I’m Losing My Battle With Shame

No. This couldn’t be true.

I was watching Brene Brown’s second TED-talk last week. She’s the ‘vulnerability researcher’ whose first TED-talk went so viral that random people now yell at her — “VULNERABILITY TED! VUL-NE-RA-BILITY TED!” — in the supermarket. In her follow-up presentation, she tells us about two self-talk patterns shame drives.

The first: “You’re not good enough.”

This is not a remark about your skills. Instead, the voice in your head means ‘good’ in a deeper, moral tone, politely informing you how you don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve to pass that exam, to be that person’s spouse, to get that job — no matter how much you’ve studied, how special the love and how qualified you are.

Let’s say you overcome this inferiority and step up to the challenge of being your best self. You’ve set out to accomplish something cool and difficult and suddenly the director of the play in your head casts a new actor who has but the one line: “Who do you think you are?”

Meet shame’s second weapon.

Now that you’re “living in the arena”, shame wants to pull you back in, and goes on the offense by accusing you of illusions of grandeur: who are you to have these big-ass ambitions? You’re just a chubby farmer’s boy. Back in your cage. Now.

When I first read that this self-talk was an instance of shame, I fell off my chair. I think it all the time. “Who am I to tell people how to live?” I’d always categorized this as healthy doubt, but, if Brown is right, it’s a different beast entirely.

I needed to sort this out, so I went on libge… — to the library, I mean — and got her books.

Strategy 1: How not to deal with shame

More generally, shame, Brown tells us in her first TED-talk — the one that went viral — is a fear of disconnection resulting from perceived unworthiness:

Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”

Ashamed for X = X makes me not worthy.

For example, if you’re ashamed of your nerdiness, you believe that this aspect of your personality makes you unworthy of love and belonging. So you hide it.

Here’s an ill-advised strategy for dealing with this: strive to mitigate judgment by others. Destroy every part of your identity that, if other people would know or see it, you fear would make them reject you. “If I’m exactly as they want me to be, they can never catch me out.”

Every time we refrain from doing something which might be “weird”, or from making a joke which could fall flat, or from embodying our own desires and values, we put more weight on the opinions of other people about us than on our own opinions about us. To protect our naked self from rejection, we don’t express its true nature.

This might win you some battles — save you some rejections — but you’ll lose the war. Other people’s appraisals are a bottomless pit: once you’ve internalized that you need to impress everyone around you to make them validate you, no amount of validation will silence that voice. It’s never enough.

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. … Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point.” — Seneca, Letters to Lucilius.

Brown mentions another problem with this on the Tim Ferriss podcast, recalling her battle with shame:

“I was like, look, I’m going to engineer this career to be small and safe. I’m going to play right under the radar because I am not willing to put myself out there and get criticized like I know is happening. So the problem with staying small is it’s always served up with resentment, because we’re not using our gifts, we’re not in our power, and there’s always a price for that.” — Brene Brown on the Tim Ferriss podcast

It’s out of self-respect that we ought to chase our dreams. So if we stay small to avoid judgment, we’re saying to our hearts: “I will only act on your desires if no one might possibly reject me for it.”

Needless to say, that’s not a particularly healthy relationship to have with yourself.

Summing up: aiming to avoid eliciting any reaction, is externally motivated perfectionism. Because it’s dictated by what other people think of you, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Well, I think this is dead right. But while these arguments are important, they do not touch the main issue.

Of course, the be-disliked-by-no-one strategy isn’t “rational”. But this is not an approach people adopt as a result of some levelheaded decision. No one sits down, makes a list of pros and cons, and then decides that, yes, my life will be so freaking awesome if I prioritize other people’s opinions about me over my own feelings, and if I can get everyone to always like me, I’ll be happily ever after. Case closed.

Such behavior stems from something way more intimate.

At least, for me.

Shame is tied to something I need

Sure, fear of rejection exaggerates, and there’s an evolutionary explanation for that. For the biggest part of human history, social exclusion equaled death.Some of our neural machinery still believes the conspiracy theory according to which our fellow primates can sentence us to die if we don’t score enough points according to them.

