Be Proud, Not Ashamed
In writing about authenticity in the most recent Neuro-Semantic book, Get Real: Unleashing Authenticity (2016), I came across the work of Brené Brown and her work on vulnerability and shame. In fact, over the past few years, several people had recommended that I look into her work. Yet when I did, I found that I had a problem with the way she used the word “shame.”
What’s the relationship between being an open and vulnerable person and shame?
Are they not opposites?
In a recent copy of Psychotherapy Networker, there were a couple articles about her and several quotes from her book. Here is one that certainly relates to authenticity:
“To inhabit the vulnerability that’s truly the lot of all humans is the key to living authentically … this is the choice to show up and be real … the choice is to be honest … the choice is to let our true selves be seen.” (Psychotherapy Networker, p.21, from Rising Strong).
I liked that. Well stated. But then a problem— as she talked about shame, she claimed that you had to own your shame in order to be authentic, and that vulnerability involves shame. What?! That didn’t make sense to me. Why would vulnerability inherently involve shame? I didn’t get it. After all, shame (as with embarrassment) is a social emotion and refers to breaking a social rule. For shame or embarrassment to arise, you first have to have a social norm and then you have to violate it. That’s when I realized what Brown was doing with her use of the term “shame,” and how it differed from the way it is normally used.
What wa she doing? She was not talking about actual and real shame, but false shame. Now her examples made sense— people quote social actions (with one other person, a group, or groups of people), many, if not most, are common human experiences. Yet some people create rules and norms so that it is “shameful” to be a real live human being. She talks about the shame of asking for help, of feeling lonely and wanting to be with others, of asking for sex from one’s mate, from making a mistake of understanding, judgment, language, or behavior.
Of course! If you have an impossible standard by which you measure your humanity or the humanity of another, something like, “You must be perfect,” “You must not make a mistake,” “You must do what is right (all the time, according to my judgments),” “I must not feel embarrassed,” and on and on—then you set the stage for feeling false shame! You will certainly feel ashamed, but is it legitimate? The problem here is not the fact, but the meaning. Someone is giving negative and unuseful meanings to being a real human being. That’s false shame.
True shame is the experience of violating a legitimate social norm. And for all of us—it happens. It’s part of growing up and learning how to be a member of any family or group. The “shame” in those instances is a small emotion of self-awareness that we have made a mistake or done something wrong in the eyes of the group. That’s all. It is a bit stronger than embarrassment. To feel embarrassed is to be self-conscious that you are doing something that may bring another person’s disapproval or judgment. That’s why you never experience embarrassment by yourself. Run around naked in your house … and there’s no embarrassment. But catch the eye of someone glancing a you and, bingo! Embarrassment. Find yourself with a body part exposed to the eyes of several people and you might feel something stronger than embarrassment, shame. You now feel ashamed of yourself because you have vioated a social conventin. That’s actual shame. It is a social reality.
What is it to be authentic and what is it to be vulnerable? To be authentic is to be an open and vulnerable human being. The idea of vulnerability is the idea of being open to human condition of fallibility and mortality. Fallibility, as “liable to err,” means that in all aspects that are human—we make mistakes. It is not that we could, but we do. We are fallible and liable to err mentally, emotionally, linguistically, verbally, behaviorally, relationally, etc. That’s why to allow yourself to be vulnerable requires “the courage to show up and be seen, even if it means risking failure, hurt, shame, and possibly heartbreak.
Fallibility means that you are not “flawless.” Your brain is not perfect information-processing machines, you make mistakes. Some are perceptual mistakes, some are auditory—we mis-hear. We suffer from visual illusions. We misunderstand things. We lack critical knowledge. We don’t always reason logically. In all these ways, we experience various limitations. It is called “being human,” and there is no shame in that! That is your glory.
But, if you grew up in dysfunctional family, in a society who held and promoted limiting beliefs (cognitive distortions, myths, mis-beliefs, false facts, etc.) about being human—then no wonder you turn “being human” into something shameful! The fact that you struggle to understand, to get things right, and to catch and correct errors is just being human. We all stumble over many things in the effort to understand what is right to think and do. We get into negative emotional states— we feel stress, angry, fearful, upset, etc. We get grumpy and grouchy and these states of misery affect the accuracy of our thinking. Welcome to the human race!
Fallibility extends to our bodies because we are also mortal. Because you are not immortal —you suffer all sorts of things in your body— physical weakness, illness. You eat foods that are toxic, you fall and hurt yourself in accidents, diseases may even be built into your genetic code. So you often struggle to cope with life’s demands as you attempt to learn, understand, and do things in ways that will enable you to succeed in reaching your goals.
Combining fallibility and mortality, you also suffer insecurity and uncertainty about a great many things. You are not able to predict what’s going to happen, how long you will be alive, what you can anticipate in business or in your personal life. Insecurity it built into the very fabric of life. This means that discomfort, struggle, pain, uncertain, etc. are to be expected.
So being vulnerable first and foremost means acknowledging these conditions. Yet many do not! They attempt to deny and eliminate them. They want to be perfect—flawless in what they know, without flaw in what they speak and do, secure in anticipating anything and everything that could occur, and immortal! These “perfectionists” fight against the facts of life as it is on planet earth. Then by unrealistically wanting what is not to be, they put themselves at odds with reality.
Authentic vulnerability starts with acknowledgment—acceptance and recognition of life as it is. By embracing it, you can focus on learning, developing, growing, and improving. By authentically embracing your vulnerability, you take things on as a challenge for developing, you can courageously face the facts and focus on how to identify and unleash potentials and improve the quality of your families, businesses, societies, and countries.
There’s nothing shameful about this. Quite the opposite. When you step up to become authentically vulnerable, you can take pride in being a mortal and vulnerable human being. There’s nothing bad, humiliating, embarrassing, or wrong about this. If you access those states about vulnerability, you have created the problem. It’s your interpretation that creates this pseudo-problem.
You are probably expecting flawless perfection, ease, and constant success. Expect that and you can feel bad, embarrassed, and ashamed when you discover that you are, in fact, a fallible and mortal human being! What some people call “shame” is actually normal human experiences— noticing when you are unsure, feeling weak, feeling inadequate, etc.
Because embarrassment and shame are social emotions, they arise when you have set a social norm and then use it to measure your humanity. Embarrassment and shame, at most, indicate a social norm has been violated. Now you can speak the truth to yourself and others without shame. You can acknowledge what is as part of the human condition.
“I’m going through a divorce right now”
“My son is in rehabilitation.”
“My uncle committed suicide.”
What then happens to the fear that others will think that you don’t have your stuff together? What do you have to be ashamed of? Or, what are you not proud of? The challenge before you is to get real about these facets of the human experience, to get real about being a fallible and mortal human being.