For many of us, our deepest desire is to experience love and belonging, but these powerful forms of connection remain elusive.
Why? What is standing in our way?
In a word: shame.
Shame often comes from believing that we are flawed in such a way that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
In an attempt to protect ourselves from judgment, we hide these flaws from others. But if pieces of ourselves are hidden, no one can truly know us, so no one can truly love and accept who we really are.
And this means we aren’t deeply connecting.
While there are many sources of shame, Brené Brown, a leading researcher of shame, suggests a primary trigger is based in societal expectations that differs according to gender.
The biggest struggle for women is the expectation of effortless perfection, or at least the illusion of it. When women are unable to achieve society’s unattainable definition of perfection in appearance, homelife, motherhood, etc., shame often follows.
The expectation for men is, “Do not be weak.” Men feel pressure to demonstrate emotional control, risk-taking, financial stability, self-reliance and power, among other things. When men don’t live up to these societal norms, many experience shame.
Moving Beyond Shame
We can never be rid of shame entirely; instead, we must develop our resiliency, or learn how to handle shame when it surfaces.
There are three components to shame resilience:
Recognize that you are experiencing shame, a message in your mind that attacks your worthiness. This is a message about your character (“I’m not good enough to deserve his love”) and not an action (“I just did something horrible”).
Reality-check the shame message. Does the message align with your values, or is it what you think others want/need from you? Is the expectation realistic, or it is based on unattainable societal norms?
Reach out to someone you trust and share your shame story. It might be tempting to skip this, but reaching out is a critical component. Once you feel understood and accepted by another, the shame you’re experiencing disappears.
Moving Toward Vulnerability
Once we’ve developed shame resiliency, we are better prepared to expose our vulnerabilities. Being vulnerable means risking emotional pain; it means exposing ourselves to the chance of sadness, disappointment, judgment and rejection. This is scary to many of us, but it is what leads to true acceptance and belonging.
Unfortunately, we have developed strategies to avoid vulnerability, so it’s important that we recognize these common techniques. From a place of awareness, we can implement new strategies that help us accept our vulnerability, rather than resist it.
Resisting Strategy #1: When we are happy, we are also vulnerable to pain because we understand the impermanence of joyful experiences. We’re afraid of what might come next, so we attempt to escape the vulnerability by imagining how things could get worse. Instead of being happy in the present, we invent an unhappy future; we’re practicing and preparing so we’re not caught off-guard by the hurt.
Remedy: When we realize the fragility of an experience, we can practice gratitude for the joyful experience instead of filling our minds with somber thoughts. This approach will help us embrace the present moment despite our vulnerability.
Resisting Strategy #2: Numbing ourselves, or deadening the pain and discomfort we experience, helps us escape our struggles with worthiness, anxiety and disconnection. Numbing can take any form. It’s not what you do; it’s why you do it. Savoring a piece of chocolate is a source of pleasure; cramming an entire chocolate bar down your throat is an attempt to soothe and block out painful emotions. So, we need to consider our intention before engaging in any activity: Am I choosing to enjoy a pleasurable experience, or am I trying to avoid vulnerability and difficult emotions?
Remedy: Instead of numbing ourselves, we can become accustomed to feeling our emotions and learn to accept the discomfort of painful ones. From this awareness, we can focus on changing the thinking and behavior that created the painful emotions in the first place.
Resisting Strategy #3: When we’re at risk of being considered not good enough or deemed unworthy, we attempt to eliminate the possibility of judgment and the pain of vulnerability by striving for perfection. If we are perfect, no one could possibly find fault, right?
This one hits close to home for me because, in a past relationship, I attempted to be the perfect partner. Among other things, I thought the perfect partner was always pleasant to be around, so I often acted happy and accepting when I was really angry or sad or confused. Instead of expressing myself, I shut my mouth and smiled. Rather than risk the chance of being deemed unworthy, I hid from vulnerability and strove to be perfectly pleasant instead. (Note: It didn’t work.)
Remedy: Rather than striving for perfection, we can accept—and even embrace—our flaws. Instead of beating ourselves up with self-criticism and worrying about what other people will think, we can be compassionate toward ourselves when we feel inadequate and believe that we are good enough no matter what someone may think. We can be courageous enough to let ourselves be seen.
The Path to Connection
The two most powerful forms of connection are love and belonging.
Love is a connection that’s nurtured between two people when we allow our most vulnerable selves, the parts of us that we most fear being judged, to be deeply seen and known.
Belonging is being a part of something larger than us. We often try to belong by fitting in and seeking approval, but this actually inhibits our acceptance, because true belonging can only happen when we share our authentic selves.
According to Brené Brown, only one thing separates those who feel love and belonging from those who do not: the belief in their worthiness.
When we overcome our shame, when we stop believing there’s something wrong with us and start believing we are enough, we can courageously expose our vulnerabilities and share our authentic selves.
And then, we are ready for love and belonging.
Then, we are ready to deeply, deeply connect.
And that is a beautiful thing.
*Adapted from Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a deeper understanding of shame and vulnerability, and how we can address both in an effort to deepen our connections and develop the courage to live authentic lives.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Melissa Richardson
Editor: Emily Bartran
Photo: Valerie Everett/Flickr