Transforming Shame by Being Vulnerable

A few weeks ago I saw came across the Ted Talk for Brené Brown. I had never heard of her, but the title of her talk, The Power of Vulnerability, jolted my curiosity. Synchronicity would have it that two days later I saw her face on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, the first sentence I heard literally froze my finger on the remote:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.

Sounds like something I need to hear.

And now after watching her two Oprah appearances, listening to her Ted Talks, and reading half of her newest book, Daring Greatly, I feel ready to share my top three insights gained from the wise Ms. Brown and the subject of vulnerability and shame.

#3 Shame is the fear of disconnection

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Whoa, we’re goin’ deep huh?

As an African American female who was raised Christian, I was told from my earliest years there was a whole heap of stuff to feel shameful about. After spending some years blaming society, religion, my parents, my grandparents and all other influential adults for these habitual beliefs I realized that wasn’t making me feel any better. And while I could identify what I felt shameful about:

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financial irresponsibility

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public humiliation

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I couldn’t put my finger on what that shame meant, until I read Ms. Brown’s description of shame equating fear of disconnection.

In that moment I flash-backed to all the acts that produced that oh-so-familiar feeling of shame: the heaviness of my heart, the lowering of neck with the raising of my shoulders, the instant nervousness of being called-out as a fraud or fake or liar, the fear of not being valued as the nervous, bewildered, oversensitive child I carry in my heart. With Brene’s words, the memories around shame instantly crystallized into memories of unworthiness and disconnect. It was a moment I reached out to someone to be seen, as in Avatar’s ‘I see you‘ and feeling that instead I was discarded.

Ok, I’m depressed now…

…but not really. Because what I learned from all this clarity about what my shame really means is a greater understanding of my desire for connection. The ease in which I fall in love, not just romantically but with songs, flowers, hilarious youtube videos, and broadway scores.

Recognizing my desire to be seen and heard directs my behavior to do that in healthy ways. Actions that honor my body, my sense of self and my spiritual journey. I accept that I cannot change the past, and I heal the past by forgiving my previous thoughts and actions and being thankful for the lessons that they taught me. I can now step forward and claim my power to choose again. Choose with wisdom from the past. Choose with clarity for my need for connectedness.

#2 Vulnerability is courageous

Before Ms. Brown’s book I would equate vulnerability with weakness. And that’s from a person who will debate until the death the difference between conflict resolution verses conflict management. (Don’t even get me started on the ease in which folks use peace studies as a academic cover-up for our society’s obsessive study of conflict…but that’s another post.) The past few years my best friend and I have been on a mission to be more authentic. Yet I never defined what that meant for me. Using the word vulnerability materialized that goal of authenticity. It gave it weight and colored it with meaning. Suddenly there was a way to be authentic, and that way was being vulnerable.

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But who wants to volunteer to be vulnerable!?!?

Again, my old shame conversations brought up all the reasons why I needed to be strong, forceful, closed-off and powerful. I come from a long line of women who didn’t take nothin’ from nobody. My grandmother couldn’t have had eight kids and worked full-time as house maid raising another mothers’ children if she was weeping through all her shameful moments. My great-grandmother who turned 95 recently, still doesn’t like to be told what to do, especially about her health. My own mother would rarely show her children how to be vulnerable. It wasn’t until I became a mother did we begin to exchange stories about those moments of honest fear, anxiety and protectiveness that can be so overwhelming sometimes.

“There’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.”

– Brené Brown, from Daring Greatly

So as I learn how to tease vulnerability from weakness I begin to recognize that it’s strength comes from its real-ness. It’s authenticity. It’s honest display of human experience. Being vulnerable begins to look like the courage to act in alignment with my values. It looks likes the strength to balance parenthood, career and creative pursuits with honesty and limits. It looks like showing up, in every relationship with my truth at that moment. And, a big one for me, it looks like saying good-bye to Ms. Perfectionist and Hello, Welcome! to Nina the Courageous. Thanks Carly.

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#1 Self-love comes from forgiving shame and accepting (even delighting in) your need to be vulnerable

This last one is a doosey, especially that delight part.

If you’ve been on the self-development track awhile, you know (intellectually at least) about the need for self-love. And we all are aware that it’s a good idea to love yourself a little bit to have a healthy sense of confidence, direction, respect and self-worth. I’m a middle child and I recall a lot of my early conceptions of self-worth were highly, HIGHLY impacted by the level of peacefulness in my large family.

I took it as my personal responsibility to keep everyone happy, resolve (not just manage) conflicts between birth and multiple foster siblings, keep a clean house and prepare healthy meals (in the absence of my mother who worked on her degrees during most of my childhood). It would have been one thing to do all this just for the sake of supporting calm family dynamics. But because I added in my worthiness to the equation, you can imagine just how screwed up I felt when (not if) fights broke out, pets were killed, dinners burned and  drama ensued. At eleven years old, I failed at managing a family. And now, I’m so glad I got that lesson early because I have no pretenses about the impossibility of being a perfect mother. I feel safe (most of the time) to show my limitations and my failures. Speak my needs and ask for help.

“Vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave.”

Brené Brown, from Daring Greatly

What I learned from Brené Brown was the step of self-forgiveness, and experiencing delight in moments of vulnerability. I discovered a sense of ease one receives when you don’t have to have all the answers. And the sense of playfulness that my three-year-old teaches me is really an act of delight with vulnerability. I’m still working on this one, but I sense it is the most important for me, because it allows me to display that full desire for authenticity by transforming shame into a joyful dance with vulnerability. Allowing love to grow all the while.

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And that’s how I’m re-imagining peace by being vulnerable.

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3 thoughts on “Transforming Shame by Being Vulnerable

  1. i love that you are able to speak so honestly about your own experiences with shame and vulnerability…that is courage. i’ve seen brene brown’s ted talk in the past, but your post makes me want to watch it again. lots of gems in there. blogging is such a great tool to express our authentic self (if we want to), and connect with others who are experiencing the same. thanks!

  2. thanks for your reflections alohaleya! And for acknowledging my courage. I agree blogging is a beautiful way to be who we really are and reflect that back to one another. So grateful you stopped by and shared this with me. 🙂

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