Connection. We’re all looking for it. That feeling of being seen, known and accepted just as you are. The feeling of being loved, of being worthy.
Yet so few of us find it. In her TEDx Talk that went viral in 2010, researcher Brené Brown revealed that there is one big thing holding most of us back from this sense that we are worth loving: shame.
Shame, she says, is universal. It’s the thing inside us that thinks, ‘I’m not good enough … I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough…’ It can be crippling. It can lead to all kinds of destructive and self-destructive behaviours. It can hold us back, destroy our relationships, or cause chronic health problems such as addictions or eating disorders. And it is the thing holding us back from the connection we crave.
‘In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen’, she says, and if there’s one thing shame hates, it’s being exposed.
And yet some people achieve it. Through thousands of interviews, focus groups and stories, Brown did discover a cohort of people who had learned to be vulnerable and expose their inadequacies, and who consequently had found what she describes as ‘a strong sense of love and belonging’. So how did they do it? How did some people come to believe that they were worth loving?
There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.
That’s it?! If you don’t believe you’re worthy of love, the solution is to start believing you’re worthy of love? As self-help advice goes, that’s about the least helpful I’ve ever heard.
Brown herself discovered how hard it is. She had what her therapist described as a ‘spiritual awakening’. She described it as a breakdown. It took her a year of therapy to work it through. And still she struggles to be vulnerable even with her family, let alone on a TEDx stage.
The messages telling you that you’re not enough are deafening and insistent, they are deeply embedded into your very psyche, and you’ve probably been fighting them all your life. Being told that ‘in order to feel worthy you just have to decide to feel worthy’ is simply pouring another stinking pile of inadequacy on your head, and blaming you for not feeling loved.
In her book, Daring Greatly, Brown does give some tips and strategies of things to tell yourself and ways to reset your equilibrium when you find yourself flooded with shame once again, but basically it’s all down to you. To get connection you have to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable you have to believe that you’re worth loving. But as soon as you mess up again, or get overlooked for promotion, or get shunned by a friend or rejected by a lover, the feelings of shame and inadequacy come flooding back and you’re back at square one.
So how can we break this self-fulfilling cycle of shame? Brené Brown’s worldview, in which you alone provide the answer; you alone are responsible for declaring yourself worthy of love, for me simply falls short. We are finite human beings who are utterly incapable of fixing ourselves. We need someone to free us.
For me this freedom came from discovering Jesus, and finding that he actually loves me, despite seeing my every thought and action, even those things I am most deeply ashamed of. He loves me so much that he was willing to be shamed and humiliated for my sake.
We don’t always think of Jesus being humiliated. When Westerners think of the crucifixion we tend to focus on the pain and suffering inflicted on Jesus—hence Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked depiction in The Passion of the Christ. But the biblical narrative focuses far more on the shame-elements: the beard-pulling, the spitting, the mocking crown of thorns, the taunts that Jesus claimed to be the saviour of the world but couldn’t even save himself. And there was no nice, modest loin-cloth protecting his privacy, either—he was strung up, stark naked, for all to see.
He bore that shame because he loved us deeply and wanted us to know it. He took our shame on himself so we didn’t have to bear it any longer. Because of his death on the cross, we don’t have to just decide we are worth loving; we can know it for sure.
And once we know that, we no longer have to fear vulnerability with others. We can reveal our true selves and start to find the connection we crave.