Up first, we’ll examine the two most prevalent hindrances: fear and shame.
- We’ll differentiate vulnerability from fear, shame, and guilt
- Look at the uses of fear and shame
- Provide relatable examples from both fiction and real life of how fear and shame block our relationship to vulnerability
Then we’ll investigate how fear and shame can manifest in our behaviors: Armoring Up and the Wall of Cool.
After that, we’ll take a look at what we’re losing when we let shame and fear prevent us from practicing vulnerability.
At the end, we’ll offer some tools to begin sifting through our shame and fear to reach vulnerability: Shame Resilience.
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
—Litany Against Fear, Frank Herbert
Fear can be a very powerful, yet incredibly natural human response to one’s environment. Fear is often there to protect us and it actively inhibits our relationship to vulnerability by magnifying the worst case scenarios that may result from being vulnerable. Thus, it is important to outline what fear is, and how it can show up as a hindrance to vulnerability.
What is Fear?
Fear, in a general sense, can alert us to danger. Whether the danger is physical or psychological harm, real or perceived. Fear shows up across the entirety of our lives, which is why we dedicated a whole section to Fear.
Check it out here:
Fear has both a biochemical response and an emotional response. In our bodies, fear is controlled by the same biological mechanisms as “fight or flight.” It might look like increased sweating, increased adrenaline levels, and alertness. The emotional response varies depending on someone’s relationship to the source of fear. Fear that was created by a horror film will induce a different emotional response than fear stemming from real life perceived threats.
Fear and Vulnerability
There are many types of fear! We reference a few in more detail on the Literacy of Fear page.
In regard to its relationship to vulnerability, we’ll view fear through the lens of ego death: Fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Sound familiar? We have defined vulnerability as sharing ourselves more authentically. Fear can result from perceived emotional or physical risk. Vulnerability relies on taking a chance that our perceived inner self will be deemed unworthy of care or not good enough for someone to reciprocate friendship, relatability, compassion, resources, or love. When fear literally triggers survival mechanisms to avoid putting us at risk of ego death, trying to be vulnerable can be very harrowing (along a spectrum, of course).
“I’m afraid I won’t be a good mother.”
Vulnerability: taking on the responsibility of being a mother.
Fear: they will mess up their relationship with their child or will otherwise not meet expectations of motherhood. It’s safer to not have kids so that no one is let down.
“Last time I got married they dumped me a few years later. I’m worthless.”
Vulnerability: they are lonely and want to begin dating again.
Fear: they’ll face rejection like they did last time. It’s safer to remain single and not be hurt again.
Notice that because of their fears, these people will not risk being vulnerable. Their fear has them stuck. Unable to pursue experiences they desire or full expressions of who they are. They are at a stand still whether their fears are grounded in very real risks or are based on anxiety about perceived risks.
For vulnerability, we have made a general unofficial risk rubric to help illustrate the varying effects of vulnerability. Whether or not it is safe to face our fears to be vulnerable requires the same type of assessment. For instance, the experience of social or romantic rejection while dating can be debilitating. However, that rejection will weigh differently than getting kicked out of one’s home and facing the withdrawal of familial love and social support networks. Being afraid to give a report in front of our coworkers because of embarrassment has a different weight of material consequences than fear of being fired because our boss discovered we are gay.
Fear of being vulnerable is a bedrock of some of our cultural norms. In one study looking at why people tend to refuse available or even needed aid, participants were found to deny help because they viewed it as a vulnerability. They feared if they asked for help they’d be judged as incompetent, dependent, and perceived as powerless (Lee 2022). Gender, status, and organizational norms all played a role in affecting people’s help-seeking behaviors.
What does this study reveal about gender norms, fear, and vulnerability?
What do we notice around fear in the organizations and companies we work in?
Do these norms still apply?
What are some other ways we can show vulnerability in organizations and break through the fear?
If we let our fear of vulnerability drive our actions, we’ll miss out on opportunities to grow and reap the rewards vulnerability can offer. Even if they are scary, vulnerable moments such as confessing romantic feelings, asking for help, or taking responsibility for a mistake have potential to open our lives to enriching and meaningful experiences.
And, confusingly, we’re opting to miss out on vulnerability despite thinking it’s good for other people! Researchers explored how people view the vulnerability of others and found that people tend to view it more positively (Bruk 2018). Researchers were able to pinpoint this discrepancy in regard for self or others in seven studies about being in vulnerable situations like confessing love, revealing body imperfections, or asking for help. When viewing vulnerability in others, people tended to evaluate it more positively. They called this self-other difference the Beautiful Mess Effect.
“When people imagined themselves in those situations, they tended to believe that showing vulnerability would make them appear weak and inadequate. But when people imagined someone else in those situations, they were more likely to describe showing vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.”” –The Atlantic
So what can we do about fear?
Fear and Vulnerability as We Grow Up
As children, we’re more likely open, free and willing to share our complete selves with others. We have less fear about being vulnerable.
As we become adults, with more learned experiences, the world can look much different. Perhaps we experience painful trauma, or realize that not everyone is good to one another, especially when they are being vulnerable.
Research shows that adolescents are more susceptible to negative effects of rejection and ostracism. Neural imaging shows that the brain during adolescence goes through a unique level of maturation that hinges on complex social processes, like forming a social identity, boundaries, self-presentation, and reputation management. The research found that children and adolescents that have poor emotional and social skills have a lower chance of creating a sense of belonging (Arain 2013).
Basically, adolescents are faced with the conundrum that it’s both imperative they be vulnerable to create essential connections and solidify their sense of personhood while ALSO being in a period of development when their psyche is most sensitive to the risks involved. Social rejection and ostracism are terrifying and ultimately harmful prospects when we are adolescents.
