Shame is being afraid of disconnection … ‘If people knew this one thing about me ….’
Sunil Raheja is a Christian Psychiatrist and good friend. He blogs weekly on topics including mental health, resilience, and the workplace from a Christian perspective. Recently he reviewed the work of Dr Brené Brown, a Professor at the University of Houston, who spent ten years researching vulnerability and shame. Here is a summary.
What is vulnerability?…
From the dictionary, the definition of this word includes ‘capable of being wounded’ and ‘open to attack or damage’. So it is not a place we might normally choose to be. Indeed the media and the world around us emphasise the need to be strong and confident, while at the same time hiding our weaknesses.
But then how do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity?
Here are some examples of vulnerability. Read them slowly and reflect on the feelings and emotions they provoke in you:
- Sharing an unpopular opinion
- Asking for help
- Saying “no”
- Initiating sex with my partner
- Getting promoted and not knowing if I’m going to succeed
- Trying something new
- Waiting for the biopsy report
- Admitting I’m afraid
- Presenting my product to the world and getting no response
- Asking for forgiveness
We tend to instinctively think vulnerability equals weakness, so we shy away from it. But the closer you examine it the more you begin to realise vulnerability is not weakness. As you read the examples above it becomes clear that:
vulnerability sounds like truth … and it feels like courage.
Truth and courage as “vulnerability” are often not comfortable, but they are not weakness.
But then what is shame?
To be truly vulnerable, Brown argues, we need to develop a resilience to “shame” So what does shame look like? Here are the conclusions Brown provides when discussing shame:
- We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions we experience. The only people who experience no shame lack capacity for empathy and human connection.
- We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
- The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
Shame is the fear of disconnection: “If people knew this one thing about me ….”
Through her research Brown identified 12 shame categories: appearance and body image; money and work; motherhood/fatherhood; family; parenting; mental and physical health; addiction; sex; ageing; religion; surviving trauma and being stereotyped and labelled. To make these easier to understand, here are some examples of shame:
- Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
- Shame is internet porn
- Shame is having someone ask me, “When are you due?” when I’m not pregnant
- Shame is raging at my kids
- Shame is my boss calling me an idiot in front of a client
- Shame is not making partner
- Shame is my DUI (driving under the influence)
- Shame is infertility
- Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
- Shame is hearing my parents fight through the walls
Brene Brown on The Power of Vulnerability
Freedom from shame is …
Raw and uncomfortable as the above examples are, there is a pathway through these paralysing and all-consuming emotions. Brown explore a concept she calls wholeheartedness. Wholeheartedness enables us to cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to a point where:
We recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy.
There are two aspects that define whole-hearted people:
- They have a strong sense of courage – to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. In other words a whole-hearted person has the courage to be imperfect.They have the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then to others.
- They believe that vulnerability is what makes their lives beautiful. Such people see vulnerability as the only way to fully engage with life in all its messiness and complexity.
A whole-hearted person has the courage to be imperfect.
For Brene Brown this has been a tough journey leading to what she calls a breakdown and her therapist calls a spiritual awakening. Through her own fight she came to an important conclusion:
“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love”