Vulnerability, Compassion and Connection: The Best Medicine for Shame

Is it just me or do you also notice a growing cultural tendency to label one another in negative ways? This inclination to undesirably categorize others is something I have been more aware of in recent years. I often hear people characterize colleagues or family members with words like: socially awkward, narcissistic, control freak, bully, drunk or sociopath. The problem with describing someone with one word, whether the word is positive or negative, is that it rarely is an accurate description of who the person is and can be. The truth is that we are all sinners and saints. We have strengths and growing edges. But sometimes in order to feel better about ourselves, we demonize others and paint ugly pictures of them. But often the unsightly portrait we paint of someone else might actually be a good description of how we see ourselves.

When we struggle to see and celebrate our own gifts and graces, it becomes harder to see the strengths and beauty in one another. Do you tend to put down yourself and/or others? If you do, you may be struggling with shame. Shame is the inaccurate belief that we are deficient, inferior, worthless and unlovable. When I work with clients on their self-image, it is amazing to watch a client notice the connection of how having more regard for self leads them to view challenging loved ones in a more positive light.

I have created the following quiz to assess a person’s level of shame. If you agree with less than five statements, shame is either not a pressing issue for you or it is something you are already working to overcome. If you answer yes to between five and nine of the statements below, shame is a concern in your life you need to commit to address. If you answer affirmatively to ten or more of the following symptoms of shame, you likely struggle with toxic levels of shame and I encourage you to seek professional help, by finding a therapist to help you explore your personal and family history, in order to get to the roots of your shame.

  • I am reluctant to give or receive affection
  • I numb my pain through self-cutting, alcohol, drugs or other means
  • I often compare myself to other people
  • Jealously is a struggle for me
  • I reject compliments or do not believe others when they offer them
  • I regularly criticize others
  • I have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse
  • I often put down myself
  • I engage in negative self-talk
  • I am uncomfortable with my body
  • My worldview is pessimistic
  • I constantly blame myself for what I should have done
  • I undermine my own needs in favor of other people’s desires
  • I don’t practice self-care
  • I don’t feel good enough
  • I avoid making eye contact
  • I blush easily
  • I can easily become defensive or angry
  • I struggle to see a bright future for myself
  • I often try to please others by being perfect
  • I am sometimes guilty of gossiping
  • It is tough for me to share painful parts of my life
  • Coming up with a list of 5 of my strengths would be a challenge for me

It is important to recognize that when we are stuck in shame, we stay in a cycle of fear, blame and disconnection. So the opposite of shame is vulnerability, compassion and connection. Shame invites us to stay stuck in our fear and not tell anyone about our difficult childhood or struggles with self-image. On the other hand, when we learn the power of vulnerability and start to share our stories and fears with safe people, we notice our feelings of shame lessen. Shame convinces us to blame and defame other people in our lives, in order to temporarily mitigate our feelings of self-loathing.

But instead of staying stuck in our shame narratives, we can choose to exercise compassion towards others and ourselves. Shame leads us to build walls that keep us from connecting to others and knowing our own authentic self. Shame whispers to us that we are not enough and encourages us to numb our feelings of inadequacy through addictive behaviors. Seeking to tear down walls, by connecting to ourselves and others, is another means to dissolve the corrosive influence of shame.

My husband and I love to travel and we make several trips out West every year. We often stay at bed and breakfasts during our travels. During these trips, I have noticed a difference between the bed and breakfasts in the Western United States and the bed and breakfasts in the Southern United States. Southern bed and breakfasts remind me a lot of the Southern Living magazine. When I walk into a bed and breakfast in the South, everything is in perfect order. The breakfast is served on elegant china. The oriental rugs and antique furniture are pleasing to the eye. Nothing is out of order. But when we stay at a bed and breakfast out West, I have noticed that the coffee is usually served in ordinary mugs, instead of china. Everything feels more relaxed and there are often knick-knacks lying around that are not perfectly placed.

The perfection we seek in our Southern bed and breakfasts is an important metaphor for what it means to be a good Southern boy or girl. We are taught to hide the skeletons in our closet. We are encouraged to be perfect. Secrecy is our mantra in the South. We are not supposed to talk about certain things. If we are honest, there are stories in our family tree of affairs, prejudice, abuse, hoarding, mental illness, addiction and the list goes on. But the southern way is to hide these secrets. Unfortunately, our unwillingness to tell these stories is actually suffocating us and this perfection is symptom of our shame. Maybe if we are perfect, we will finally be enough.

But here’s the thing: perfection is elusive and it can lead you to be a hamster on a wheel that keeps spinning in fear, blame and disconnection. Being confined in this way not often leads not only to shame, but also to a daily life filled with addiction, anger, loneliness, anxiety and depression. But there is a better way. Initially, this way may feel scary and unsettling. But choosing vulnerability, compassion and connection will eventually lead us to embrace imperfection in ourselves and one another and can help us experience more joy, freedom, intimacy, peace and self-awareness. This way of life invites us to see and celebrate ourselves and one another. This pathway heartens us to own and dance with the skeletons in our closet. We have a choice to embark on the road of vulnerability, compassion and connection or to live in fear, blame and disconnection. Which road will we choose?

Let’s choose vulnerability, compassion and connection,


I originally wrote the article above for the Mountain Mirror.

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