So, if as youths we experienced pain after being vulnerable, our fear of going through that pain again is probably still influencing our decision-making as adults. We probably learned ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability (putting up armor) and we may behave in ways that reinforce repression or dissociation. Sometimes it’s easier to isolate ourselves because of the pain we’ve internalized. But there are other options, despite what our fears may tell us. Which is why learning to be vulnerable is so important.
No matter how old we are, it’s never too late to rebuild our relationship to vulnerability so we can reclaim our sense of belonging and authenticity.
Next, we’re going to delve into one of fear’s accomplices in shutting down vulnerability: shame.
An Introduction to the Relationship between Shame and Vulnerability
Like vulnerability, shame is something we all have likely experienced. Yet, we have a hard time defining exactly what it is.
Is it a feeling? Is it an experience? Is it learned? If so, from where?
Some people may even confuse the two! After all, they can both feel uncomfortable or downright panic-inducing (depending on what we think is at risk). They both have a lot to do with our sense of how we’re perceived by others and they both have programmed psychological responses that will take work to rewire. However, there are some pivotal differences to be made.
It might be easier to see shame as one of the risks of being vulnerable.
Shame may even LEAD us to what we feel vulnerable about since shame is often a protective mechanism we learned through trauma or negative past experiences.
Vulnerability is about showing our authentic selves to others. Letting others see us for who we are can trigger shame if we haven’t fully accepted ourselves or doubt we’ll find that acceptance from others.
To be more precise, fear of shame is a reason we avoid vulnerability.
Let’s get into it! First, let’s establish what shame is:
The Shame TL;DR
- Shame is a universal, shared experience.
- Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
- Shame can be a gateway to vulnerability: if we are aware of what we feel shame about and then realize others also feel shame in a similar way, connecting more authentically may seem more possible and less risky.
- Shame is not guilt, but a different emotion with different motivations and often different outcomes.
- Like Brown said in her talk, secrecy, silence, and judgments allow shame to grow into every area of our life and will shape how we think about ourselves and others, which can be damaging to our emotional and physical well-being.
- Shame’s downfall are compassion and empathy.
The Literature on Shame
After years of research and studies on shame, including thousands of interviews, researcher Brene Brown created this definition of shame:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” – Brene Brown
Listening to Shame | Brene Brown
Brown describes the shame she felt after her TED talk about vulnerability wherein she admitted to having a breakdown. She was mortified she had shared something so personal on such an immensely public platform. She had fallen for the myth that vulnerability = weakness and felt overwhelmed by shame. She describes how unraveling the effect of shame allowed her to fully unlock and understand the potential rewards of being vulnerable. Both in her life and in her research.
Most of us have a version of self-talk, or a voice in our heads that enforces self-imposed stories about ourselves. According to Brown, shame can show up as one of our inner critical voices. Namely, the ones that say we’re not good enough and/or who do we think we are? If we try to do (insert vulnerable scenario here), we’ll be emotionally/socially/professionally rejected; we’ll fail or even cause harm, and we’ll never recover or receive another chance. If we learn to hear this inner voice, recognize what it’s doing, and then rewrite its influence and how the it may talk to us, we’ll have less inner conflict when we try to be vulnerable.
Shame is also often confused with guilt. Brown differentiates between the two. She labels shame as inherently harmful to our well-being, while guilt is inherently constructive.
Here’s a quick breakdown, adapted from Brene Brown’s “Shame vs. Guilt”.
Guilt = “I did something bad.”
Shame = “I am bad.”
“…people feel shame and guilt for all manner of failures and transgressions, but the difference is when people feel shame, they feel badly about themselves; when people feel guilt, they feel badly about a specific behavior.” —June Tangney, PhD
Shame and Guilt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | June Tangney
June Tangney, professor of psychology at George Mason University, is another leading researcher of guilt and shame. In her work, she has established empirical evidence of what differentiates the two emotions. The main takeaway agrees with Brene Brown that shame often creates an overidentification with one’s own flaws. Which often leads to self-preservation tactics that may avoid taking responsibility. Whereas guilt focuses on the consequences of harmful actions on other people. Guilt doesn’t put self-worth under fire and thus makes it easier to assume responsibility for what happened. Which makes it more likely we will apologize and reflect on how to act differently next time.
See the difference between guilt and shame yet? Here’s another example of how differently we frame the two emotions internally:
Guilt = “I made a mistake and I see that hurt you. I’m sorry for that outcome! What can I do to repair the damage?”
Shame = “I messed up because I am incapable of doing things right. You should have never trusted me to do that in the first place.”
The table below summarizes Dr. Tangney’s general findings:
|Looking inward – focus on self, feeling bad about who we are, self-perception changes negatively, worried about what others think of us||Looking outward – focus on the behavior towards others, feeling bad about what we’ve done, self-perception is generally not changed much|
|Feeling flawed/unworthy, exposed, wanting to escape/hide||Feeling empathy, regret, remorse for how our behavior affected others|
|Overwhelmingly painful to accept responsibility||Not as painful to accept responsibility|
|Not adaptive, not correlated with preventing bad behaviors||Adaptive, correlated with living more “responsibly” in that consequences of actions are considered more often|
|Motivates defensiveness, blaming others, greater risk of depression/anxiety/low self-esteem, or turning to unhealthy behaviors like substance use||Motivates accountability, confession, reparations, aligning with actions that lead to stronger relationships/community|
Any literature review of shame studies will mention something called “healthy shame” (Cuncic 2021). Researchers hypothesize healthy shame contributes to maintaining positive social norms or even driving social change (Amodeo 2016). However, many of the proponents of “healthy shame” don’t have consistent studies to back up the correlations they are making between positive changes for individuals/communities and “healthy shame.” They also gloss over the very real effect of shame maintaining harmful social norms (Roelen 2017). Both Brown and Tangney propose that it is guilt rather than shame which is a driving force for changing our social behaviors.
