Sunday, January 3, 2016

No Walls Required


I don't know what you're talking about....

That's not something I have....
Can we please not talk about that....

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefor unworthy of love and belonging is how researcher and storyteller Brene Brown defines shame.

It's the unobtainable, hopeless, conflicting expectations about who we are supposed to be.

Shame is the feeling that something is inherently wrong with us.

Shame in our body can feel like a disturbing rumble across our chest wrapping around to our back. It feels like a straight-jacket. And in my opinion, it is the worst feeling. I reckon most people would rather feel any other negative emotion than shame - and so we do.

I know not one single person who is immune to shame but I certainly know a lot of people who won't admit to feeling it, or who cannot identify it, or who shrug it off like it's not a big deal. Shame, yeah so what?

Shame, So What?

My theory is that shame doesn't get the awareness and conversation it deserves because it's too arcane. Too hard to identify. We know what it means when it's actively done to someone (slut-shaming, fat-shaming), but we don't talk about how it feels to carry it around even if we haven't fallen victim to a specific incident. It's just there.

You know, that feeling that we are just not good enough. The feeling that we are just too flawed to function.

I've realized the reason it's mysterious is because it's too difficult of an emotion to sit with. No one wants to look at it making it still so under-researched and taboo. And alas there is the chicken or the egg of shame.

Shame can mask itself pretty well. It doesn't have a distinguishable facial expression like embarrassment or surprise. I expected Disney/Pixar's Inside Out to include shame, a primitive and prominent human emotion. Instead it creeps up subtly as a side-kick to sadness, fear, disgust and anger.

And as Inside Out depicts, emotional repression isn't selective. We can't numb ourselves to difficult feelings, such as shame, without numbing ourselves to empowering feelings, like joy, passion, and peace, and when we try, this lessens our true experience as humans.

Shame, if not recognized and not treated with compassion can turn lethal; depression, addictions, promiscuity, violence, suicide, deception, eating disorders, anxiety, self-loathing.

It's shame that sits with kids who shoot up schools. It's shame that sits with hockey players who sexually assault their fans. It's shame that sits with fearful businessmen who run for president.

We build prisons to enforce shame on others, but ironically, whether you are a convicted criminal or not, when you live with shame, you may as well already be living in a prison. No walls required.

The Stress of Shame

Shame isn't embarrassment; which is a passing, temporary emotion of awkwardness or self-consciousness.

Guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt can be healthy; it's a signal that we are conscious of other people's feelings and that we take responsibility for our choices and are accountable for our actions.

Shame gets thrown under the blanket term "stress". 

"The stress of the holidays" for example -- a time of year where we observe and participate in a struggle with planning parties, gifts, social etiquette, booze, staying sexy, not over-eating, pleasing our families, over-parenting, not fucking up.

That feeling tied to all those events that we are not doing enough, that we are not giving enough, that we haven't planned enough, that we are not caring enough, that we are not earning enough -- that's shame.

The threat of being kicked out of our tribe, or not belonging because of our flaws can ignite a fight-flight-freeze response, and that is the stress of shame.

You know that tension we feel when we are overwhelmed with deadlines, pressures or rocky relationships? Those pressures wouldn't exist if we weren't constantly trying to cover up shame. Unfortunately it gets diagnosed as "stress" and a recommendation of a stiff drink, a day at the spa or a weekend get-away is ordered. But none of those remedies tap into the issue of shame, hence why they provide only temporary relief, if at all. 

We live in a culture that normalizes jokes about parents relying on booze to put up with the stress of family life. Blame your children as much as you want -- it's not kids who make you drink. The fear and sadness of believing that we are not good enough parents or providing enough for our loved ones -- that's shame. The emotion of shame is so unpleasant that we reach for anything to not feel it.

And when it comes to our children, many cultures hold the belief that if they don't achieve our required goals this not only disappoints and embarrasses us but also causes intense family shame. It's a toxic cycle of let's shame them into behaving accordingly as to reflect positively on me, because otherwise I will feel that feeling that would be the product of their failures -- shame.

The Opposite of Shame

My elementary school days taught me the opposite of shame is pride - but pride can be a mask of shame. It can be an inauthentic and narcissistic attitude to covering up shame.

The opposite of shame is courage. And courage can only happen if we practice vulnerability.


Vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It's about showing up and being seen. To me it means tender and honest, while society sums it up as "weak". Vulnerability is the ability to show others and admit to ourselves that we are not perfect and we don't expect things to be.

Traditionally, for women the resistance to vulnerability sounds like: "Do not let them see you struggle".

Traditionally for men, it's: "Do not be perceived as weak".

Strong is not the radical opposite of vulnerable (I consider them to be synonyms). It's cool.

