I owe a lot to what researcher Brené Brown has brought to light in her studies of human nature. It is from Brown that I am constantly orientating couples in therapy to be connected in a way that each feels “seen, heard, and valued, without judgment, and drawing energy from the relationship” (to paraphrase her definition of connection).
Brené Brown has also taught us a lot about shame and how to overcome it by loving ourselves unconditionally and daring to be vulnerable in the face of possible failure and rejection. If we embrace our vulnerability we can have deeper and more meaningful relationships with others and be more authentic to ourselves.
What does shame do?
Shame is a deep-seated fear that there is something wrong with us and that if others found out we would be rejected—socially disconnected. Shame is experienced by everyone at some time and it’s our own perception of what others may be thinking about us and our assessment that we are not good enough in some way. We are wired to be connected, so any threat to social connection causes real pain. If we feel, for whatever reason, that we are not worthy of love and connection, then this is a serious matter: Social disconnection from a partner, the family, the tribe, is perceived as dangerous to our survival (although we probably don’t consciously reason like this). Social connection (or sense of attachment) is a basic psychological need, and if we feel that there is something wrong with us to not satisfy that need, then we are in trouble. Shame of not being enough will cause us to disconnect from others (an avoidance strategy to keep us from experiencing the pain of rejection). Shame stops us from putting ourselves out there, being our true selves, expressing ourselves, because this is potentially dangerous – we dare not to be so vulnerable. We stop taking chances, we doubt ourselves, we don’t know if we will ever be acceptable, we feel fundamentally broken.
How is Vulnerability a Solution?
Most people don’t think of vulnerability as something positive. Vulnerability is associated with failure and being disappointed. But vulnerability is simply the capacity to experience emotions, all our emotions. It is the capacity to be emotionally exposed – like loving someone puts you in a place where you are emotionally exposed, you are not certain that they will reciprocate the love and so you place yourself at risk of being rejected – that’s vulnerability. It’s actually a strength, not a weakness. It takes much courage to be vulnerable. Whenever we offer something creative, step up to speak in public, being honest with a colleague, all these things require vulnerability. We must embrace vulnerability for the love and connection that we really want in our lives.
Embracing vulnerability puts us in touch with our emotions in an authentic way and allows us also to be empathic and connecting with others. As you are vulnerable in sharing your feeling and thoughts and your authentic self, this invites others also be vulnerable and open and connected with you. But it’s a vulnerable move because there is no guarantee that the other will reciprocate – they may reject you, judge you as not good enough. However exposure to such criticism is the price of being vulnerable and the enormous pay-off when others do reciprocate and connect.
Shame is the fear of self-exposure and the antidote is vulnerability, the very thing shame is trying to avoid. Shame hides in the dark, it does not want to be spoken about, because it is powerful when hidden. By understanding what shame is in our lives and bringing it out into the light by verbalizing it, we can build a resilience to it. Just by talking about our fears, our feelings of not being enough, can often diminish the power of shame. When we are open to others we can replace our own shame by the understanding, acceptance and empathy of of others. But we should not be vulnerable to just anyone, but only to those you trust and know will have empathy for you. Otherwise, being open and vulnerable to an unempathetic and/or untrustworthy person may end up creating even more shame.
As we build resilience toward shame and embrace vulnerability, we become more engaged and connected with others and our life.