Why is differentiating between guilt and shame important? Especially in terms of vulnerability?
Guilt is not the positive form of shame. It can still be a difficult emotion with damaging outcomes. However, understanding the difference between the two reactions to wrongdoing or mistakes can help us determine which one we are prone to. It is not impossible to seek out guidance to identify and maybe unpack why we are more prone to shame or to guilt. For vulnerability, shame is a major deterrent. It is almost impossible to be vulnerable if shame makes us clam up every time we feel exposed. Meanwhile, guilt can help us build trust and other soft skills that make being vulnerable seem less scary. The empathy and room for follow through with who we affect means guilt provides opportunity for creating a new friendship or repairing an old one with new patterns.
“Never do anything to avoid shame.” – Marshall B. Rosenberg
We’ve said a lot that gives the impression shame = very, very bad!
However, it shouldn’t be discarded or avoided. Founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Marshall B. Rosenberg, urges us to approach each situation in our lives without judgment, and shame is no exception. He encourages us to understand the needs behind shame (protecting us from rejection, exposure, humiliation). If we can find the vulnerability shame is guarding (inexperience, inability, lack of knowledge, identity, fearfulness, judgment, secrets, etc.), we can understand what we need to gently embrace our shame. Eventually working with our shame may help unravel the need to hide the vulnerability.
Example of Embracing Shame in Order to be Vulnerable:
Vulnerability: We have a niche hobby we really like, but we haven’t told our coworkers or friends about it yet.
Shame: we think it’s childish and that we’ll be teased about it.
What shame is protecting: our social connections. Perhaps our hobby was ridiculed when we were younger and we associated sharing our hobby with social rejection.
Embracing our shame: It’s ok if someone thinks it’s childish. We are not inherently childish for liking it, even if someone else thinks we are. They aren’t the ones writing our story! We are! And if our friendship is so shallow our hobby breaks it, then it may not be a healthy relationship.
Being vulnerable outcomes: By getting past our shame and sharing our hobby, we’ll find the friends who still value our friendship regardless of our niche hobby. They may even enjoy the hobby as well! Or also felt shame around their hobby and now feel safer being open with us about it. It’s a win win!
Brene Brown said that secrecy, silence, and judgments keep shame alive. While empathy and compassion are the bane of shame. When we see shame in ourselves, accepting it and holding it with kindness will help us accept ourselves. If we can talk to someone about our shame, we may find more comradery and solidarity than we expected.
When we realize that our shame is more universal than we think it loses a lot of its power because when we see others are not discarded for their “shame” we learn we won’t be either.
Try This Activity:
Here’s a question: What will actually happen if we allow the feeling of shame to come up?
PSA: it may benefit from having a support system here, such as:
~ therapist (if you don’t have one this article offers tips on how to look for one)
~ wise friend
~ other support network, like a faith community
Step One: Let the feeling come up and tap on all the worst case scenarios in our heads about allowing this feeling.
For example, we might feel that if we allowed ourselves to feel shame, we would feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with it.
Step Two: Diffuse the shameful thought by offering this: even though we might be overwhelmed if we allow this feeling to come up, we deeply and completely accept ourselves and how we feel.
Other areas of AMOL that can be supportive here:
Identity & Shame
Vulnerability is about finding belonging and acceptance. It is expressing ourselves to others despite the risks involved. So, if someone’s identity is something society is taught to find undesirable, it becomes exceedingly difficult not to develop shame around it. Or to fear sharing parts of ourselves related to that identity around other people.
That doesn’t mean it is hopeless. In the sections below, we’ll explore several examples of people facing their shame and fear (or the shame others feel about them) to then reclaim vulnerability.
Each example will highlight how shame and vulnerability can look different for different people or groups. And thus, how their journey and obstacles to being vulnerable safely will look entirely different from others. It should be noted that a full examination of the complex relationships to vulnerability in each group is not something we’re capable of doing justice for on this site.
Here are a few examples of how shame shows up differently for different people. Try the “Redo Theater” exercise prompts next to each video:
This is a reimagining exercise. It’s pretty simple. We imagine something that has already occurred (be it a historical event, a story, or a personal experience) and can recreate it mentally and change the narrative.
After watching each video clip, answer the “Redo Theater” questions and see how we might be able to reframe our ideas around shame.
The Breakfast Club | Clip
In this video, the group asks Claire if she’s ever had sex before. Claire feels an overwhelming sense of embarrassment and isn’t able to answer the question. This clip explores the cliches for women when Claire is clearly conflicted about whether to reveal she is a virgin as it may damage her standing as a popular girl at school.
- How does shame surface for Claire?
- How could Claire have shown vulnerability in a different way?
- After reading the Armor section, what kind of armor is Claire wearing initially to shield herself from vulnerability?
In this short video clip, Sue Klebold (mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two shooters who committed the Columbine High School massacre) opens up about the years of shame for her family.
- How did shame surface for Sue Klebold?
- How does shame and failure intersect for Sue?
- How is she now showing vulnerability with the audience?
- How does this feel as a viewer years later?
- What levels of empathy, if any, are showing up for us here?
