenticity. It is risky business. But when we do, compassion and love emerge, for both ourselves and for the other person. We have to let go of who we think we should be in order to be who we really are. When the other person sees the real me, and doesn’t reject me, doesn’t go away, I can then 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, and thus experience intimacy, true connection, love. Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, love, gratitude, happiness, creativity, authenticity, and belonging. We live knowing that we cannot control or predict others or the future. We offer our whole heart to another, and to the world. We treat ourselves, and others, with kindness and compassion. Our heart may be broken, but we take the risk – and thus find true love. What makes us vulnerable also makes us beautiful. Our vulnerability is thus not excruciating, and not comfortable, but necessary for deep and authentic human connection.

I am still in the learning of these lessons, still in the practice of feeling my feelings of hurt, isolation, shame, guilt, disappointment, and sadness. The more I can feel them, and accept them, and communicate them, the more mature I feel.

The alternative to this practice is to wall ourselves off, afraid of the dark places within us, pushing away the light of truth and vulnerability. To avoid the feelings, we numb ourselves. Brown points out that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. If we cut ourselves off from fear, disappointment, sadness, shame and grief, we will also cut ourselves off from happiness, love, and joy. Then, we feel miserable, separate and alone. This adds to our shame. It adds to our feeling separate and alone. This adds to our suffering, and that adds to our shame. This is a downward spiral that can lead to depression. We numb ourselves further with food, drugs, alcohol, sex, TV, work… pick your favorite addiction. We isolate ourselves — from friends, family, and community.

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?

I see my own methods of separation and numbing. I work late, and don’t take care of my body’s needs. I withdraw from relationships when I get uncomfortable. I “plug in” to the TV, or other people when I’m lonely. I’ve observed these tendencies for years. I’m gaining the ability to sit with the discomfort and hang out there. I still indulge myself, but less often. I find it best to take a gradient approach. One step at a time.

The first step seems simple: Become willing to feel uncomfortable feelings. (See my article, Dorothy and the Very Bad Awful Disowned Feelings.) When you can feel the discomfort of vulnerability, and can open yourself to another, you can gain the connectedness you seek. Compassion and love emerge. You see yourself in others, and you feel “as one.” This is the ultimate state we are all seeking. This is the ultimate in being human, connected to others, connected to everything. One step at a time.

Lion Goodman

You can listen to Brene’ Brown’s TEDx talk here. I hope it inspires you.

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