On Shame and vulnerability

I am half way through Brene Brown`s wonderful book Daring Greatly : How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.  It is resonating with me so deeply and making me so much more aware how defences against shame and vulnerability underlie so many of our challenges in life.

When I got sober in 1993 I was introduced to the work of John Bradshaw.  For those of you who dont know John is a recovering alcoholic who was one of the first to address the issue of toxic shame in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You.  Some of the most enlightening points in that book concerned so called religious addiction and poisonous pedagogy​ Inherent to both is the idea that who we are is intrinsically flawed and that the only way we can over come this flawed condition is to seek perfection or correction of the beastly, sinful parts of us.  While it is true that we do develop flaws and vulnerabilities growing up, associating such with toxic shame leaves a lasting legacy and burden it can be hard to get out from under.   Shame concerns the feeling that who we are is flawed.  We loose a sense that who we are is actually good at the core and then we learn to engage in all kinds of behaviours where we learn to try to either deflect the hot shame potato to others or deflect the blows of projected shame coming at as.  Some of us who become scapegoat or shame identified take on the mantle of shameful one and seek to attone in all kinds of ways.

In order to deflect shame Brene explains we respond in one of three ways :

  1. We move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets;
  2. We move toward by seeking to appease and please;
  3. We move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive and by using shame to fight shame…..

According to Brene all of these defences actually move us away from connection both with ourselves and others.  They lead us to disconnect from our deny or bury the true source of shame which lies within.

The alternative (which is not very attractive to some) is to keep our heart open when we may feel the hot shame potato being lobbed at us.  This is what happens with bullies or critics when they seek to attack us or bring us down (often projecting their own shadow onto us).  We need a deeper understanding of the other person`s defences against experiencing and taking on board their own shame.   This takes a of work most especially if as children we were shamed for feeling natural feelings (this leads to what John Bradshaw calls shame bound feelings.)

I know I most certainly entered the rooms of Alcoholic’s Anonymous just under 24 years ago all of my feelings were bound in shame.  I had gone through so much in my life and like Brene learned to use alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.  I did not know anything about shame.  I did not understand how much it had been a part of my life post particularly having gone through a Catholic education and in this way I fared even better than my two sisters who went to school during the 1950s and 1960s.

As I read Brene`s book I am becoming also very aware of how even years into recovery shame played a huge part in the last dysfunctional relationships I entered.  By that stage I had so much to grieve and had aborted several therapies.   I did not have any form of trust in people and in my family I watched grief being buried or deflected.  I was aware at that point that grief work was a big part of recovery, but I was not aware that the energetic lively self that got buried was also wearing a huge overcoat of shame as I carried a fear if I ever got too happy things would decombust.

Now I see how much shame and fear of vulnerablity ruled my own life, I am also developing a lot more compassion for others, most especially members of my family.  If we get raised never feeling good enough we do begin to adopt some of the armouring defences Brene discusses in Chapter 4 of her book.  We feel scared of risking expressing who we really are and can begin to put on masks.  In my own case from early days on in AA I was committed to taking the mask down.  I heard deeply with my heart as others shared of their own feelings of being exiles and aliens in a strange world and I cried so much at meetings hearing these stories.  Eventually I moved away from meetings to pursue therapy in the UK after my husband and I moved there in my 6th year of sobriety.  Understanding the roots of shame and vulnerability has been a far longer journey.

Today I was listening to the breakfast programme on our national radio station in Australia where the sexual abuse case against producer Harvey Weinstein was being discussed.  The commentators where saying how the revelations of those abused by Weinstein were awakening revelations of abuse for many women and how some of these women were being publically shamed by men on social media.  Oh, I thought, here goes the hot shame potato again.  Why is it so hard for us to have compassion for a person`s vulnerability?   (Often because those people judging and defending have not one clue of what it feels like to be violated in such a way.)  It saddened me while I also realised this is really just human nature, the sad state we find ourselves in collectively at present.

In my own life I am very glad that over time I have been able to open up my vulnerability.  That said opening up my vulnerability to shame bound or defended persons was not only not helpful, but down right damaging.  In that last relationship I was shut out and shamed so often for genuinely expressing my feelings.  It took me so long to understand that the partner I had chosen was so defended because his own pain was so huge and his own fear of vulnerability and his true feelings so powerful.

Today I can be honest most of the time.  I still engage in a lot of perfection seeking behaviours around my home which as so deep rooted I despair sometimes of ever fully overcoming them but I always draw comfort from the AA idea that we seek progress rather than perfection.   Perfection is an ideal perhaps never to be fully realised.  That said I keep striving for wholeness, to take on board my own shadow and defences a d olf fears against opening up and being emotional vulnerability.   It is a work in progress and along the way I am so so grateful for those people such as John Bradshaw and Brene Brown who are engaged in working to unmask and enlighten the powerful role shame and perfectionism play in our lives and world presently.   What a gift to have this knowledge and understanding.

4 thoughts on “On Shame and vulnerability

  1. I find Brene Brown’s work helpful as well. And I’ve been learning (and re-learning) that the rewards of risking vulnerability lie in the possibility of real, meaningful connection. I’m thrilled and touched when I am able to experience that.

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