My son was a Columbine shooter. This is my story | Sue Klebold
The Price of Shame | Monica Lewinsky
In 1998, Monica Lewinsky faced public scrutiny when allegedly the residing President of the U.S., Bill Clinton, pursued unprofessional interest in her while she was employed at the White House. In this short clip, Lewinsky explains:
“I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”
Public shaming has unfortunately become a cultural norm in today’s world, whether online or with “cancel culture.” Click HERE to view the full TED Talk.
- How does shame still show up for Monica Lewinsky?
- How does our culture of humiliation show up in our day to day, and how can we develop shame resilience around it like Lewinsky did?
- Imagine going back in time to this public arena– how do you think you would talk to someone who judged Ms. Lewinsky so harshly? What could you take away from their perceptions of what is “shameful” in those conversations?
Paths of Glory (1957) | Execution
Here is a good example of vulnerability shown to an individual in an invulnerable role from the movie Paths of Glory.
- How does shame and vulnerability show up for this man in the scene?
- How is he showing vulnerability?
- What expectations does this video showcase about men?
- Keep in mind, this film was made in 1957 – what (if anything) has changed in the way that society stereotypes vulnerability for men since then?
The year 2020 marked 75 years since World War II ended. Watch this video showing a mix of emotions about one of the darkest periods in modern times: The Holocaust.
- Do you think the people being interviewed feel shame? How are they showing vulnerability?
- How are they showing shame resilience? Fear of a recurrence of the past?
- What would be a more vulnerable way to go about this encounter?
Hitler, Nazis And World War II: How Germany Deals With Its Dark Past | Meet the Germans
Atticus Finch and the Lynch Mob
In the film, To Kill a Mockingbird, a mob arrives at the jail cell to lynch Tom Robinson. Watch this scene where Jem, Scout, and Dill show up to “protect” Atticus, who is guarding the jail cell with Tom inside. Scout ends up recognizing one of the men (Mr. Cunningham). By merely making innocent small talk with him (she is unclear as to why they’re there) the men end up feeling guilty and dispersing.
- Was Scout showing vulnerability, or innocence, or both?
- What does shame look like in this situation?
- Re-do Theater – What would be a more vulnerable way to go about this encounter? Write down what aspect of this scene would change.
Shame and Fear as Armor against Vulnerability
How fear and shame can “protect” us from vulnerability has many forms. An easy metaphor to use is to call the variations “armor.” This armor varies from situation to situation. When we use it, we do so thinking it will prevent us from any emotional injuries. However, as it deflects the discomfort of vulnerability, it also prevents us from experiencing the benefits of vulnerability (joy, love, openness, clarity, and meaning).
Often these sets of armor come in the form of rules we’ve established to separate ourselves from harm. Much like the sound of a busy street outside our bedroom window, we become accustomed to the sound over time and don’t even notice it. Because we’ve lived with them for so long, we probably don’t recognize their effects anymore.
After the practice exercise below, we’ll unpack parts of the vulnerability “armory.” We’ll question why we use each piece of armor, what each kind’s purpose is, and what we might learn from them.
Below are a few vulnerability scenarios to consider. With each situation, how would you describe the armor being used?
- A camp counselor leaves their name off an honorable mention list at the end of the summer, intentionally. The staff finds out, and then surprises them with an elaborate award presented as they are in front of everyone. The counselor was so angry that their lips quivered and they stormed off afterward.
- A staff member publicly asks their teammates to only be told when they are doing something wrong. They are deeply uncomfortable with any kind of praise.
- At work, your teammate offers a little laugh at the end of whatever they say whenever they stray into slightly vulnerable territory — so as to soften and preemptively discount/discard their words.
- Our child doesn’t want to open a present their grandmother sent them, because they didn’t want people looking at them when they did it.
- Our child gets a vaccine shot in the arm. They asked for the nurse to do the shot slowly. The nurse is taken aback, offering that nearly every child is afraid. Our kid says no, give it to them slowly. Their eyes were watering while they were saying that, and they tensed their whole body during the shot.
- Our best friend’s #1 desire in the world is to be loved. They’re 37 years old and deeply want to have a partner and a family. They won’t get on dating sites, and even when we bought them a membership as a gift, they didn’t use it. At dinner, their friends grabbed her phone, downloaded bumble and made a profile for them. Still, they never used it.
Each set of “Armor” and its propensity to block our vulnerability practice will be described.
Below each piece will be a way to “melt down” the armor, or alternative ways of relating to this defense mechanism.
A Meaning of Life’s Methods for Melting Armor
We have many offerings outside of the vulnerability section which provide options for taking off our armor, wearing it differently, or determining with more confidence when it’s appropriate to wear.
What is it? According to Brene Brown, “The feeling when joy is quickly followed by worry and dread.”
People that wear this armor find it safer to stay in a sad emotional state instead of being truly joyous and risk being sad. This armor means that we give up all joy in life so that when we’re feeling sad, it’s slightly less sad.
- When someone is dating, they expect the worse and refuse to see new relationships through a long-term lens
- When someone gets promoted at work and immediately wonders when their impostor syndrome will be discovered
- Someone who prepares for the worst outcome during every vacation
Melting it down: By practicing gratitude for daily joy, we can acknowledge that it’s okay to feel joy, however small it is. Over time, we’ll be more willing to accept the bigger joys and develop a risk tolerance when challenging times eventually come up.
These people wear perfectionism as armor because they think that it will help them avoid any emotionally painful feelings (like shame) due to them only receiving compliments and love. This kind of behavior can feel exclusionary to others and create distance, which decreases our ability to form meaningful connections with others.
- Spending their entire birthday constantly trying to meet other’s needs so everyone has a good time at their party.
- Spending 10 minutes writing and re-writing a 3-sentence email.
- Keeping their house overly clean all the time, especially when having company. If something is out of place or a little unkempt, they will be uncomfortable with others witnessing it.
