Vulnerability may be scary, but it's a necessary step in pushing past fear to authentic connection.
It's a few hours after a date and the smile on my face is long gone, having been replaced by what author and speaker Brené Brown calls a "vulnerability hangover." My stomach drops and I feel a sense of dread as I dissect our conversation and every scene I just experienced.
Should I have shared that story? Was that line too flirty? Not flirty enough? Did I text him back too quickly? Should I have leaned in to show I was interested? Did he actually mean he had a nice time or was he just dying to be done with the evening?
I have a sinking feeling I may not hear from this guy again. After all, it's happened before.
Vulnerability hangovers aren't limited to the realm of dating. They happen whenever I feel I have been too vulnerable and that what I shared or did will affect the way another person views me. It's waking up after I said too much, feeling like a friendship will never be "normal" again. It's initiating a conversation with that guy I like and having him brush me off. It's being transparent during small group and wondering later if I was too transparent.
Maybe you have experienced similar feelings. You took a risk at your job and it ended up making you look bad. Or maybe your shame centers around something completely outside of your control, like the environment you grew up in or a family member with an addiction. You're worried that if people found out, they would see you differently.
If you are a Christian, there can also be a false expectation that "saved" equals "perfect." As followers of Jesus, we may place unrealistic expectations on ourselves to have our lives together — to appear as if we hardly ever sin or are never socially awkward. We cast ourselves as being confident and joyful. But when it's impossible to live up to the standards we have set for ourselves or those we perceive others have set for us, we feel defeated and ashamed. If I was truly relying on God, I would be a better person, right?
Putting Up Fronts
On Main Street of the town I grew up in, the businesses have false fronts that make them appear to be two-story buildings when, in reality, they are single-story. As you walk down the street, these buildings cast long shadows, but if you walk on the side streets, you see the buildings for what they really are.
False fronts aren't limited to buildings. Many of us have created false versions of ourselves in the hopes that others will like us more. This may involve including only the highlights of our lives on social media, or pretending that everything's going great when our lives are just barely holding together. We do this so others will like us more — so they'll accept us. We believe our actual selves are not worthy of love or belonging. But in my experience, my false fronts do the opposite of what I hope for. When those close to me don't actually know the real me, I struggle to feel a sense of real connection.
Vulnerability lifts up the shades to show that our lives aren't as perfect as they may seem. When we allow someone past our false fronts and into the windows of our real life, we may feel shame, described by Brown as "the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it I won't be worthy of connection?"
Shame separates us from other people. It tells us that whatever we said or did or risked makes us unlovable. It urges us to keep up our false fronts and hide whatever is behind them. Rooted in the fear of being excluded, shame tells us it is better for us to pull away first — to end the relationship before we get hurt.
Think about Adam and Eve in the Garden. There, before Adam and Eve ate the fruit, there was no sin or shame. Shame is not the same as guilt, or even sin, but it entered the world at the same time. After they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they realized they were naked. (Genesis 3:7) Shame caused them to hide from their Creator rather than going to Him to admit what they had done and ask for help.
The thing that caused our shame is not necessarily wrong, yet how we respond to shame and guilt are often the same. When I'm feeling shame, it causes me to draw away from people and even turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like binge watching Netflix or consuming sweets. I may temporarily feel better, but it doesn't offer a true remedy for my shame. When we're dragged down by shame, there are a few ways to move forward.
Reach Out to Others
If the fear of exclusion is the basis of shame, inclusion has to be part of the cure. When people continue to love and include us no matter what we said or did, our shame begins to lift. Christian community reminds us that we are more than our actions; we are children of God who are worthy of love. Our church community can also remind us that freedom from shame comes from God through Christ.
The more I have learned to be vulnerable and share my authentic self — including the parts that I feel don't measure up — the more I have discovered freedom from shame and a sense of belonging. Being with godly people I can trust and watching their opinion of me stay the same as I share the truth about myself makes my shame, and that false front, fade away.
Because shame causes us to shrink into ourselves, we have to be proactive to reach out to others. Ironically, to fight against the shame we felt from being vulnerable, we need to be more vulnerable and share with others what we are feeling. When we push past our natural inclinations and push into the family of God, we will find that we are dearly loved and included.
Reach Out to God
There is an amazing truth repeated several times in Scripture. It says that the person who hopes in God "will not be put to shame" (Romans 10:11, 1 Peter 2:6, Isaiah 54:4). As believers, we do not have to worry that vulnerability with God will ever bring us shame. God already knows us perfectly — flaws and all — and nothing we do will ever change His deep love for us.
This is why Jesus died. Hebrews 12:2 says, "Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Jesus despised shame in order to take ours away. Regardless of what has happened in our lives or the sins we have committed, we can find freedom from guilt and shame through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Overcoming shame requires us to be vulnerable, and most of all courageous, but as we look to the One who despised shame and seek authenticity with those around us, we will find ourselves more connected to God and to those who love Him — and us.
Copyright 2017 Lindsey Boulais. All rights reserved.