This article was first published on June 4 2015, then updated on September 29 2020.
I sat on the floor of a darkened room in a circle with four of the people most important to me in my professional life. We talked, we shared, we explored, we were angry, we were confused, we were desperate to find connection and I cried like a little girl. I cried as I opened up and told my story; as I felt waves of shame wash over me; as I felt my credentials flushing down the toilet; as I felt the humiliation of poor memory and poor grasp on what the hell was going on. I felt very little ability to find my feet or my adult self as I sobbed and told old, old stories of want, of need, of greed, of terror, of abandonment. I simultaneously felt ultimately fulfilled through being the center of attention and absolutely sure that this event was ensuring my complete rejection.
“How many of you feel that vulnerability means weakness?” asks Brene Brown at a TED talk. Some of the audience hands go up. “How many of you look at vulnerability on the stage of a TED talk and recognize that as courage?” All of the hands go up. The moment I heard Brene ask those questions, a sudden truth dropped into my being – vulnerability does not mean failure.
Vulnerability does not mean failure.
Participants in MSC courses that I teach tell me their stories of shame, allow themselves to be vulnerable. And I recognize those stories in that place as the manifestation of a heartload of strength, a whole-souled expression of courage. “I did this thing and it had this terrible consequence and therefore, I am bad.” “I said this thing and it revealed this secret about me and therefore, I am unworthy.” “I thought this thing, and it revealed that I am this person I despise, and therefore, I am disgusting.” And when they speak their shame in a held environment, inevitably the response is something more akin to acceptance, understanding, empathy, respect, and a deep longing for alleviation of suffering. No-one in the room agrees that the story teller is bad, unworthy or disgusting.
Shame is a secret we tell ourself about our lack of worth.
A woman in a recent MSC told her shame story, and all I felt was a deep longing to make her feel loved. This thing she “knew” to be something that deemed her worthy of abandonment tugged at me to get closer to her, to love her, to reassure her.
When we tell our stories of shame and vulnerability, we invite our listener to join us in that sacred space. It is a true privilege to be a witness at that place where we lay our shame on the altar, offer our vulnerability up, drop our defenses and reveal our wounded heart. Our stories are the life force infused in the depths of the slow flowing river of our common humanity, drawing us inexorably deeper into the shared human experience.
A worthy listener will gladly meet us there … gladly. A worthy listener will not fight the pull to touch into their own shame as a necessary factor in listening to ours. When we share shame stories, together we must plunge into those rich depths, for a shame story cannot be appreciated without the context of an understood common human experience.
After the fact, I told one of my peers who was at that shame-filled meeting that I felt like a stupid child surrounded by calm, collected, judging adults. In response, she told me that no-one else saw it that way. What was witnessed was the kind of strength in being vulnerable that Brene talks about. When I start to tell myself that I was pathetic, needy and over-exposed, rather than feeling like a naked child my perception expands to a broader experience and a new awareness. This is an awareness that one child is not the real issue; the real issue is that there’s a world out there full of hurt and desperate need to belong that deserves – that cries out for – so much tenderness, so much care, so much compassion, that any individual feelings of isolation and aloneness dissolve. My vulnerability drops me deeper into the velvety richness of humanity.
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