Being and Becoming

by Christopher Lovejoy on January 23, 2011

Be yourself. Know yourself.

Which of these two imperatives of personal growth would you say is more important to you?

Under normal circumstances, I would say neither is more important than the other, but if tap came to push, and you were compelled to choose one or the other, which would it be?

Of course, your choice would depend on the situation.

So let us say you were in a situation where you felt chronic uncertainty – in a situation where your sense of safety or security felt challenged or compromised in some way.

In this type of situation, would you feel more inclined to be yourself or would you feel more inclined to know yourself better to deal effectively with this type of situation?

But then, you might ask yourself: in such a situation, what would it mean for me to be myself or to know myself better under the influence of this feeling of chronic uncertainty?

We might as well ask: what does it mean to be vulnerable? And if I do feel vulnerable, how can I relate and respond to this feeling wisely so that I can negotiate it effectively?

Vulnerability lies at the heart of who and what we are.

I’ll show you that the human condition is nothing to be afraid of – that we can grow to learn to gaze with equanimity into the deepest, darkest heart of humanity.

Physically, Emotionally, Mentally

What does it mean to be vulnerable?

My reading of the meaning of vulnerable leads me to conclude that I can be vulnerable in any one or more of the following three ways: physically, emotionally, or mentally.

For example, if you’re surrounded by a gang wielding weapons, then you’re obviously vulnerable physically whether or not you have a weapon of your own.

And if you’re surrounded by a group of professors while you give a dissertation, then obviously you’re vulnerable mentally if you don’t feel prepared enough to give it with assurance.

In the first instance, your person is open to physical attack, where injury or even death is a real possibility, and in the second instance, anything you say could be readily countered.

In this post, I’m more interested in emotional vulnerability.

Emotional vulnerability is the type of vulnerability that lies at the heart of who and what we are.

If you’re badly injured in a physical attack or if you feel humiliated by a barrage of critical objections, then these acts will obviously strike at the heart of who and what you are and affect you deeply.

Who Would I Be Without Connection?

We can approach life with one of two attitudes that reflect a widespread intolerance with vulnerability:

  1. “life is messy; suck it up!” (liberal)
  2. “life is messy; clean it up!” (conservative)

Regardless of your basic attitude, and regardless of whether you’ve given up hope of ever having a meaningful connection with someone or something somewhere and somewhen, you still need to feel connected in one way or another – with another, with the world, with others, and/or with yourself.

We might go so far as to say that connection is why we’re here now, in this world, on this planet, because connection is what ultimately gives us meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives.

I’ve heard it said that we’re neurobiologically wired to be connected, to seek connection, to feel connected, but based on what I know about near-death experiences, I would have to say that this misrepresents what’s actually happening. Our neurobiological package isn’t the cause of our need or desire for connection; it’s the means by which we can be connected and feel connected in this dense material, physical, earthly realm in which we find ourselves, and that it’s this density that is creating a drag on our efforts to forge meaningful connections with another, the world, others, and ourselves – a drag that seems necessary for the fullest realization of who and what we are as souls and spirits.

If I were to ask you about your experience with love, would you smile and tell me about a heartfelt moment you shared with someone? Or would you frown and tell me about a heartbreak?

If I were to ask you about your experience with belonging, would you tell me about the warm feelings you have when you’re together with loved ones? Or would you tell me about your feelings of rejection?

If I were to ask you about your connections generally, would you tell me about the harmony that you experience or would you complain about feeling strapped, excluded, insecure, or invisible?

Some of the research on human connection that I’ve studied indicates a curious divide between those who are plagued by something most people aren’t willing to talk about and those who seem blessed to have something that makes them relatively immune to that unspeakable, unnameable “something”.

That unspeakable, unnameable “thing” that blocks, breaks, or buries casual, formal, intimate, or sacred connections can be summed up in a single word: shame.

If shame had a voice, it would ask: “is there something about me that, if others knew about it or could see it or hear it, would no longer make me worthy of a connection with you?”

