My life has been a speeding train lately, and oh, how I’ve missed my blog! My emerging leaders and I are working on self care for the next few weeks, so this post indulges in quite a bit of navel gazing.
Let’s get to my thoughts on vulnerability and shame that I promised almost a month ago—but first: hat tip to Brené Brown, who has really pushed the discussion on authenticity forward by speaking openly about her own vulnerability and shame. My two cents on this revolves around how shamelessness resonates with me much more than vulnerability, and how letting go of shame is one of the kindest and most empowering gifts I’ve given myself.
Growing up in Manila, shame was at the center of so many social conventions. One of the worst things to be called is walang hiya, an epithet that means ‘shameless.’ Walang hiya ka! communicates so much more than the admonishment “You should be ashamed of yourself!” One might be accused of being walang hiya for enthusiastically devouring food that a host offers. (Proper etiquette would be to refuse refuse refuse. People leave parties with a growling stomach if they don’t feel they know the hosts well enough to accept their hospitality graciously.)
I can’t say for sure whether it was cultural, generational, or both, but shame-based parenting was the dominant practice when I was a child. Perhaps because of this, my initial reaction to Brown’s message on vulnerability was mixed. I got the heart of her argument, I appreciated her effort to invest vulnerability with positive meaning, but the word just didn’t sit well with me. I associate it unambiguously with fragility, and frankly I like to think of myself as unbreakable.
Thinking about it a little more, though, it surprised me to realize that I’d managed to internalize Brown’s message and put it into practice in my daily life. Candor is essential to my personal and professional relationships. My work is staked on my impulse to pass on any knowledge, resources, and insights that have helped me through transition and transformation.
Living earnestly, honestly, and authentically has always been important to me, but it no longer causes me great discomfort to drop the many masks that got me through some tough times. Shamelessness empowers me to bring down my defenses without feeling vulnerable because fear doesn’t enter into the equation. Being fearless doesn’t mean I don’t hesitate before the unfamiliar. It just means that I recognize the first beat of fear before it can overwhelm me.
I’m not yet able to articulate in a nutshell how I’ve been able to move away from shame, but here are some epiphanies that got me there:
- No matter how “together” people appear on the outside, we have all experienced sadness, fear, pain, insecurity, self-doubt, embarrassment, etc.
- I love and admire so many people who repeatedly stumble on their path. Why shouldn’t I be “good enough” for myself when I falter?
- As long as my words are shaped by serious reflection and kindness and are aimed at a positive end, I don’t need to be apologetic when I voice my opinions. (This is distinct from my commitment to apologizing sincerely when circumstances demand it.)
- Everyone has failed at something. Sometimes those failures end up being serendipitous. But even if they aren’t, all failures are learning opportunities.
- I am not the money gambling type, but in life as in love, no risk, no reward. Either way, if you pay attention, you will learn something profound about yourself. (Also, your heart does not literally break.)
- You can breathe through anything. (This might be my biggest piece of life advice for anyone.)
And here are just some of the ways that my new-found shamelessness has paid dividends:
- Being open about the struggles I have or have had in common with the young people I serve helps to establish a solid relationship of trust and rapport between us.
- Revealing that I’m sad, lonely, angry, or hurt allows me to reach out for sound advice on dealing with strong emotions.
- Sharing ideas still in formation enables others to engage and help develop them further. (I could have really used this advice in grad school.)
- I’m less attached to the outcome of my actions now. If I do something for someone, it’s out of a genuine impulse to give. I don’t expect anything back. If I write something and send it out into the world, I don’t look for a response (though I’m thrilled when I get one).
- Voicing strong opinions—be they unpopular or highly debatable—opens up needed conversations. You may awaken detractors, but you will also find your allies. And if you’re wrong, you have a chance to modify your perspective.
- Speaking of which, admitting when I am wrong is suddenly very easy. This has done wonders, above all, for my marriage.
- One day I woke up and realized that I am pretty [expletive!] fearless. Again, I can breathe through anything.
On a related note, I just don’t care anymore if not everyone likes me. I try to be kind, generous, and positive, but let’s face it: I’m intense, highly strung, demanding, and intolerant of incompetence. (I could go on.) It’s not to everyone’s taste, and I’m working on improving the less attractive parts of my personality. But just as I don’t care to befriend everyone in the world, the whole world will not want to hear or like what I have to say. It’s really okay. I breathe and check in with myself. I stand without shame and then keep moving.