Step 8(a) – Shame, Guilt and the Art of Vulnerability

Being vulnerable is not easily achieved. In fact, for many, this state of being is actively avoided.

Being vulnerable leaves us open, unable (and, at times, unwilling) to ready ourselves for the onslaught of criticism that may or may not come.

I have come to learn that the worst criticism, however, rarely comes from outside. Instead, the layers and layers of stories told in our own heads often serve to do the most damage. Nowhere is this more true than when we consider our role as caregiver to a young person.

But where have these ideas come from? How did we weave them so neatly into the fabric that makes up our lives? For many, much of our fear of being vulnerable rests in internalized notions of shame and guilt. To overcome those provides ongoing opportunities to practice the art of being vulnerable.

A Story of Shame

Although people often consider shame and guilt as interchangeable, I have come to learn that they are not. Feelings of shame are accompanied with a clear leveling of blame against the self not for what one has done, but just for being you. More simply put, feelings of shame are most easily dramatized by stories of feeling as if you are a mistake. Feeling ashamed, then, means leveling intense criticism against ourselves simply for being-in-the-world. It has been argued that these feelings of shame underlie all major issues and, consequently, have created the most challenging obstacles for people to tackle in order to practice the art of vulnerability.

My strongest memory of feeling ashamed was in elementary school. Each year we would be allowed to try out for a place in the orchestra and each year I could see myself dazzling audiences with my violin playing. I would line up with all my other classmates, knowing in my heart that this year would be the year. My family was very musical and when we were together we sang, harmonized, and taught each other a mixture of musical numbers. Our repertoire ranged from popular music to old time jazz… from musicals to classical music. It really didn’t matter what it was, the Lindo family would harmonize it and sing loud and proud. I felt confident about my musical ability from a very early age, and I knew that if I was just given a shot, I could master the violin. But year after year, as I climbed up the portable stairs to find out if my name was on the list, I was met with great disappointment. And that disappointment was internalized as a deep sense of shame. It began with feeling upset that my musical abilities were not recognized. But by the time I arrived home, the feelings would shift, and I felt ashamed. I was certainly the problem. I was not good enough, smart enough, confident enough, musical enough, special enough… I was not worthy of my treasured violin. When people would tell me I was a great singer, I would deflect their praise, knowing in my heart that I was not worthy.

Reflecting upon this today, I believe that my story of shame runs much deeper than treasuring a violin. Music was and remains one of my favored modes of expressions. Being on stage is cathartic. I see the stage as a place not only to share my passion, but also to work through my challenges. The communication with the audience has been something that heals and supports me even during the most challenging times. I understand now that my feelings of shame are deeply intertwined with needing to find my instrument – the instrument that would allow me to express myself and work through my feelings with the intensity that playing music has brought me today. And while I found my voice, becoming a singer rather than a violinist, when I close my eyes it is easy to imagine myself enraptured by the sounds of my violin… swaying to the music I have created and sharing my unbridled creativity with the world.

A Story of Guilt

While feelings of guilt may feel very similar to our feelings of shame, there remains a core difference: when we feel guilty, we are focused on our behaviour. What is problematic is what we have done, not who we are. The focus on behaviour is crucial in making a distinction between feelings of guilt and feelings of shame.

Many children struggle with feelings of guilt. My own childhood was no different. One of my earliest memories of feeling guilty was when I got caught sneaking into my sibling’s bedrooms to find something fun to play with. With my mother working shift work, and being the youngest of four, I often felt bored and lonely. My siblings were always busy with their friends and playing in my own room got boring very fast. So when I was at a loss for something to do, I would sneak into their room to find something to entertain me. In my sister’s room I could find all sorts of dolls tucked away because she was a little too old to play with them, but not old enough to remember how much joy they brought her over the years. In my eldest brother’s room I found snacks and treats he stored away for times when he had his friends over. And in my middle brother’s room were toy cars and action figures that would certainly make awesome playmates for my own barbie collection. But each find came with a price: guilt.  I rarely got caught sneaking in, but on my way out, trying to leave the room just as I found it (minus a toy or a cookie!) I could feel the guilt set in. I felt guilty for sneaking in and I felt guilty for snagging a new toy. I felt guilty for acting in a way that I was sure would be considered “inappropriate” and “bad.” But if I could sneak back in and put back what I found (except for the snacks, of course) I always felt some of the guilt slip away… until the next rainy day, that is.

As we think of moments in our lives when we felt guilt and shame, it is no wonder that being vulnerable poses such a challenge. How can we learn to be open when our own inner dialogue remains so overly critical and unforgiving? And yet, allowing ourselves the room to be vulnerable is what builds a strong connection with others.

Recognizing our feelings of shame and guilt and taking the necessary steps to unpack these big feelings is crucial if we want to create solid connections with others.

With love, light & healing,

Laura Mae.