An unwillingness or an inability to acknowledge, process, or share the shame can have some rather unfortunate effects.

Because shame is so potent and primal, people will sometimes feel compelled to make up reasons for why they should be ashamed.

For example, they might feel that they’re unworthy for being too short or too tall, too big or too small, too ugly or too plain, too smart or too dumb, too soft or too loud when they speak.

Even when they’re not.

And because people would rather keep their shame in check, they might take delight in putting others down or even shaming them for their apparent flaws.

For example, they might say your nose is too big, your eyes are too small, your lips are too thin, your arms are too long, you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you don’t have enough of this, you don’t have enough of that. The list is endless and endlessly creative in its attempts to displace shame.

It seems that the human race (and it’s getting to be quite a race, isn’t it?) is hellbent on shaming itself into submission. No one, it seems, wants to be noticed anymore. Have you seen how many cars on the roads these days are disappearing into a uniformity of black, white, silver, gray, and muted colors?

The research indicates that the feelings of dread that you experience in your relationships are sparked by feelings of shame. Both shame and dread are primal in their nature for a good reason: shame stimulates a dread of the ultimate disconnection from meaning, purpose, and direction.

Think about it: who would you be without a meaningful connection?

Are You Sure You Want to Bury Your Shame?

Those who live without shame, by nature or by choice, are capable of neither intimacy nor empathy. And here, I’m not talking about faux intimacy or faux empathy, but intimacy and empathy that are real, genuine, and creative – that keep the peace, inspire hope, warm hearts, and bring joy.

You know, the kind of intimacy and empathy that make life worth living?

The upside of crushing shame and living behind a wall of invulnerability is that you get to shut out any feelings of shame that might arise in the course of dealing with others – especially those who seem impervious to shame and have mastered their intolerance of vulnerability or those who are so shame-filled they’ve forgotten what it means to love or be loved.

I mean, if shame undermines your sense of control and corrodes the part of you that believes that you can change, then why not just bury it once and for all?

The downside of digging a grave for shame is that you’re also risking the loss of the one thing that lies at the heart of who and what you are: your vulnerability. You cannot expect to selectively numb your feelings of fear, dread, guilt, shame, grief, humiliation, and disappointment, and then expect to come away feeling positive about yourself, others, or the world at large. Not possible.

The research indicates that vulnerability not only resides at the core of shame and the dreadful social dread that it stimulates, but that it also resides inside the birthplace of all that makes life worth living: peace, love, joy, bliss, grace, gratitude, unity, harmony, inspiration, creativity, a sense of belonging.

Are you beginning to see how important it is to deal effectively with shame? But as much as the light workers of this world would like to think so, unconditional love, by itself, is not the answer.

Let me repeat this for emphasis because a lot of people need to hear it, including those who have been to The Other Side: unconditional love, by itself, is not the answer. Not in this dense realm.

I’ll touch on the reason why in a moment, but for now, here’s my plan for the remainder of this post.

First, I’ll take a look at some strategies that you might be using to numb your vulnerability. I’ll then cover the antidotes to the incessant blaming, shaming, and numbing. Finally, as I keep these strategies and antidotes in mind and take them to heart, I’ll present a vision of an active, balanced soul and spirit.

What are you doing with your vulnerability?

If vulnerability lies at the heart of who and what we are, then love and joy lie inside the heart of who and what we are.

Think of it this way: if you can imagine the heart of who and what you are as a radiant and pulsating sphere with a permeable membrane, then at the core of this sphere lies the energy of love and joy.

Before I explore this solar metaphor in detail, let’s talk a bit about shame.

Shame is fueled by a core belief: “I’m not worthy; if you knew what I was, or if you knew what I had said, or if you knew what I had done, you wouldn’t want to know me, see me, hear me, or love me.”

Acute shame rises in the heat of the moment when you feel unworthy of something you said or did. Either someone shames you for it or you shame yourself. Where blaming triggers guilt to say, “I did wrong”, shaming triggers shame to say, “I am bad for having been wrong, or for having said it wrong, or for having did it wrong”.

As you can see, the roots of shame are much more complex than they are for guilt. It’s no wonder that almost everyone harbors shame, that almost no one wants to talk about it, and that it has so much power to shape our lives. At least with guilt, you still feel worthy of love and understanding enough to apologize and make amends.

Chronic shame is more pernicious than acute shame. Chronic shame reflects and broadcasts a most desperate struggle to be (and feel) worthy of love, joy, intimacy, empathy, and belonging.

The research indicates that those who struggle desperately for love, joy, intimacy, empathy, and belonging always seem to be afraid of disconnection; they always seem to be asking: “am I ______ enough?”.

Examples: Am I good enough? Am I smart enough? Am I outgoing enough? Am I helpful enough? Am I thin enough? Am I perfect enough? Have I said or done enough? Have I been appreciated or recognized enough?

A fallow, feeble, or fragile vulnerability underlies this type of questioning.

If they’re not careful, those who indulge this type of questioning will turn doubts into beliefs that have the strength of conviction: I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not outgoing enough.

Or worse: I’m never good enough, smart enough, outgoing enough.

The most unworthy among us are trapped in shame, either by frequent episodes of acute shame or by long stretches of chronic shame. Why do they struggle with shame so much?

More to the point: What are they doing with their vulnerability?

Because their vulnerability is so closely associated with their shame, their tendency is to numb themselves to their vulnerability in the many ways that this can be done.

They might . . .

  • enjoy the rush of consumption (and buy things they don’t need);
  • exploit their credit cards to the max (and go deep into debt);
  • keep busy (and lose touch with others in all but the most superficial ways);
  • escape with the use of illicit drugs (and develop a full-blown addiction);
  • over-medicate themselves (and suffer all manner of side effects);
  • indulge in rich, delicious food (and become overweight or obese);
  • imbibe too much alcohol too often (and become mean, stupid, or silly);
  • jump from one bed to the next (and lose all sense of value and discipline);
  • maintain low-grade disconnections (while going through the motions);
  • turn disappointment into a lifestyle (knowing it’s easier to live it than to feel it);
  • make everything uncertain certain (and play the blame game);
  • strip their faith of its vulnerability (and become extreme in their thinking);
  • doubt everything to feel superior (and wonder why life has no meaning);
  • exercise themselves to exhaustion (and feel like shells of their former selves);
  • perform and please, perform and please (as a way to protect themselves);
  • make others feel small (and wonder why no one wants to be around them);
  • be perfect in all that they say and do (and expect others to be the same way); or
  • pretend that what they do has no effect on others (while pushing them away).

All of this pursuing, perfecting, and pretending, with all of its consequences, makes them even more vulnerable, which has them numbing even more, creating a dangerous descent into invulnerability and fostering a profoundly sick and widespread intolerance of vulnerability in the mean-time.

You might be asking: Is there a way out of this mad, bad, sad human condition?

I would like to think so. I really would.

Antidotes, with Special Thanks to Wholehearted People

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pursuing, perfecting, or pretending per se, but let’s get some awareness from these questions: What drives me? Motivates me? Inspires me? And why?

To answer these questions in a meaningful way, let’s sample the research and follow the example of those who have healthy relationships with vulnerability, who experience what I call a robust sense of vulnerability.

People who experience a robust vulnerability possess a robust sense of worthiness – a strong sense of being worthy of love and belonging (among many other things). Those who have it have it because they feel worthy of it.

Wholehearted people are whole and wholesome in the pursuit of their aims, in the expression of their feelings, in the exercise of their will to know, improve, perform, succeed, and excel.

Worthy, wholehearted people live, love, laugh, learn, grow, breathe, speak, behave, explore, create, produce, manage, direct, evolve, and act from a deep sense of worthiness.

They have the courage to appear imperfect, to speak their minds with their hearts, to tell their stories without shame; they have the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then to others, so that they can hear the stories of others; they view connection as a consequence of authenticity, of being themselves, of being willing to let go of who they think they should be to be who they are; they fully embrace their vulnerability, believing that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.

