That Thing We All Struggle With
In her song If We’re Honest, singer-songwriter Francesca Battistelli clearly articulates one of the biggest struggles of our culture:
Truth is harder than a lie,
The dark seems safer than the light,
And everyone has a heart that loves to hide,
I’m a mess and so are you,
We’ve built walls nobody can get through,
Yeah, it may be hard, but the best thing we could ever do, ever do,
Bring your brokenness, and I’ll bring mine,
‘Cause love can heal what hurt divides,
And mercy’s waiting on the other side,
If we’re honest.
In our culture today, vulnerability and authenticity are regarded as important attributes. I think they are thought of as such because they are rarely found. I recently had a conversation with a friend and she shared her perspective on why these traits are so hard to come by: “Being vulnerable is both freeing and terrifying. Freeing in that you no longer carry the emotions of whatever is going on by yourself, but terrifying because it’s possible that whoever you share those emotions with might not be able to help you carry those emotions.”
From a very young age, we learn that it’s better to keep our shame and painful memories a secret than to tell someone about them. It might cause embarrassment, the other person may become angry, or it might not make us feel any better. Whatever the reason, we’ve become vulneraphobic (yes, I made that word up) as a culture. We have a phobia of being honest and authentic.
I love how shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown puts it: “We’ve all fallen, and we have the skinned knees and bruised hearts to prove it. But scars are easier to talk about than they are to show, with all the remembered feelings laid bare. And rarely do we see wounds that are in the process of healing. I’m not sure if it’s because we feel too much shame to let anyone see a process as intimate as overcoming hurt, or if it’s because even when we muster the courage to share our still-incomplete healing, people reflexively look away.”1
The Difficulty in Vulnerability
Why is it so hard to be vulnerable? Is it really easier to deal with pain by ourselves? The short answer is no, but let’s take a look at why. To get the complete picture of where our fear of vulnerability comes from we need to understand where our shame comes from.
Dr. Thomas R. Verny, author of the book Pre-Parenting, states that “maternal feelings and moods are linked to hormones and neurotransmitters that travel through the bloodstream and across the placenta to the developing brain of the unborn child. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, prime the growing brain to act in fight or flight mode—even when inappropriate—throughout life. Maternal emphasis on joy and love, on the other hand, bathes the growing brain in ‘feel good’ endorphins and neurohormones such as oxytocin, promoting a life-long sense of well-being.”2
In short, science has found that the environment in which a baby develops determines how the child will process life. Emotions of the mother while the fetus is being formed affect the baby’s brain. Every mother has her moments of stress, but what matters is whether or not the baby was exposed to these hormones for long periods of time. Each fleeting worry does have its effects, but these are not long lasting. The main point is that the overall environment a baby lives in for the first nine months of its life forms the filter through which that child will see life.
“The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved…”
Then after a child is born, it doesn’t take long before he or she experiences the pain of rejection directly. Rejection comes from different people in our lives: parents, siblings, extended family, friends, bullies, teachers, strangers—anyone really. And it hurts us deeply. Rejection isn’t something that we just learn to deal with. It shapes our characters, it clouds our judgment and forms our view of who God is. Everything that we experience is filtered through this pain. Ron and Nancy Rockey define rejection as “a refusal to accept, to hear, to teach, or to consider important. It is to discard, push aside, or discount, and it is an emotionally charged knowledge that you are not loved and wanted for yourself…”3
John Evoy puts it this way, “The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think that everyone in the world to a large or small extent has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime—guilt—and there is the story of mankind.”4
The research continues. If you experienced rejection as an infant, meaning you did not receive the love that you needed, you don’t just get over it. That pain is stored in the brain as implicit memories. These memories are those that are formed before we develop language and will impact thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout our lifetime.5
When we finally develop language, rejection is better understood by the brain. But that doesn’t mean we know how to handle it. “The human brain is designed to survive to see to it that under all circumstances the mind and the body will survive… when trauma occurs [the brain] develops techniques [to] keep the brain and body alive, to cope with the trauma received, and to find or create a safe place.”6
Each of us develops our own survival technique depending on our personal experiences: we’re always on the defense, we can’t admit we’re wrong, we have to be the rescuer, we’re overly flirtatious, or we become like a brick wall and never let anyone in. I don’t know one person who has escaped the pain of rejection, but I have met dozens of people who are determined to cope with it.
But we don’t want to merely cope. We want to heal.
Dealing with Shame
The journey to emotional health is just that—a journey. It’s a slow and painful process because we’re not dealing with just rejection, but also the shame that comes with it. Before we go on, it’s important that we make the distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I made a mistake, I did something wrong,” whereas shame says, “I am a mistake, I’m a terrible person.” Guilt tells us the truth, shame lies to us.