Melting it down: A sense of worthiness comes into the mix here as a way to break down this armor. If we develop a sense of self-worth and self-compassion, we may be able to shed the perfectionist way of navigating relationships and let in the full effect of love. Try a few of the following strategies to counter perfectionism if it comes up:
- Realistic thinking – Sometimes we can be very critical of ourselves. A good way to replace that self-critical thought process is to practice compassionate, “helpful statements”, such as:
- “All I can do is my best.”
- “It’s okay to have a bad day sometimes.”
- “It’s okay to make a mistake. I’m human and everyone makes mistakes.”
- Forest for the trees – People wearing this armor tend to get bogged down with the details and worry about little things. Try some more big picture perspective to see the forest for the trees:
- Does it matter too much in the end?
- If the worst thing does happen, would I survive?
- Would this matter tomorrow, next week, next year?
- Exposure – Purposefully make mistakes or come across as imperfect. Truly go to extremes:
- Show up 15 minutes late for an appointment.
- Leave the kitchen visibly messy.
- Wear clothing that has stains on them.
- Sit in uncomfortable silence with a coworker at lunch for 5-10 minutes.
We numb ourselves in many ways, and not just with TV, social media, or addictions of different kinds. Eating food to mask grief, being too busy to think, taking prescription pills, and even fantasy football; our world is full of ‘fun’ activities that get overused as distractions. Numbing tends to be driven by anxiety, disconnection, and shame.
“You can’t selectively numb feelings. So, if you try to numb the vulnerability, you also numb joy, happiness, connection.” — Jonathan Van Ness
Melting It Down:
We can learn to get in touch with feelings, stay mindful about a specific numbing behavior, and learn to deal with the discomfort of hard emotions. Reducing anxiety is learning to say no; and, we have to believe we are enough to say “no.”
Another tip is to create a container for practicing not exiting or numbing. Here are a few other ways to refrain:
Create a practice period – And commit to it. Say 1 month and commit to it.
Define the exit points – Set some boundaries around things to not do during this time period, such as social media, video games, alcohol, sweets, or surfing the internet to numb out.
Define the triggers – It’s important to point out the triggers that come up when we find ourselves procrastinating, for example. Take a moment or two to pause and take a breath.
Create allowable time for things – Craft small containers for what feels reasonable to get things done, such as texting for two focused periods in the day, or emailing during pre-determined times.
Commit to other people – Find others to hold us accountable to the container we’re creating and report to them daily.
Viking or Victim
Dividing the world into winners and losers is also known as the “Viking or Victim” armor.
This member of The Court utilizes the “win or lose” mentality that can be combative and a divisive way to engage with the world. If one is battling for life and death, this could potentially be a useful means to navigate the world. But for a relatively secure, non-violent life, this mentality is another hindrance because it creates distance.
Here are some examples:
- Giving up on finding financial freedom because “Wall Street will always win and the lower classes will never get a chance.”
- In the classic trope, the “jock” in the class will always get the girl that we have a crush on.
- “That’s the way of the world. There will always be winners and losers.”
Melting It Down:
The opposite of this mindset is a win-win mindset. This offers up the idea that both parties can end up with pleasing, more ideal outcomes. For example:
- A car salesman leads us to a great car deal, so we’ll probably go back in the future to recommend the dealership to a friend of ours.
- If our colleague gives you fair credit on a project we contributed to, we both will end up looking good.
Practice having skin in the game, or symmetrical consequences. This means that when we give advice or share, we could do our best to align with the outcome of the advice. For example, in ancient Greece, an architect would stand under their newly built bridge as the scaffolding was removed. If the bridge failed, it would literally fall on their head.
In this way, we get used to a win-win mentality. If we give sound advice to a friend, we both win.
This armor takes the shape of sharing too much, too soon to the wrong people (sometimes called “spilling” or oversharing) in a valiant effort to form connections. For example:
- A person interviewing for an open room in a shared house discloses all their personal quirks and flaws as a housemate to be as transparent and “honest” as possible.
- Feeling nervous as a newcomer, the new employee shares a personal story about every topic that is brought up by their coworkers.
- A new date attempts to share all their childhood trauma very early on in an attempt to cement connection.
These people may “floodlight” and take up a lot of sharing space right off the bat which can often lead to immediate disconnection and a lack of trust.
Melting It Down:
Try only sharing stories or experiences that have been fully worked through.
- Ask yourself before sharing, “I am actually soliciting for affirmation?” Does this feel vulnerable?
- Avoid sharing more intimate stories or fresh experiences that are challenging to navigate.
- Give these experiences some breathing room, perspective, and time to process. Then, once we have a balanced perspective, offer it around to those we trust.
People who are “serpentining” will often go to the ends of the earth to forgo vulnerability even though it would take far less energy to be vulnerable.
- We want to talk to our parents about going through financial hardship but we keep postponing it by telling a different story about the situation.
- We need to send an important email but leave a working draft in the inbox for weeks.
- We know we need to take the steps to find a therapist, but put off the search for other tasks every time we sit down to do it.
Brene Brown uses the term “serpentining” to describe the huge amount of effort we expend to dodge vulnerability when it would take much less to face it. We serpentine when we have to make a call but postpone for made up reasons. Or when we need to send an email but leave a draft sitting for days. Serpentining is draining and not a healthy way of living life.
Melting It Down:
When we feel the urge to serpentine, or make up an elaborate story or reason to avoid vulnerability, do this: break up the tension by laughing or pausing, take a breath, and sink into the reality that we’re in. This reality-check can be a good way to start engaging with vulnerability.
