The first time I felt shame, I was about four years old. I faced Nonna Lina, my back to what would eventually be the Living Room in our family home but currently housed a rag tag group of our toys. She had told me not to make a mess. But I had. She bent to me and pointed a finger at me and said: “You should be ashamed of yourself. Shame on you.”
I need to tell you some things. For my great grandmother (Nonna Lina), English was her second language. She did not want me to feel the weight of shame. She was trying to reprimand me (rightly so as I had disobeyed) but at the same time, she loved me fiercely and completely and I loved her. If she loved me less or I loved her less, I doubt I would remember the ugly feeling rolling in my belly, a mixture of guilt and a knowledge of just how bad of a kid I was. I didn’t know the word shame, and I don’t think Nonna Lina knew it either, but that’s what I felt that day. I in no way blame her for that day or the way it affected my life from then on. You see, from that day on, even before I knew the word, I did whatever it took to avoid that feeling.
This meant perfectionism and great report cards. This meant the praise of teachers and other neighborhood parents. This meant stubbornly working to excel at things I didn’t even necessarily like. This meant participating in a never ending competition with myself. This meant abiding by a set of rules that was mixed up in my head–partly things I learned in church, saw in society, made up, and thought were morally correct.
For a long time, this was a part of my testimony. I talked about the shame and how it affected my life and how God changed that eventually. But I stopped talking about it that way. It was around the time I felt wounded by a community of believers. It was about the time I stopped talking about the important parts of myself to anyone but my inner circle. I closed up.
I stayed that way for awhile time as you read last week. Slowly that has changed.
Now I need to tell you another story because God is faithful to meet us where we are and it baffles me. I posted about my fear of vulnerability even though I did not want to and God met me in some big ways. Here is just one of those waya:
Two teachers changed the course of my life in high school. The first oversaw an independent study on creative writing and she taught me that I could actually write every day and not run out of ideas but instead be more inspired and better each and every day. The second teacher read some of the things I wrote, given to her by the first teacher (did I mention they were buds?), and sat me down to ask what I wanted to do with my life.
I told her that I would be going to law school.
Realizing I had not answered the question, she asked again: “What do you want to do?”
She knew I wanted to write (she could see what I could not say) and then she told me the thing I needed to hear from someone who wasn’t family or obliged to tell me. “You are good enough,” she said in as many ways as she could. “When I read your work, I can’t imagine you being happy doing anything else.”
In my memory, my mouth opened and closed like a guppy because how could she have given me something so precious without knowing it was what I needed–you are good enough–and the keys to the cage I had created for myself: do you really want to be a lawyer and not a writer? This moment was the opposite of shame.
I’ll never forget the day or the woman. I came home as a new girl. My mom, recognizing what would have been an ordinary day in the life of this teacher included one of the most extraordinary gifts her daughter could ever receive, sent her flowers. Sure, writing was a lot scarier than lawyer-ing but I needed someone outside of my circle to just ask me what I really wanted. Without the first teacher showing me I could do it and the second asking me if it was what I wanted, I know I would be miserable now.
So when the teacher who had this conversation with me contacted me after my post on vulnerability and told me about Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, (Kindle| paperback) and Brown’s TED Talk, I knew I had to listen to the talk and read the book.
In a single paragraph, Brene Brown, researcher, academic, and storyteller, sums up my previous post and feelings: “Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness and disappointment–emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, work, and even lead. What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path” ( 33).
Yes! While I was safe from all those difficult emotions when I hid from vulnerability, I realized I was also missing out on all the good things too. My desire for those good things finally altered the scales so that the fear of pain or rejection or woundedness felt worth the risk (and the inevitability of those things) in reaching for the good. For a long while, I did not feel that way.
And you have to understand, right now, the touchy feely stuff has me running for the hills. This woman is an academic. She studies. Because of that, I am willing to read a book all about the thing that scares me; I appreciate her approach all the more for it. Defining vulnerability, “as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” I want to yell yes but instead I highlight. And then this: “Let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or amy leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow–that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. An loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary and yes, we’re open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?” (33).
She’s in my head and I am only a third of the way through. She’s debunking myths I really believed until recently but with solid proof and evidence: vulnerability is weakness, it’s not real vulnerability to let it all hang out, we can make it on our own, etc.
When I say you’ve got to read this book, you’ve got to read this book (Kindle| paperback). I finally get the connection between shame and my need to be enough and yet never being enough and my fear of vulnerability. Why would I share myself, someone I viewed as not enough, someone less than perfect, with others?
I’ll leave you with Brown’s definition of wholehearted living: “(it) is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging” (10).
This whole project of living a more vulnerable life is a work in process but learning why I do the things I do is inherent to understanding myself and changing course. As I step out in faith and do the things that scare me, these guides, like my mentor who encouraged me to continue down this path and pushed me toward wholehearted living or this book and the TED Talk answering prayer, are just as important. They remind me that God is watching and is faithful always, especially in this process of becoming more like Him. If anyone was truly vulnerable, it was Jesus. He lived the complete wholehearted life.
Here’s to living life wholehearted.
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