Our brain has to develop techniques to cope with shame. “When we allow the brain to constantly devote our energy to the techniques that we think will allow us to survive, we separate from the heart, which is designed to love… our thoughts and feelings, as well as our decisions, are made from the fear of not being able to survive, instead of out of the love that God places in the heart for us to give to ourselves and others.”7
It’s no surprise then that relationships are fractured and millions are on medications to help manage depression, stress, and anxiety. Many struggle with addiction, and the violent crimes rate is on the rise. According to the latest statistics released by the FBI, there has been a 3.9 percent increase in violent crimes since 2014.8 We’re afraid to be ourselves, so we keep everything under wraps, not speaking out about the shame we feel. But God has a different solution to our pain.
After Adam and Eve sinned, He came to the garden and gently called to them, “Where are you guys?” Feeling the shame of their mistakes, Adam and Eve had hidden themselves. They made coverings for themselves because they realized they were naked. That’s what shame does to us: it makes us self-aware and selfish. God was met with excuses, lies, and blame. He didn’t retaliate or put Adam and Eve in their place. Instead, He gave them hope: He, God, would become His own creation, placing Himself in the most vulnerable position. He would be subject to the pain of sin and choose not to hide from it. Although He never sinned, He would carry the pain of rejection. One of the most powerful verses in the Bible says, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He didn’t find the need to hide His true emotions. He was real and authentic.
…it’s impossible for shame to survive when it’s talked about…
Jesus asks us to be authentic as well. James 5:16 tells us to talk to each other about our struggles and mistakes and to pray for one another in order to bring healing. There is healing in vulnerability. Brené Brown states, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”9
Brown has interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of people and found that they all had one thing in common: they all experienced shame in some form or another. However, some had a positive view about it. She found that it’s impossible for shame to survive when it’s talked about, especially when those who share are met with empathy rather than judgment. Brown concluded that the three things shame needs to survive are “secrecy, silence, and judgment.”10 But, when met with empathy, love, and compassion, shame is destroyed.
She also found that vulnerability is the secret to beautiful growth. Without a willingness to expose ourselves to possible failure, nothing will change. You want to be an artist? You’ll end up creating something hideous. You want to be a cook? Be ready to make some awful tasting food. You want to be an inventor? Be prepared to come up with something no one believes in. It takes courage and bravery to run after something that might fail, but it’s the only way to live a whole-hearted life.
But how do we get to that point? How do we develop the courage to be vulnerable? Well, you can start by being vulnerable with God. God can handle your pain, your questions, your fears, and your brokenness. He actually wants to handle it for you.
Secondly, find people who are safe. Don’t be an open book to everyone you meet. Not everyone can handle your brokenness, and not everyone is worthy to know about it. Those who are able to just listen and then empathize are safe people.
…be vulnerable with yourself. Give yourself permission to hurt.
Lastly, be vulnerable with yourself. Give yourself permission to hurt. Tell yourself that you might not have it all together, but you can be vulnerable because you have a Savior. Once you accept yourself, you can begin to accept others. Your judgmental feelings will dissipate, and you’ll want to reach out and help people.
Remember that as long as we are on this earth, you’ll never arrive. You’ll always be working through pain. But being open about it is worth it. I love what C.S. Lewis has to say about vulnerability:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”11
To love is to be vulnerable. Is it possible that without being vulnerable we are only living half-hearted lives? God is calling us to be vulnerable with Him and each other. Getting to that point is one of the bravest things we can ever accomplish. It’s not something we just do, it’s a complete paradigm shift. Vulnerability goes against our culture. We will get hurt, but, as Lewis said, if we don’t allow for that possibility, we will become unbreakable. In other words, we will become robots, incapable of experiencing the love or joy God intended us to experience.
Let me leave you with a quote by Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So, my friends, take courage. Choose to be vulnerable, because the alternative will literally kill your soul.
- Brené Brown, Rising Strong, New York, 2015, XXIV.
- Thomas R. Verny & Pamela Weintraub, Pre-Parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception, New York, 2003, 7.
- Nancy & Ron Rockey, Heart Connection: Science Reveals the Secrets of True Intimacy, Bloomington, IN, 2011, 43.
- John. J. Evoy, The Rejected: Psychological Consequences of Parental Rejection, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982, 10.
- Nancy & Ron Rockey, Heart Connection: Science Reveals the Secrets of True Intimacy, Bloomington, IN, 2011, 8.
- Nancy & Ron Rockey, The Journey, Video Series, Plymouth Meeting, PA, 2006.
- FBI, “Latest Crime Statistics Released,” News, September 26, 2016, https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/latest-crime-statistics-released.
- Brené Brown, “Quotes,” Brené Brown, 2017, http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/162578.Bren_Brown.
- Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED Talks, March 16, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0.
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, New York, 1960, 121.