Eat our frogs – Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Eww gross! No this actually means to do the thing we’ve been meaning to do right away. This could be having that awkward and vulnerable conversation with our partner about finances – do it over coffee! Or talking to our boss about quitting – do it first thing in the morning! It’s like ripping off the bandaid, in a sense. Just do it!
Cynicism, Criticism, Cool, Cruelty
This member of The Court puts on the armor of cynicism, criticism, cool, and cruelty. This armor is similar to the Wall of Cool, but slightly crueler.
A few others examples are:
- Labeling people as “losers” or “lame”.
- Attacking others for conforming to a “life in a cubicle.”
- Trolling or criticism over social media.
The Gottman Institute, an organization dedicated to building healthy relationships, also refers to criticism as one of the Four Horsemen for relationships. This is very different from constructive feedback. It often takes the form of:
- Taking a verbal assault on someone’s character as a person.
- Telling someone that there’s something inherently wrong with them.
- Using messages like “You always,” “You should,” or “You never.”
Criticism can escalate to make others feel under attack, hurt, or rejected. This space can be intense and can quickly lead to another Horseman called “Contempt”.
“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment. …. Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
– Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People
Melting It Down:
One way to melt down Criticism is to take responsibility for what we say. Whether it’s online or in person, try ‘signing’ your comments, even mentally, with your name. This is taking responsibility for our actions and words by owning them. If we don’t feel comfortable to own such a comment, then it may help us to realize we don’t need to share it, and perhaps look inward at the comment we were going to project outward.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man in the arena.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Spend a day with this quote. Repeat it over and over again as a mantra. Make it yours. Think about how it can help us resist not only the receiving of negative criticism, but our urge to use shaming criticism with others.
Revealing vs. Concealing
If we were to reveal everything, what would we say? Would there be a gap between what we’re thinking versus what we’re saying?
There is a tricky balance between living with integrity (in accordance to our values) and our vulnerability (being honestly ourselves despite risks) AND oversharing and floodlighting.
However, according to the Conscious Leadership Group, concealing too much can have negative outcomes like costing us our integrity or preventing us from making deeper connections with the people around us.
So how might we go about measuring what is too much or too little?
This Forbes article is a good start!
It asks: What are our motivations behind sharing? Are we hoping to gain something? How much time are we taking up when we share? Have we established a relationship of trust with this person?
Are we revealing as:
- A misguided attempt to gain sympathy? Do we hope to gain pity or reassurance?
- An attempt to fast-track the relationship? Do we hope to gain trust or intimacy very quickly?
- Your story still owns you? Do we want to unload our anxiety or heavy feelings by sharing them with someone else as soon as possible without discernment?
And, in contrast, the Conscious Leadership Group asks us the same questions when we are thinking of concealing a part of ourselves:
What are our motivations? Are we making assumptions about an outcome for revealing that may be more about our fears than about how we might be perceived?
They claim that the fear that comes up stems from our deep desire to control our environment. Concealing is our way of trying to control other people or control the outcome.
Candor: Are You Revealing or Concealing?
Watch this short video from the Conscious Leadership Group.
Revealing vs. Concealing TL;DR:
- Sometimes, people conceal facts, opinions, beliefs and judgments.
- People can be afraid to reveal because they would seem afraid or selfish. They don’t want to appear odd, or as if they’re losing control. If nobody else is being candid, revealing ourselves will make them feel unheard.
- However, concealing costs us integrity, passion, and it costs us a deeper connection to ourselves.
- Good leaders choose to reveal. They do this because they know that the cost of withholding is greater than the cost of concealing.
If we find ourselves willing to reveal, they suggest we try doing the following when revealing:
- Try to let go of our attachment to being right about this issue.
- Reveal oneself for the purpose of being known, rather than winning an argument or making a point
- Speak our truth with an open heart.
- Ask—what is the most loving and kind way to say this?
- Use candor as a means to shift an issue we’re working with.
-Do you see concealing happening at work like the video suggests?
-Are you concealing your ideas or opinions during work meetings?
-What are the feelings backing up the rational for being quiet?
-Name a few scenarios where it might be good to conceal (to avoid oversharing). Imagine a few more scenarios where it might be good to reveal. Think about the possible outcomes of each.
The Wall of Cool
Coolness is defined differently within groups. Most social spheres have norms and expectations around how we “express” ourselves that if we deviate from, we may no longer be “cool,” and risk a decline in acceptance within the group.
People of all ages figure out what the parameters of “cool” are for their particular group or the group they want to be part of. The “Wall of Cool” becomes the metaphorical defense between who they are and anything that might put their “coolness” at risk.
Which doesn’t support us being authentically vulnerable with the people we’re trying to make connections with.
Maybe we’ve witnessed a Wall of Cool with family, friends or other peers. Let’s consider it as more of an umbrella term, rather than a “shield” to arm ourselves. The Wall of Cool is an inauthentic way of being that rejects opportunities for beauty, wonder, awe, or surprise when they do not align with current definitions of “cool.”
In short, the Wall of Cool is, in Nonviolent Communication terms, a tragic expression of an unmet need (usually for safety or connection). Underneath this Wall of Cool is usually someone who is afraid. They hope dearly for things to be different for their life, but they aren’t willing to be vulnerable because they were (likely) bullied, teased, or silently shuffled into behaving in a certain way. This wall is full of hurt, pain and anguish. They remain behind the wall and often have no idea how much they’re pained. They are fish who don’t know anything other than water.
As we approach a person putting up a Wall of Cool, they may say things like:
“Vulnerability is just weakness, right?”
“Emotions are stupid.”
“I don’t have emotions.”
