Before I sat down to write this post about shame and fear, I asked myself the question: “Am I really going to admit this to my colleagues and clients?” I heard in my head the graduate school debate about healthy versus unhealthy levels of self-disclosure in psychotherapy. Thinking back to my professor’s advice, I wondered, “What is my motive for sharing my own shame?” The answer came in the form of a quote from shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown, who wrote: “Sometimes the simple act of humanizing problems sheds an important light on them, a light that often goes out the minute a stigmatizing label is applied.” (Pg. 22. Daring Greatly, 2012) And so, on the topic of shame and fear, as they say – “Here goes nothing!”
Four years ago, I lived in a beautiful South Austin neighborhood wrapped in a nature trail ideal for runners. At the time, I was deeply committed to running. I loved it and I pushed myself pretty hard. Most days running left me exhilarated and ready to take on whatever life threw my way. I came to rely upon it for my mental and emotional health. Those of you who have experienced the heat of a Texas summer will understand when I say that most August days require me to pull off my sweat-soaked shirt and slow my running pace to avoid exhaustion. I set the scene in this way just to drive home the state I was in and the image of myself when I rounded the corner in plain site of a young man who lived across the street.
It has been a few years so I can only guess what mile of the run I was on. Six? Eight? Twelve? Regardless, I remember being sweaty, tired, but trying to concentrate. I glanced up and caught the eye of the boy who couldn’t have been over the age of fifteen. Suddenly he yelled.
“FAGGOT!” he screamed.
“Faggot,” I thought, “Oh god, he is yelling at me.” Here is the hard part to confess: Just like that, without my conscious participation, I was a freshman in high school again.
I collapsed inside. A grown man usually confident and secure suddenly felt ashamed and unsafe. How many times had I counseled my clients not to allow others to make them feel inferior? In my own personal-growth process I had crammed my tool belt with healthy coping strategies: positive self-talk, gratitude lists, assessing my strengths and gifts. I had mentors, meditation, and mantras for Pete’s sake! I guess I forgot to pack all of those things on my trip back to childhood that day. And, the impact lasted. For a few days all I could think about was that adolescent boy and his unabashed verbal violence.
Fast forward to my quick three-miler on Monday of last week. There I was again, shirt off and short running shorts, rapidly approaching a group of middle school kids who were waiting for the bus. My first thought was, “Aw geez, here we go!” I took a deep breath and pounded the pavement past the next generation. Sure enough, as I glided through the intersection, my ears filled with quotes like: “Ugh, look at him.” “Put some clothes on dude!”
My defenses came up and I wanted to yell, “You try running in this heat with a sweater and jeans on…you little brat! Wonder what you’ll look like at 35!”
Then suddenly, thanks to Brené Brown, the dialogue in my head started to change. The fear and shame of being 13-years old crashed back into my brain. My heart ached for the 7th grader who struggles to fit in at the expense of others. One minute he has best friends, the next he is bullied by everyone. Approval takes the place of self-love. Persona hides the pain. Hurling an insult at some guy running by might just keep him cool one more day – avoiding the sting of isolation. I became that young man who yelled “Faggot!” I knew his fear and his pain.
This isn’t exactly ground breaking insight. And, if you asked me four years ago whether or not I cared what someone else (especially an adolescent someone) thought about me, I would have chimed in: “Not even remotely”. At that point I already told myself daily, “What other people think about me is none of my business”. I knew it by memory and logic but not by heart and soul. The reality is that my defense mechanisms are already in place. My armor has almost always been there. New levels of learning did not motivate me to pack it all away. Awareness didn’t set me free. Authenticity did.
The choice to be vulnerable today is not an easy one. It comes with the threat of discomfort, ridicule and judgment. There are times when I only want to show you the person I know you will accept. Then I take a deep breath and think. I want to know you completely. I want to communicate to you that I care. I want to support you in any way I can. Hold who you really are. I fail at that when I don’t say the words that are hard for you to hear. We get nowhere if I cannot tell you my doubts and concerns. So, I make a commitment to be as real as I possibly can.
You might not like me. It is possible you will push and resist me. You have armor just like me. You want it to keep you safe. I know it is familiar but, that armor just gets heavier and heavier. At some point, it will exhaust you. When I am at my most vulnerable: running on empty, tired, sad, or afraid – I still grab for mine. Then I remember the burden. I think of my desire to truly be seen. It is for that reason that I will continue to model vulnerability. I want to show you a glimpse of the authenticity that will ultimately set you free.