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The Power Of Vulnerability

I believe that one of the most painful and life-impacting core human emotions is shame.

Shame is a powerful universal emotion that often emerges when we feel deeply vulnerable about something, and believe that others have the power to judge us, and ultimately reject us. Shame tells us that we’re not good enough, that we’re unworthy, that we’re damaged goods. Shame elicits feelings of embarrassment, and often, a profound sense of humiliation that makes us want to either fight, or flee.

The fact that we most often experience shame in response to feeling vulnerable is one reason why shame is such a powerful emotion. Another reason is that shame usually emerges at the very moment when we need unconditional love and acceptance the most.

Envision what you feel most vulnerable about – anything that fills you with a sense of fear that those who you love and care about the most will abandon you if they found out. But before they abandon you, they will laugh at you, gossip about you, hurl insults at you, and then abandon you. The feeling you’re experiencing in response to this scenario is most likely shame.

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is something we experience when we’ve made a mistake and we need to fix it. Once we take responsibility for our behavior, and do what we can to remedy our mistake, the feelings of guilt should eventually subside. Unlike guilt, shame doesn’t subside after we’ve taken responsibility for our mistakes, and in fact, regardless of what we do, shame often gets worse in time, hitting us in triggered waves, sometimes for years, sometimes for our entire lives.

Guilt tells us our behavior is bad; Shame tell us that we are bad.

If we’re not careful, shame can take over our lives, color our perceptions of the world, and those in it, and isolate us from others as it whispers lies in our ears, telling us that we are unworthy of love and belonging, that we don’t deserve success, and that true joy will forever be at bay.

The thing about shaming experiences is that they are deeply personal in the sense that what shames me, might not shame others (and visa versa). I find certain things shameful because of the lenses I use in life to create meaning, and those lenses were created over a lifetime of meaning-making experiences, rooted in childhood and reinforced throughout my lifetime.

Shame also often drives the “shoulds” in our life – those things we have internalized through the years that tell us whether we are good or bad, on track or off, worthy or unworthy. We all have some should-driven notions of our ideal selves – our narratives of who we believe we are (or should be), and if we veer too off of our ‘should’ course, we often feel shame.

I am a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman who doesn’t take crap from anyone, but at the same time is compassionate and very giving. I make wise and measured decisions, and I am very even-tempered. I have been reinforced my entire life for these traits, and they have historically served as the bedrock of my self-confidence. But if my narrative isn’t based on who I really am, or at the very least, who I am all the time, and my mask is uncovered, then I risk feeling shamed, particularly if I am exposed in an emotionally unsafe context, such as a new romantic relationship.

The truth about me that took years to face is that I’m not always independent and self-sufficient. For instance, I know that truly self-sufficient people love eating dinner alone at a restaurant, but the truth is, I hate it. I hate traveling alone too. I get lonely. And sometimes I get overwhelmed with life from time to time, and sometimes it would be really great to come home and collapse into a partner’s arms while he whispers in my ear that everything will be okay (and that he’s cooked dinner, finished my laundry, and taken the trash to the curb). And I’m not always a good and caring person – sometimes I’m selfish. And in the past I’ve made some major mistakes, some real whoppers in fact, and people other than myself got hurt as a result. And I’m terrible at math, just awful, which I believe is the reason why I haven’t always been the best at managing my finances, and although I’m getting better, life would be far easier for me if bartering was our primarily mode of commerce in this country. And while I can be a perfectionist in my work, I can also be a bit of a train wreck in my personal life. I lose my car within three minutes of having parked it, and far too often I drive down the street with my coffee cup perched atop the roof of my car.

And now for a particularly painful truth that makes me feel very vulnerable: I do sometimes take crap from people, because sometimes I confuse taking crap with being caring, and it’s an hour or so later (or a month, or a year) that I realize that someone has taken advantage of me, or said something really mean, and I find myself responding with a really strong and sassy retort hours (or months, or years) later with only myself as a witness.

When I found myself 50-something and catapulted into the dating world again when my son left for college, I put my best foot forward and without even realizing it, often pretended to be something I wasn’t (my old narrative), so that I didn’t have to feel embarrassed, and didn’t have to feel shame. If asked about my more vulnerable areas, my whoppers of mistakes, I would shave off a few details here, and add a few denials there, and before I knew it, I had a perfectly presentable story that showed me in a pretty decent light, if not downright admirable. But this type of reaction has a relatively short shelf life because eventually, we either must deal with those past experiences that have hurt us and made us feel shame, or we risk having the targets of our shame serve as a portal through which we view ourselves, how we believe others view us, and if we’re not careful, how we view the world.

In order for lasting intimacy to develop, it needs an environment of truth and transparency. So, if we’re serious about finding healthy and lasting love, then we don’t have a choice – at some point in the process of getting to know a potential partner, we must lose the standard “relationship formula,” rip off the Band-Aid and risk being ourselves – our true, sometimes messy, sometimes very imperfect selves. We don’t have to explain, defend, or deny, we just need to speak the truth – about who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, how we feel, and what we want. That’s it – it’s really quite simple. And I'm convinced that in the process of shining a light on our vulnerabilities, rather than feeling powerless and shame, we will feel empowered and liberated, which is a wonderful foundation for authentic love to blossom.


Michelle Martin

Dr. Michelle Martin is on the faculty at a university on the west coast, where she teaches in a Master of Social Work (MSW) program. She has worked in the social work field for over three decades in a range of practice settings, primarily with women in various life transitions. Dr. Martin has an MSW and a PhD in peace studies. She is the author of three books, and other publications focusing on social work, social policy, wellbeing, middle age, international human rights, and peace. When Dr. Martin hit middle age, she found herself both overwhelmed and fascinated with the aging process. Her interest in how women traverse middle age and empty nesting, particularly when single, is a very personal one. Dr. Martin is currently writing a book entitled Aging Naked™ about the struggles many women face when they hit 50, and the importance of aging honestly, with transparency and authentically (no masks allowed!). Her upcoming book is based on her personal blog, Aging Naked where she writes about her own challenges with middle age and empty nesting, and the insights she's gained along the way. Dr. Martin is the single mom of one fabulous son who is away at college.

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