If you’re just tuning in, read Part I of my blog post series about Brené Brown’s studies of vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Today’s post riffs, in part, on a Krista Tippet [on being] interview of Ms. Brown.
Feeling vulnerable sucks. Thankfully, the sucky part is usually brief, at least until the next time life heartlessly tosses your soul to slobbering dogs to be shredded in front of God and everybody, reducing you to a tiny ball of pulverized, spineless flesh not even worthy enough to litter the filthy ground. It can only get better from there, right?
Before we pick ourselves up, though, let’s hang out briefly at the bottom of this dark pit to talk about shame, that other emotional hostage-taker with inextricable links to vulnerability. Brown calls shame a “formidable emotion” whose survival depends on our not talking about it. In other words, we’ve colluded with shame to make it unspeakable, complicating our emotional lives and compromising our ability to climb out of the dark pit.
Shame drives two primary notions about self: 1) “I’m not good enough” and 2) “Who do you think you are?” Brown says that because people need connection—we’re hardwired for it—the potential for disconnecting will always fill us with fear. Shame, therefore, steers us away from vulnerability. Why risk disconnection when we can hang out in the comfort of stunted personal growth?
Don’t confuse shame with guilt though. They differ in one important aspect: shame judges our person, while guilt judges our behavior. Here’s what it looks like in practice:
Shame — I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid/bad; I’m such a loser.
Guilt — I can’t believe I did that. What a stupid/wrong/hurtful thing to do.
No surprise that shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, and suicide.
In Part I of this post I stated that society has taught us vulnerability is weakness and weakness is death. But what if opening up to vulnerability really meant the death of weakness? One of my more memorable experiences of vulnerability was in eighth grade when I and four of my girlfriends tried out for the basketball team. Our school didn’t have a girls-only team, but thanks to Title IX, we had every right to play on what was—for all intents and purposes—the boys’ team. Although I was good at sports, I wasn’t nearly as good a basketball player as a few of my girlfriends. My layup needed work, as did my self-confidence. Performance anxiety paralyzed me because I equated self-worth with ability and accomplishment. I feared making mistakes and being laughed at, so if I couldn’t do it perfectly, I wouldn’t do it.
I would have gladly played on a girls’ team, but the last thing I wanted was to play on the boys’ team. My girlfriends cajoled me into trying out with them—you might even say they “shamed” me into it by telling me not to “chicken out” on them. So with trembling heart and sweaty palms, I suffered through two hours of drills one day after school, while everyone watched me flub layups, falter a few passes, and miss some baskets.
When tryouts ended, I felt great, not just relieved it was over but actual strength in myself. Despite that just the thought of trying out had practically seized all motor control, I dribbled my way through what was for me at the time the ultimate vulnerability. I hadn’t been disconnected from others, quite the opposite. We were the first girls in the history of our school to try out for the team, a sisterhood. None of we girls made the cut, but we did gain a little more respect from the boys and our peers. The teachers were also impressed, especially the basketball coaches. Those 120 minutes of mortifying vulnerability invoked a little courage for the next experience, and the next, and the next.
Who did we think we were? Girls who wanted to play basketball. Were we good enough? Not in the eyes of the coaches, but that didn’t matter. We were good enough to try. Incidentally, we all played basketball on the girls’ teams in high school.
Next time I’ll talk about the gifts of adversity. I hope you’ll join me to unwrap them.