Cool is "suck it up", "chin up", "Keep Calm and Carry on", "Fake it til you make it" and other mainstream ethos that are inauthentic and counter-intuitive. Though having a desire to "Live, Laugh, Love" is of course a desired state, it's a futile mantra to tell yourself when dealing with hardship because in order to overcome hardship, we must be willing to look at how it makes us feel.

We try to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, always having a plan, refusing to admit failures, labelling people and experiences as black and white, good and bad and blaming others or the universe when things go wrong. It's ignoring the tender feelings that creep up which if you really listen to, can be your guide, and instead following what you perceive as "tough" or "cool".

In the past, when I was avoiding vulnerability I would start hustling; and it's manic and exhausting. There is a belief in our culture that being grandiose, being extraordinary, being the best, having the most talented offspring, being the family everyone admires is what we should strive for. There's a fear of being ordinary. The moment you can look around and believe "I am good enough, this is good enough", you stop shame and narcissism in its tracks.

"What I am is good enough if I would only be it openly." - Carl Rogers

Perfectionism is trying to gain approval.
Self-improvement is a healthy way of growing. 

Why Vulnerability Works

Vulnerability and failure is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Hand on heart, being vulnerable opens the door to greater experiences and greater intimacy. When we feel like we have nothing to hide, we experience complete freedom.

Vulnerability is not weak, nor giving up. But over-sharing on social media or crying to anyone who will listen is not a form of healthy vulnerability. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.

According to Brene Brown, in order for shame to thrive it needs 3 things:

  • secrecy 
  • silence 
  • perception that you will be judged by others 

So if we experience something which causes us to feel shame and we can be open about it, without feeling like we will be judged by the listener, it simply cannot live. We stop shame in its tracks. When your friends/family approach you with their vulnerabilities; it's not your job to council them, help them or change them; it's simply to be an empathic presence for which the person can use the conversation for personal growth.

I have had to learn the hard way about who is safe to expose myself to and who isn't. Not every friend/family member is capable of seeing our vulnerabilities and sadly there are still many people who find the whole concept uncomfortable and may even shame us for it. Oh, the cycle of shame.

Secrets and Lies

Consider the secrets we keep, even the little ones that we retain from our spouses, our parents, our children -- our closest tribe members. Shame breeds in the places where we cannot fully be ourselves and honest with our near and dear -- I reckon most of us live this way. We lie about our past, we lie about how much we spent, we lie about who we were with, how much we indulge, want we want/don't want in bed, we put passwords on our phones. Each time we tell one lie or omit one truth we are building another wall between us and the people we love the most. The irony is that when we are lied to or tricked we feel intense shame. And the result is to shame the person who made us feel that way.

So here's where courage comes into play:

The First & Second Arrow

We all make mistakes. We all fuck up. We all make really risky choices sometimes. We all have the capacity to have our feelings crushed.

The First Arrow is: I made a mistake; I made an error, and I got it wrong. This may invoke feelings of guilt or frustration. 
Or the situation may be; someone hurt me. Someone shamed me. But if we were to stop here, the crisis would only represent an error to correct or a lesson to learn, extending the opportunity to grow or advance. Imagine it like an arrow in your body. Look at the arrow, then pull it out. Take care of your wound. This is called self-compassion.

The Second Arrow is the one we pick up and stab ourselves with when we've still got the first arrow in. This is the "I fucked up. There must be something wrong with me if I behaved this way. What is the matter with me? I am such an idiot. I'm a bad person." This is the self-critic. This is the person who is attached to the story that we are damaged. This is shame. Alternatively if after getting struck by the first arrow we look around and seek external blame: "Who did this? They are going to pay for this!" and pick up the second arrow and throw it at someone (anyone!)...this is shaming.

The key is to bring awareness to how you react after the first arrow strikes. Do you take care of your wound, or do you bend down for the second arrow? Whether you have a pattern of directing blame inward or sending blame outward, the goal is to change the pattern of reaching for the second arrow.

To become shame resilient we need to practice self-compassion and forgiveness to ourselves and others. There is no other way but this. It's as simple as putting your hand on your heart and saying your name or the other person's name. It is not easy. It takes honesty and it takes a lot of practice and time.

Reap the Rewards

For me the actual sensation of shame is less distressing because of my quest to understand it. But how and when it puts up walls and limitations in my life and stunts my communication skills, that I am still working on. I believe all humans sit with some dose of shame, be it small or toxic. 

I believe boys and men especially have been dealt a very unfair and cruel hand with how society treats them for exposing vulnerability. 

Changing that status quo is what I consider to be part of my personal journey and it is part of the plight of feminism. 

If I could send a message to any man in my life or any man who has been in my life, it's that I am here, I will listen, I promise not to judge, you are loved more than you probably know, and you are forgiven.

For absolutely everyone reading this, including me:

Be kind to yourself. Go easy on yourself. Repeat. Reap the rewards of this radical behaviour.

1 comment: