The boys have gone on a hunt. One among them has confessed his feelings for another of their classmates, so they’re trying to find where she lives. So they can tell her, for him. He doesn’t want to do this. They keep doing it anyway. Everyone is 12.
They find her, and she is not happy. She demands they meet in the school courtyard, with her friends on one side and his friends on the other. She orders the boy with the crush to leave her alone. The boy opens his bag, and keeps peering inside, even though there is nothing there. He wants to disappear inside its darkness.
Was that when I started putting on my armour? Maybe it was sooner, like the day I hid behind a wall, watching the bus leave without me for a day out, rather than appear and let everyone know I missed it. It might have been later, when I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings secret, by watching how my best friend in school did it.
These memories are foremost in my mind, but it was probably hundreds of these moments that layered pieces of armour on me. The thing was, I didn’t mind that I was wearing it.
Armour kept me safe. It protected me from getting cut and bruised, it kept my soft parts from being seen. That would be the worst — for people to see my blemishes. It would be weakness, it would be humiliation. Nothing less than a gleaming, perfect shell would do.
I didn’t notice that while armour kept the world from coming in, it also kept me from going out into the world.
Unworthy of Love, Belonging and Joy
25 years after that day in the schoolyard, I’ve come to understand that my perfectionism, defensiveness and secrecy share a root cause: a deep feeling of shame. A buried belief that no matter what I do, I’m not good enough, not worthy enough, not ___ enough for love, belonging and joy.
I’ve always felt some amorphous version of this unworthiness, but I never knew its name until I watched Brené Brown’s TED talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability,’ and more recently, read her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has spent more than a decade researching the roots of resilience, shame and vulnerability. In Daring Greatly, she explains how shame isn’t reserved for those who have gone through trauma, it’s something we all know.
Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection … We’re all afraid to talk about shame. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Shame is the feeling that something is wrong with us, it is the difference between feeling “I did something bad,” and “I am bad.”
Shame is the fear of disconnection — it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’ve not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong … Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Through her research, Brown discovered a key difference between people who could overcome shame and feel a deep sense of love and belonging (whom she calls the ‘Wholehearted’), and those who don’t.
The difference is simple, even if not easy: Wholehearted people believe that they are worthy of love, belonging and joy. They make choices that cultivate this feeling of worthiness. And the qualities which arise out of these choices, like courage, compassion and connection, are made possible — only possible — through vulnerability.
Vulnerability — what Brown defines as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure — is the single clearest value shared by all the Wholehearted men and women in her research.
Here is the paradox and the challenge: If we want to feel loved, happy and brave, we have to drop our armour and expose our underbellies to the world.
Overcoming the Shame of Not Feeling Enough
We all have our ways of dealing with shame. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown shares the work of Dr. Linda Hartling, director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies at Stone Center, Wellesley, who explains how we:
- Move away from shame by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and keeping secrets
- Move toward shame by seeking to appease and please
- Move against shame by gaining power over others, by being aggressive, and using shame to fight shame
So how can we let go of shame? Shame thrives in secrecy. By talking about shame, we can loosen its hold on us. Brown outlines a four-step process:
- Recognise shame and understand its triggers
- Practicing critical awareness
- Reaching out
- Speaking shame
I went through a similar process to overcome my shame. When I first met my wife’s family, I was shocked by how candid they were with each other. To my horror, they spoke openly about their problems, and they made fun of each other’s most embarrassing mistakes. They were baring their imperfections so casually it made me uncomfortable.
And yet, nobody else was horrified, or angry, or humiliated by it. Instead, they grew closer from these raw moments. Vulnerability made them stronger, not weaker. It was a connection I’d never felt, and I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I wanted it too. Which meant I had to take off my armour.
If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept — it happens between people — it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Taking off each plate of protection was hard. Leaving behind the façade to bare my blemishes was a heart-thumping, lump-swallowing, white-knuckle process. But I knew that freedom from shame required me to reach out and speak.
I had to learn how to be honest about my feelings, even the negative ones (especially the negative ones), to be frank about my mistakes, to be seen as less than a perfect, invulnerable person in gleaming armour. All things I had come to believe as showing weakness.
Yet far from feeling like weakness, being vulnerable needed all the strength I had. It was an arena that demanded I speak my truth and “dare greatly.”
But would my family and friends look down at me if they knew how I really felt? Would they leave if they knew I had done this? Would they not love me anymore if they knew this about me?
Would I never be ___ enough for their love?
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
How to Dare Greatly
Shame feels like looking into an empty bag and wanting to disappear inside it. I’ve been blessed to have friends and family who show me what it means to be vulnerable, and in turn, hold my vulnerability with great care, who have given me the opportunity to not burrow into darkness and to be seen in the light.
I have not been perfect, and I have still been loved. That makes me feel more free than I have ever been.
Along the way, I’ve learned that vulnerability is not three things. First, it is not oversharing. There’s a time and place for vulnerability, and it’s only for the people who’ve earned my trust.
Second, vulnerability is not a one-way street. If I want others to remain sensitive and respect when I’m being vulnerable, then I have to be present and respect when they’re being vulnerable with me.
Lastly, vulnerability is no guarantee for acceptance. There aren’t any guarantees that an attempt to reach out and connect won’t blow up. But not to reach out is an ironclad guarantee for disconnection. The only thing we can do, if we want to live with worthiness, connection and joy, is to dare.
… when we dare greatly we will err and we will come up short again and again. There will be failures and mistakes and criticism. If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging, and joy. If we do, we’ll never show up and try again. Shame hangs out in the parking lot of the arena, waiting for us to come out defeated and determined to never take risks. It laughs and says, “I told you this was a mistake. I knew you weren’t ___ enough.” Shame resilience is the ability to say, “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.” Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
If the symptoms of shame sound familiar and the thought of reaching out sounds overwhelming, it was to me as well. Overcoming fears of not being enough remains an ongoing process, and I highly recommend Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly to help you through it.
This may also help. When I first started to work on shame, one of my baby steps was simply to repeat this passage from Brené Brown’s earlier book, The Gifts of Imperfection, to myself. It has been a solace and inspiration to me at the end of difficult days. I hope you find it useful as well:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection