HOLIDAY SURVIVAL GUIDE (WEEK 4): SHAME & VULNERABILITY, part 1
1. a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
1. (of a person, action, or situation) make (someone) feel ashamed.
WHAT IS SHAME
Shame entered into our cultural lexicon with Brené Brown’s groundbreaking research on shame and vulnerability. Well, actually, her work made its debut into the spotlight thanks to her TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability Thanks to Brené and all of the other folks who research shame and vulnerability, we know a lot more about how humans operate. Which is very cool! Importantly, it is also very helpful for lots of us. Shame, for Brené, is intrinsically tied to our sense of belonging and being loved. For a human, the very social animal that we are, belonging is something that is as deep and instinctual as breathing.
Think about it. Humans haven’t lived with the level of technology we have now. There was a period of time when humans lived in small nomadic groups, or tribes. In order to survive the elements, we developed an intrinsic need to connect and depend on one another. We aren’t very equipped for survival out in the elements, really. Our teeth and fingernails are relatively soft and flat, our mammalian body hair doesn’t provide much for warmth. And what’s the point of being able to communicate so well if there’s no one to communicate with, right?
WHY DID SHAME EVOLVE AND WHAT DOES IT DO?
We need each other.
In our core, we need to connect and develop relationships with other humans. And even more, being rejected from our family or social group means that our survival is in jeopardy. Shame evolved as a way of keeping us in line so we weren’t cast out into the wilderness all alone to be devoured by a wooly mammoth. Now, that might be hard to imagine with our planet the way it is now, but this is new for us! Our bodies don’t really know the difference between the world it was meant to live in and the one we manipulated for our comfort. The idea of social rejection is absolutely as scary for most of us as it would be if that wooly mammoth were to saunter down the street. So how does shame fit exactly?
Let’s go back to the definition:
a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Shame is kind of a built-in social gauge. It’s our meter to determine where and how we fit into our important social groups. Shame comes from knowing that we did something that goes against what we have been taught is okay to do. It’s more than guilt, however. So, shame is not about recognizing that we’ve done something bad, but rather, it is believing that we are something bad. And, therefore risk total social rejection. Which feels pretty damn terrible for a social animal like us.
HOW DOES SHAME AFFECT US?
Well, when we get hit with a shock of shame, for most of us, our brains kind of go haywire. We get emotionally hijacked by our own fear and start to believe that perhaps we deserved to be rejected all along. It’s almost like our brains decide to hold on to that experience so that we don’t forget. Because forgetting means we risk doing it again and doing it again. That would be the time, right? Doing that stupid awful thing again would for sure mean that they’re gonna leave. I can’t forget how terrible I am at this or else I’ll drop the ball and get fired. And if I get fired… I can’t feed my family. I’ve always been such an idiot. This is probably why she didn’t love me. I really am so unloveable aren’t I?
Yeah. Me, too. One could argue that this is perhaps one of the things that distinguish humans from other creatures. Our socially wired brains can connect and process social complexities, but that process is far from simple. The definition of “wrong or foolish behavior” is ridiculously vague. That means something very different for every single one of us. We all have different experiences in the world that teach us very different things about what is or isn’t okay. And spoiler alert: we aren’t always very good at communicating those things to each other. We kind of assume that everyone understands right and wrong the way we do. This is where we bring in the healing firepower, friends. And, it’s vulnerability!
Vulnerability is a helluva potent secret sauce. Strangely, if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we can actually more easily connect with others. The more we connect with others, the more this allows them to connect to us. And, if we open up about the truth of what we understand of the world and what we’re experiencing in it, the more we can better understand where everyone else is coming from. We can build empathy. And, we can begin to put together some of the patterns behind why our loved ones do what they do.
Imagine being able to look at your partner and say something like “I acted that way because I got really afraid you were going to decide to leave. And I learned that when people decide to leave, they do it. So I started pushing them out first. I don’t want to push you out even though I’m scared you’ll still decide to go.” That requires a lot of vulnerability and trust that your partner isn’t going to take that and run with it, you know?
Now, we can’t control what other people do right? Your partner could decide to leave. Shame is so tricky because there can be an element of truth hiding in the weeds. And sometimes, there are very real dangers for lots of us in being vulnerable. If you ask me, one of the missing pieces to the shame and vulnerability conversation is about discernment. Which, again, is different for all of us. More on this in part two. Yay, don’t you love part twos?!
So, how in the world do we embrace vulnerability enough to lessen the impact of shame? Baby steps. Always baby steps. So, let’s start with what vulnerability isn’t.
WHAT VULNERABILITY ISN’T
Vulnerability is not manipulative behavior. It isn’t oversharing or being hurtful. And it isn’t causing shame or purposeful pain for other people. It is also not weakness. Often, I think the English language gets in the way. There are two definitions. One is clearly defined and in the dictionary, the other is not. Colloquially, vulnerability is defined really as an openness, right? It is being open to another person’s feelings about sharing our shame. It’s going into life knowing full well that hard shit can happen, but showing up anyway. That definition of vulnerability is relatively new.
The reason vulnerability and weakness get so coupled up is that, well, that’s kind of the literal definition of it. Vulnerability literally means, “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” So it makes sense that we’re all super confused, right? WHY would you want to be vulnerable if that’s the way you understand the word? Uh, you wouldn’t.
WHAT VULNERABILITY IS
Here’s the fun part! You get to decide what vulnerability means for you. Yes, you know yourself best. So you probably have a good idea of who in your life you can be open and honest with. As well as who miiiight not be totally trustworthy. Vulnerability is an openness to the possibilities.
Vulnerability is ….
- knowing that there could be some kind of risk involved with sharing your feelings but doing it anyway
- choosing to reject the social narratives imposed upon you by your family of origin
- finally deciding to be exactly who you are
- talking about the deep dark scaries and seeing it all reflected back to you in a way that really just makes it seem more human
- upholding your own boundaries and respecting those of others.
Yes, vulnerability is moving through the world unsure and afraid and choosing to keep moving forward anyway.
It is big and it is small and it is the only antidote to shame.
What does vulnerability look like for you? When was the last time you tried being really vulnerable with someone? What was that like?
Shame only has power in the dark. Vulnerability can be a candle. Inspect the shame and fear like a curious child. What is so big and deep and scary about it? What of it lies in truth and what are we telling ourselves about it? Which part of this story can I let go of?
SHAME & VULNERABILITY: THE TAKE-AWAY
Shame is hard. It can make us feel damaged, unloveable, and unworthy. And, it’s an ever-looming sense of failure, even when we don’t quite know what we’ve failed. It’s a powerful tool and can sometimes be used against us in ways that are beyond hurtful. Shame also only has power when we let it fester in the dark. With time and practice, we can actually learn to see the world through a different lens. One that isn’t controlled by shame, but leads with an openness to all of the incredible possibilities. Even if we still might kind of believe we don’t deserve it.
MONTHLY RELATIONSHIP WORKSHOP – DEC 1, 1PM-2:30PM
YAY! The Holiday Survival Series is going IRL! Join us for our very first Monthly Relationship Workshop with Marriage and Family Therapy Intern and self-care super-fan, Lindsay Strong, this coming Sunday, December 1 from 1pm-2:30pm.
Let the Self-Caring begin 🥳