I often see people whose sense of worth has been adversely affected by shame. Of all the painful human emotions, a core sense of shame is the most excruciating and difficult to bear.
From birth, we are vulnerable; reliant on our mothers and fathers to help us grow and develop. When our parents respond appropriately to our physical and emotional needs in a ‘good enough’ way (Winnicott) it feels natural, right and good. It instils in us a sense of safety in our world, a sense of our own intrinsic beauty, forming the core of our self-esteem.
However, where our parents’ behaviour is neglectful, emotionally or physically abusive or traumatic, the infant senses something is wrong and feels very unsafe in the world. An abusive or traumatic environment can leave an infant with a sense of internal defect; of something ‘wrong’; a core sense of shame that our parents let us down in important ways.
The experience of basic shame is often unconscious. It can feel like inner ugliness. If others were to truly “see” us as who we really are, they’d surely recoil. We learn to build defense mechanisms to deny or avoid our vulnerability, to shield ourselves from the pain of shame.
I came across this video by Professor Brené Brown, called The power of vulnerability. In it she argues that shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many types of emotional issues such as depression, eating disorders and anxiety.
She explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Accepting one’s vulnerability means acknowledging that we are all mortal human beings and therefore all vulnerable to loss, criticism, abandonment, death etc.
We’re also capable of amazing feats of courage and joy. It can be tremendously liberating to say to ourselves, "So I'm not perfect. So what? I'm only human, but I'm still here and I'm worthy of life".
As adults, denial of our humanness and the attempt to be perfect or invulnerable often causes us pain and shame. But vulnerability is not weakness...
It takes courage to show vulnerability, to put ourselves at emotional risk of exposure or uncertainty - such as coming to counselling. However, it may be a necessity in order to be able to experience true joy, creativity, and change. It takes courage to let go of trying to be perfect!
Let’s accept and embrace our human imperfection and acknowledge our unique worthiness in the world together.