Vulnerability and shame

silhouette-41879_640Last week, I saw a client for the first time, and she had a profound experience on the table.  Afterwards, she asked me what she could expect to get out of this work, and I answered as best I could.  In the moment, though, I was thinking: how could she not see?

That client hasn’t yet been back, and I’ve wondered why.  But it may have to do with something another client said to me recently.

He had rescheduled his session and told me that he had a lot of busy-ness coming up and would have to get back to me.  It sounded stressful, and so I wrote, as I tend to, “Be gentle with yourself.”

To which he responded, “Be gentle with myself?  Seriously?”

My mentor, Joan Brooks, gave me a great insight the other day – or rather, reminded me of something I’d known, but that wasn’t at the front of my mind.  I’ve experienced it powerfully myself, especially during the training, when everyone was being all touchy-feely, and my first response was to be incredibly suspicious.

And it’s this: the powerful connection between vulnerability and shame.

If you have a chance, do click either or both of those links and listen to the magnificent Brené Brown talk about these topics.  She is astonishing, and the work she is doing is clearly hitting home in a big way for a lot of people, judging by the more than 8 million views.

In brief, though: most people equate vulnerability with weakness when they see it in themselves.  Odd, though, as Brown points out: most people see it as courage when others show vulnerability.

So what is that all about?  Well, a great many of us are socialized to feel shame when we feel vulnerable.  Having feelings – or rather, showing them – is a weakness.  Taking emotional risks, being uncertain, being open to others – all of these are seen as shameful.  It’s not really our parents’ fault: it’s the world they grew up in, too.  Don’t do that, you’ll get hurtPlay it safe.  Keep your head down. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, and so on.  What happened to you the first time you opened your heart to a lover?  The first time you got up to speak in front of people, or asked someone on a date?  The first time you did an experiment, made a piece of art, tried a new sport, wrote a story and shared it?  What happens to you at that moment of emotional risk can be its own brilliant reward…or it can be a profound opportunity for shame.

And when people are reminded of that shame, even if the vulnerability and openness feels good in the moment – they tend to close down afterward.  It’s the rubber band effect, as Joan says: they’ve stretched, and now it’s uncomfortable.

I know this feeling well.  I grew up learning how to be silent, and eventually, how to be hard.  As with most sensitive people, I had a crunchy exterior that concealed a squishy candy center, as it were.  But it took many years for me not just to be able to take some of those defenses down, but to see my sensitivity as a strength.  Later in the training, as I’ve written elsewhere, “it occurred to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling.  When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?”

Be gentle with myself?  Seriously?

I’m still working on this, and it behooves me to remember that others are, too.  If this resonates – or doesn’t – I welcome your comments as usual.



Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

8 thoughts on “Vulnerability and shame

  1. Yeah… vulnerability is hard.

    One of the more irreducible tensions in my life(1) has to do with how I relate to my stroke and recovery, which included learning a lot about vulnerability. I mean, I was vulnerable; there was no choice involved. Physically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, every way you can imagine(2). My individual defenses were so destroyed it took me weeks before I was reliably able to just be in a room with someone without experiencing it as an assault.

    It was a learning experience. Mostly what I’ve taken away from that experience is an awareness of my defenses as I rebuilt them. Which, as with awareness more generally, is usually the whole ball game. I don’t necessarily choose to be vulnerable, but I am usually aware of myself making the choice not to be vulnerable.

    It’s a pretty good place to be, but I could wish getting there were easier.

    (1) Well, OK, more than one, but I’m specifically referring to the tension between, on the one hand the unarguable fact that it was a Bad Thing and I would have been better off without it, and on the other the equally salient awareness that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I resolve it primarily by separating the things that came from being in recovery from the things that led me to enter recovery, though of course this is like separating living from being born.

    (2) …except socially. My community defended me with a fierceness and a love that brings me to tears to contemplate even now. But I am only sometimes aware of myself as part of a community, and only imperfectly; I am often aware of myself an individual, for good or ill.

    1. Thanks for your articulateness on this topic as usual, Dave. And yes, awareness is the whole ball game. I wonder, though: what would it be like if you brought awareness to choosing to be vulnerable, rather than just to choosing not to be?

      That tension, too, is fascinating; I think it applies to the central struggles in most people’s lives. Many of us, I think, wonder what we could have achieved or what life would have been like if our mother hadn’t died when we were young / our brother hadn’t been born with cerebral palsy / we’d never gotten behind the wheel that night / et cetera. But many of us also consider our most trying experiences to be the ones that shaped us the most, and made us who we are.

      I’m thinking of a story a friend shared from the book (which was made into a movie) 127 Hours, about the guy who was hiking solo and got trapped under a boulder for long enough that he had to cut his own arm off or die. He met two other people who had lost appendages, I believe in the same plane crash: one his legs, the other part of his hand. The guy who’d lost his legs came back full force, incredibly inspired, and now does major climbs with his prosthetics. The guy who lost a couple of fingers became incredibly embittered, wrapped in lawsuits and complaining how the incident ruined his life.

      Perspective is kind of amazing.

      1. I wonder, though: what would it be like if you brought awareness to choosing to be vulnerable, rather than just to choosing not to be?

        Yeah, I often wonder this as well. I suspect it would be rather a lot like writing poetry, which is the thing I do regularly which is closest to choosing to be vulnerable, as opposed to merely being aware of my vulnerability when it happens.

  2. I don’t know how your clients would respond, but this seems to me a good thing to warn them about–that they may feel a sense of shame afterwards, they should not feel surprised by it, it is natural and it is coming from within themselves, not an external judgment from you. I know that in reaction to other forms of treatment, knowing that the practitioner understands what this is (or may be) like from my perspective is a useful support and having a framework in which to understand negative reactions helps me welcome them as signs of the process working, rather than danger signals.

    1. This is indeed a good thought, and not one I tend to think of – I think because of my own shame: I think I sometimes don’t fully trust the power of this work, or my power to do it well, enough to believe that it could have such a strong effect. So that’s my own work.

      Thanks for this.

  3. Not feeling up to going into a lot of public detail, but this really did resonate a lot for me. Thanks for writing it.

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