On Shame, Vulnerability, Self-Acceptance and Living Life to the Fullest

Poet/philosopher David Whyte’s poem/essay on why we must accept our vulnerability in order to live a full life reminded me of Brene Brown’s YouTube video on vulnerability and SHAME. Shame and vulnerability are very dirty words in our lovely culture. But what David Whyte and Brene Brown trying to get across here is that coming to terms with our own vulnerability is necessary for a well-lived life. It’s necessary for creativity. Shame is called “the swampland of the soul.” We need to put on our galoshes and find our way around. She entitled her latest book Daring Greatly after she read this passage by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”—Theodore Roosevelt

Brene Brown’s ultimate thesis here is that EMPATHY is the antidote to SHAME.

Remember all the hype about oxytocin, the “cuddle”hormone? Well, as much as it is released by our nervous systems when we cuddle with someone we love, thus reinforcing this behavior as pleasurable, it has a dark side too. The same hormone also encourages revulsion towards those who are DIFFERENT. Human beings have evolved to make instantaneous decisions based on what another human being or animal looks like in order to survive, so why do we not acknowledge this as part of our instinctive behavior now? Because the implications of it would be very uncomfortable for us. Morality dictates that we overcome or suppress these basic instincts, and not to do so is shameful. Shame is an incredibly powerful negative force in our world. It has it’s place in our behavioral lexicon, for sure, but it can’t be sat with too long, because then it could really infect our psyches, just the way a common cold could turn into pneumonia if not nipped in the bud. It is so critical to teach our children the place that shame has in controlling our behavior, and be sure that we communicate that their misdeed was wrong without ever making them feel ashamed of their entire selves. Children will automatically assume the second because that’s just part of their instinctive thinking.

Our instinctive behavior is to shun those outside of our tribe and favor those who are in our tribe, who have strong blood or historical ties to one another. We are still these instinctive beings and our actions are driven by these instincts on a daily basis, without giving it any conscious thought. And that’s the first thing we have to become aware of. It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that our behavior is driven by primitive instincts that we have no conscious control over. Our history is absolutely loaded with the gruesomeness we’ve subjected our fellow human beings to in the name of eradicating our own shame about our own basic instincts. We’re afraid that by acknowledging these traits and owning them, we will reveal ourselves to be the uncivilized people we are. Actually, it’s the opposite – by acknowledging the truth about ourselves, we gain the tools we need to improve our lives. When we continue to refuse to own these instincts, we propagate our own shame so that it continues to build up within us, which drives a very vicious cycle. On the level of civilization, this cycle seems only to be broken temporarily by war – by obliterating civilization completely. Once the volcano of war has erupted and wreaked it’s violent, merciless havoc, new life eventually springs up. And with it, the seeds of more divisiveness and violence. This is why it’s so important to embrace our sense of shame and vulnerability, so we can turn the tide away from violence and toward accepting ourselves for who we are. This is the basis of peace.

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