Since I know that that causes the fear, and it’s thus ‘irrational’, why don’t just discard it?

It’s not so simple. Seeking to eradicate shame is foolish. It’s impossible (unless you’re a psychopath).

Some people, Brown explains, possess this robust inherent sense of being worthy. For others, such a self-image comes less naturally. I reckon I’m in the latter category.

It’s a common place to be. Back in 1902, the psychologist C.H. Cooleyintroduced his classic theory of the ‘looking-glass self’. This theory says thathow you view yourself depends mostly on what you believe other people think of you. Since that’s a mouthful, here’s a funny punch line I came up with: ‘I am what I think you think I am’.

We want folks to like us. So we internalize their responses. We’re not so different from Pavlov’s dog. The contrast is that we forget we were conditioned into having these beliefs and assume we placed them there ourselves. This assumption is often false: the number one regret of the dyingis living the life others expected them to live.

lack of our awareness of what our priorities in life are, and of whether our values were birthed by us or put there by someone else, are, I believe, important, and overlooked, causes of the mental health crisis today.

But I digress. Back to shame. According to Cooley, identity is the result oflearning to see ourselves through what we perceive to be the perceptions of others. For people like me — from the latter category — that provides something to steer by. I need these reactions as information about how I’m doing and whether I’m still worthy, because I’m honestly not sure about that.

Well, that fucking sucks.

Strategy 2: A different yardstick

Of course, others’ opinions are not a healthy criterion for evaluating my own behavior. I want to appraise myself and my life using my own standards, not other people’s.

However, for the time being, I’m uncomfortable with there being no evaluation at all, because, frankly, I need confirmation I am (doing) OK now and then.

I’m not a ‘vulnerability researcher’, but it seems to me that the way forward is to change the decision tool: rather than other people’s opinions, my own criteria should provide the needed confirmation.

So let’s say I schedule a date with myself, reflect on my values, and conclude that clapping my hands and counting blades of grass are what, to me, matters most in life. Then, if I did a lot of hand-clapping and grass-blade-counting today, and have been honest in expressing my feelings regarding these activities, I can justifiably be proud of myself.

Seriously: what you come up with here is not important. What’s critical is throwing out the criteria others say you should have and replace them withprinciples you judge important. Here Brown discusses research by psychologist James Mahalik:

“He asked, what do women need to do to conform to female norms? The top answers in this country: nice, thin, modest and use all available resources for appearance. When he asked about men, what do men in this country need to do to conform with male norms, the answers were: always show emotional control, work is first, pursue status and violence.”

If these things aren’t important to you, you have a responsibility to yourself to change. Otherwise, you have compromised your identity in some way to fit what others have dictated it should be.

Every night, after dinner, I journal. One issue I consider is: “Have I been the kind of person I want to be?” Similarly, when debating whether or not to do or say something, I try to replace my inner dialogue of “Would it be weird if I make this joke? Will people assume I’m stupid if I ask a question?” with value-based considerations such as “Do I want to be the kind of person who asks a question when he’s confused, or the kind of person who is too afraid to do so?”

That’s a simple question, with a straightforward answer. Framing it this way helps.

If self-expression is the evaluation metric, it follows that something can’t be wrong, in this sense, if it is an honest expression of yourself.

Vulnerability = honesty

Whereas the ‘shame-is-irrational’ line doesn’t address the need that underlies reliance on the attitudes of others, this approach can fill the void. But it’s still abstract. When we have come up with alternative metrics, we haven’t thereby changed our self-talk and image.

To recapitulate, the idea is that, when we replace other people’s opinions with our own standards, we can, in theory, be unguarded in expressing our thoughts and emotions.

We can be vulnerable.

At its core, this is a matter of honesty. When you prioritize other people not rejecting you over embodying your beliefs and desires, you’ll say and do things you don’t mean in order to accomplish that goal. If you feel something but don’t express it out of shame, you’re being dishonest with yourself.