On top of this, we may encounter our own Wall of Cool if we feel like we’re being judged for trying to be vulnerable and it’s deemed “uncool” by our peers.
|Elements||Wall of Cool statements|
|Physical image||“If my make-up runs I’ll look hideous.”
“I’m not going to buy that shirt. It’s from an outdated trend.”
“He tries too hard to seem punk.”
|Manipulative||“I’ll bring in these cupcakes to school today, the teacher should like me and give me a better grade.”
“If I flatter the President, maybe he’ll give me a Cabinet position?”
“If you wear what we wear and drive the cars we drive, you can sit with us at lunch.”
|Self-preservation||“I don’t want to look dumb in front of my classmates.”
“That’s only my comfort show. I don’t actually think it’s good.”
“Oh you don’t like that band…yeah me neither…” (a lie)
|Social courage||“That doesn’t embarrass me. Nothing does.”
“Let’s agree to disagree. Then everything will be good.”
“I don’t care what you think.”
|Fitting in||“I’d never go disc golfing. That’s for nerds.”
“In drama class I feel more like myself. At home, I’m incredibly shy.”
“People don’t know who I really am.”
|Shy||“I feel weird when I meet a new group of people at a bar.”
“I have nothing to contribute to the conversation.”
“What if I don’t know what to say in front of him?”
You can measure your ‘Wall of Cool’ and 50 other factors of well-being with the Assessment Center:
Behind this Wall of Cool is someone who is fearful. These people might truly wish to be vulnerable, and yet the walls are so thick that it may be hard for them to see a way out.
For more on this concept, check out the full pages for…
What are We Losing When Shame and Fear Take the Wheel?
Opening up to vulnerability creates space for more positive emotions, such as joy, love, and gratitude. Vulnerability can also allow us to be more open to sharing and is critical in the success of therapeutic practices. It readies us for sharing and is crucial for success in therapy. In previous pages, we’ve gone over the rewards of vulnerability. And throughout this page, we’ve discussed the costs of shame, fear, and other hindrances to our sense of selves, our health, and our relationships to vulnerability.
We noted in the identity and shame section that shame and disconnection from vulnerability can have negative affects on our mental health. And that societal expectations which create shame around vulnerability inhibit access to our most authentic selves, and sometimes even our safety.
At the University of Texas at Austin, researcher James Pennebaker studied how shame is directly linked to trauma in our bodies. He found that because of the guilt, shame associated with trauma – and the secrets we keep – has worse effects on our physical well-being than the actual traumatic event. They found that writing about these experiences dramatically improved immunity and life functioning after traumatic events (Pennebaker 2018).
When we experience shame, there’s a spectrum. We might tell ourselves the following, from negative to extremely negative:
1: I made a mistake.
I don’t like how I dealt with that situation.
I feel rejected.
5: I am bad.
I don’t like getting called out.
I feel emotionally exposed.
10: I am worthless.
Nobody will ever want to be around me.
The higher numbers of the spectrum can be directly linked to poor mental health and damaging behaviors, such as:
- Eating disorders
Letting fear and shame take the driver’s seat in our lives can be harmful to our physical health, mental and emotional well-being, and even our creative pursuits.
Shame, Art, and Ego
To share something that we created can be one of the most vulnerable experiences of our lives.
Unfortunately, shame can inhibit us from showing our creative work to the world or take away some of the more innovative aspects of our self-expression. Seth Godin says the irrational part of our brain wants to avoid anything risky to keep us safe.
Then, if we share it and people love it, we feel amazing and it boosts our self-worth. However, if it’s panned by critics, we feel worthless.
Have a project in development that needs an edit or another eye? A painting we finished that is ready to be hung somewhere?
- First, realize that we’re more than our work. This is shame resilience.
- The reviews may come in about our efforts, but we can learn to detach ourselves from those because that’s not who we are. Therefore, our self-worth isn’t on the line anymore.
- Does this help us release an attachment of what people think?
This kind of tool can help us develop Shame Resilience in areas like work, family and personal creativity.
Overcoming the Hindrances to Vulnerability
Now we understand the different types of armor used to avoid vulnerability. Next, we’re going to explore a few ways to take the armor off.
The most direct route to embracing vulnerability is to build shame resilience, practice self-acceptance, and increase our sense of self-worth.
Removing the Armor
What if we didn’t need to put on the armor in the first place?
Watch this video with Brene Brown about taking off the armor and displaying our imperfect selves.
Here’s a quick summary:
- Vulnerability means recognizing that our weaknesses are part of our authentic self.
- We can’t be authentic with others unless we are honest and share all of who we are, and that includes our vulnerabilities.
- Although vulnerability has conventionally been seen as a weakness, the idea of being exposed — defects, inadequacies, mistakes, and all— is, for most people, totally petrifying.
“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” — Criss Jami, Killosophy
Listening to shame | Brené Brown
In this video, Brown observed that some people have higher levels of shame resilience, and that this characteristic can lead to deeper connections with themselves and others. In her interviews, there were four traits that she found shame-resilient people had in common.
Brene Brown has a free worksheet on her website that can serve as a guide to identifying the source of what causes us to feel shame.
The Four Traits
They know what shame is:
- Shame resilient people understand the constructions we’ve created around shame, such as learning how to distinguish between guilt, embarrassment and humiliation. By “naming shame,” we can create distance between other emotions such as anger, isolation and fear that often come with shame.
- “They talk about their feelings, they ask for what they need,” says Brown. “And they don’t call it embarrassment, they don’t call it guilt, they don’t call it self-esteem—they call it shame.”
They know what triggers shame for them:
- Shame resilient people are able to recognize the emotional and physical signs of shame when it comes up for them. In this way, they can acknowledge what and why it’s happening, rather than be caught off-guard and disconnected from a flood of emotions.
- “For example, I can expect to be triggered as soon as I feel like I have disappointed someone or let them down,” she says. “I am going to hear a mental tape playing ‘you are not enough.’ Because I am expecting it, I can greet it and say, ‘I get it, but not this time.’ ”
They are critically aware:
- These people practice critical awareness around social and cultural expectations. Sometimes our society has expectations that aren’t aligned with our personal expectations. These people are able to see the big picture for their lives.
- Brown might, for example, ask herself, Is it really true that my worth hinges on making someone else happy?
They reach out:
- By forming empathetic relationships that foster support, we can recognize how universal these experiences are.
Rather than normalizing our shame, we can realize how we’re not alone.
“Shame can’t survive being spoken. Talking cuts shame off at its knees.” — Brene Brown
To develop shame resilience, feelings of shame need a level of social healing, i.e. we need to be able to share our shame story with someone who is able to explore empathy and understanding. Then, by allowing ourselves to experience self-compassion around the situation, we can move to a place of peace around a potentially harmful experience to develop shame resilience.
To summarize how to become more “shame resilient”:
- Recognize the feelings of shame and understand what triggered it.
- Be aware of what drives shame against who you want to be.
- Reach out to people who show empathy and understanding.
- Speak about shame and be sure to ask people what you really need.
- Own it. You can’t forget what happened, so own the actions and experience so you can move on to feeling worthy and enough.
Below are print outs to help us sort through our personal relationship to shame:
Do we know when we’re feeling shame? Are we more prone to shame or to guilt?
A small directory of emotions and feelings we may feel when experiencing a shame response. Provides ability to connect the feeling or emotion to the part of the body we feel it in for more precise pattern recording.
Now that we have found a way to identify our shame, how can we reframe it into change using positive psychology?
How can we develop self-acceptance or self-worth that can bolster us through a shame experience?
A short directory of character “strengths” to provide inspiration for Operation Affirmation.
Criticism can be great fuel for us and a direct way to unpack our shame and court vulnerability.
The Conscious Leadership Group talks about welcoming feedback and has a very useful exercise for free download here. They don’t directly relate it to hindrances of vulnerability, but it’s definitely adaptable! Rather than letting shame, fear, or other shields against vulnerability put us on the defensive, what might we find? Remember, we don’t need to dismiss these hindrances or ignore them, but take a look at all of them and see what is causing us to shut down. Does the feedback attack our sense of self worth? Reflect on us as a person in a way we don’t like?
If vulnerability has taught us anything, it’s that we are who we are and that is okay! Our fears and shame may be rooted in things like attachment wounds or past traumas of rejection and pain. What is important is looking at our pain with compassion. Realizing we don’t have to “improve.”
We are not inherently broken because we have shame, fear, or any of the discussed armors on this page.
But, we might be held back. Which is in our power to explore within ourselves. Nothing about us has to be etched in stone. We can change if we are curious about what we’d be like if we embraced vulnerability fully.
According to an article from Psychology Today, self acceptance is unconditional, and much of the work we have to do to reach self acceptance comes from healing our “conditional love” wounds. To do this, we have to understand how we’ve been seeing ourselves as unworthy of love unless we proved we deserved it.
Take a look at this exercise to find your “conditions” for self acceptance.
If you receive a gift or a sign of affection from someone, do you panic and wonder what you can do to return the favor?
What do you think would happen if you accepted the gift/affection without offering something in return?
What are you afraid will happen? Is it different?
What gives you the impression that the outcome is bad?
Does this give insight into what conditions you think need to be met?
Do you automatically deflect compliments? Sometimes even experience an urgent need to prove the compliment is too much?
What do you think would happen if you accepted the compliment with only a “thank you”?
What are you afraid will happen? Is it different?
What gives you the impression that outcome is bad?
Does this give insight into what conditions you think need to be met?
How hard is it for you to ask for help?
What feelings come up when you imagine asking for help from a friend, coworker, partner, or family member?
What are you afraid will happen if you ask for help?
Does this give insight into what conditions you think need to be met?
Self acceptance is ultimately about self-worth. We matter! Even if it seems like our role in the cosmos is small, or we feel alone, we are still part of this world and our very existence is beautiful!
Feel curious about other methods to build unconditional self acceptance? There are several pages that may provide helpful tools in building ourselves up.
Expression, one of our Four Cornerstones of Meaning, has many tools for creating new relationships with ourselves. Check out what it has to offer here:
All right! We made it through the Hindrances to Vulnerability! There was a lot of information presented here, so let’s take a breather to sum up a few key takeaways?
Our main co-conspirators, shame and fear, are completely natural emotions which are protecting us from vulnerability. Despite the negative implications and ways shame and fear can manifest (Wall of Cool, Armor, poor relationships, and poor emotional regulation), it is important to embrace them, ask them what they’re protecting us from, and see if we can re embrace our vulnerability with practice.
How shame and fear will keep vulnerability buried varies for different groups of people. And, though there are different repercussions for systemic vs interpersonal risks to being vulnerable, they can compound on each other at different intersections of identity. The undeniable fact is no one is unhindered from practicing vulnerability! We all have work to do to build shame resilience.
Now that we have an understanding of the emotional and psychological manifestations of what hinders vulnerability, let’s explore why it’s worth it to work through those barriers. Check out the Benefits of Vulnerability!
Or, take a closer look at other ways to defang the hindrances to vulnerability in the Being Enough section.
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- Khalifian, C. E., & Barry, R. A. (2020). Expanding intimacy theory: Vulnerable disclosures and partner responding. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(1), 58–76. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519853047
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