The true difficulty, of course, arises when you either have to betray yourself or express an emotion or viewpoint you used to think made you unworthy of connection and other people would reject you for.

Usually, and mercilessly, these are the exact aspects which make you, you. Yet it is also this unique, different, possible-ground-for-rejection side of us we sought to hide. Brown brings out the paradox:

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but … it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

Vulnerability means letting yourself be seen completely, and that’s difficult. It requires courage.

Remember the people who were the ones with this default sense of worthiness? What sets them apart is, (1) their courage to be imperfect —

“They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be to be who they were.” — Brene Brown

and, (2) their embracement of vulnerability:

“They believed what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” — Brene Brown

Contrary to what many men believe, being vulnerable is not losing your pride. It’s the opposite. Considered like that, a sting of anxiety in your stomach is a good thing. You’re about to express a truth about yourself.

Boundaries = rejection minus shame

Shame and fear of rejection are close cousins. Your boundaries are the manifestations of your priorities. They hinge on your willingness to be rejected for your answer to the question:

What is more important than other people’s opinions about me?

“You can measure someone based on the size of the things that bother them. And you can equally tell a lot about a person based on where they draw the linebetween what matters, and what does not.” — Kris Gage

For instance, is punctuality something you find important? Then you owe it to yourself to stick up for that and to inform someone who is loose with the truth you won’t tolerate that behavior. Assert yourself.

This took me a long time to realize. I always figured if I’d be my best self, the circle of individuals compatible with me would widen, not narrow. If I’d grow, more folks would like me and there would be some kind of Ultimate Convergence of Rational People. So, most of the times, when someone didn’t like something I did or said, I took this to be a sign I wasn’t moving upwards.

I was wrong.

One of life’s biggest hurdles is the ability to handle rejection, as a lot of us had it ingrained into us all of our lives that rejection is wrong and should be avoided. No. You have to be OK with there being people who don’t like you.

And it goes beyond that. Indeed, you have to invite rejection. And paradoxically, when you’re okay with this and become uninhibited about expressing your emotions and what you want, people will respect you for being honest. Or so I’ve been told.

Try this exercise for the next week: stop giving explanations for what you did or did not do. When someone asks you, just state the answer briefly as a matter of fact. Do not apologize. Do not be defensive. Don’t please anyone.

Make a list of loved ones whose views you care about. Ignore what everyone else says about you.

Conflicts are not a bad thing, but a neutral sign of incompatibility. Crucially, once you get to know someone, there will always be a divergence:

“When we commit to getting closer, we’re committing to eventually experiencing real, face-to-face conflict.” — Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

If you never have these disagreements, you’re avoiding them by hiding yourself.

Standing up for your boundaries will have another consequence in the department of human relationships. In a different context, marketing expert Seth Godin likes to quote Zig Ziglar’s distinction between “meaningful specifics” and “wandering generalities”. In product terms: if you want everyone to be your customer, no one will be your customer. In people terms:if everyone likes you, no one loves you.

There’s not a single person in love with a wandering generality. Love requires expression of your truth, your rough edges, your embarrassments, and unpopular opinions.

The takeaway

In conclusion, how might we best deal with shame?

Shame is part of human nature. Some “who-do-you-think-you-ares” are inevitable. We can’t make it go away, and if you’re like me, you kind of need some yardstick to measure whether you’re (doing) OK.

The first crucial step is to interpret this voice as a fear of rejection, not as a sign of unworthiness. You’re not unworthy.

The second crucial step is to replace other people’s standards (‘Do they reject me?’) with your own value-based norms (‘Am I the kind of person I want to be?’).

This is scary because it requires vulnerability, which we can practice by being honest. Honesty with ourselves will lead to rejection by others.

However, the cruel truth is that, in seeking validation, you’re avoiding rejection, but you pay with love.

I’m going to try to be like this. A different strategy. Another way of being. Wish me luck.

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