People with a robust sense of vulnerability don’t talk about it as being comfortable – nor do they talk about it as being excruciating. They talk about it as being necessary.

People who seem invulnerable are willful and people who seem fallow, feeble, or fragile in their vulnerability are neither willing nor willful. These unfortunate people occupy opposite poles on the spectrum of vulnerability.

People who are robust in their vulnerability are willing: willing to consider a problem; willing to address inadequacy; willing to respect difficulty; willing to say “I love you” first; willing to act when there are no guarantees; willing to be patient with the unknown; willing to invest in a relationship that might not work out; willing to push past their perceived limits even when they feel they have nothing left to give.

People with a robust sense of vulnerability allow themselves to be seen; to love with all their hearts even though there’s no guarantee of a return; to lean wholeheartedly into joy and gratitude; to believe that they’re enough even if enough means that it’s ordinary (and yet, blessed with love and joy).

I suppose the takeaway here is that when we start from a place where we’re enough and where we know we’re enough, we can stop the yelling and screaming, the blaming and shaming, and begin to listen to ourselves and each other, and start being kind and gentle with ourselves and others.

Soul and Spirit: Active and Balanced

This concluding section will draw on points I made above and follow the thinking I did in my most recent post, One Soul, One Spirit.

Soul and spirit, active and balanced?

What does this look like? What does it feel like? How does it manifest? And how is it maintained?

And what do answers to these questions have to do with vulnerability and shame?

Soul and spirit, active and balanced: what does this look like?

The images I sketched near the beginning of this post give us some clues to an answer.

I wrote: if you imagine the heart of who and what you are as a radiant and pulsating sphere with a permeable membrane, then at the core of this sphere lies the energy of love and joy.

Let’s refine this imagery a little and suppose that the sphere itself represents the nature of what you are and that the core inside the sphere represents the essence of who you are.

Suppose, too, that the energy of love is the juice of your soul, and that the energy of joy is the juice of your spirit.

Suppose, also, that the essence that resides inside the core of who you are is dual in nature – containing and carrying two distinct, yet integral aspects – not just love, not just joy, but love and joy.

The resting aspect of the sphere radiates love through the heart of your soul.

The moving aspect of the sphere pulsates joy through the mind of your spirit.

In a state of balance, neither aspect dominates for long, and yet, it’s certainly appropriate for one to dominate the other for a time, provided of course that balance is restored in the heart and mind of the soul and spirit. So, for example, the sphere might pulsate more than it radiates, or radiate more than it pulsates. For a time. Until balance is restored.

What are the implications of this state of affairs? A loving soul with a joyless spirit cannot remain loving for long; a joyous spirit with a loveless soul cannot remain joyous for long.

And I mean genuinely loving and genuinely joyous.

Soul and spirit, active and balanced: what does this feel like?

Sharing love and joy is not something you can force.

You can fake the manifestation of love or the expression of joy, but there’s no chance whatsoever that you can have them come alive for you unless or until you tap into them directly.

Sharing love and joy is something you allow to happen – naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly.

Peacefully, in the light of love. Blissfully, in the light of joy.

Love is the ultimate source of your sense of promise; joy is the ultimate source of your sense of possibility. Both love and joy are natural to who you already are. As is the balance.

If you feel blocked or out of balance with love and joy, this is not the fault of love and joy.

If, however, you feel open, active, and balanced with the energies of love and joy, peace and bliss can be yours to love and en-joy.

Soul and spirit, active and balanced: how does this manifest?

I had to think about this one.

The answer came to me this morning in a meditation, and it’s an answer that I think I can link up to the realities of vulnerability and shame in a meaningful way further along in this section of the post.

In our waking life, we have a basic choice about how to respond to what happens in our lives.

For most of us, this choice disappears when we fall asleep.

Unless you’re a lucid dreamer and unless you’re spiritually advanced enough to be a witness to your state of mind while you sleep and dream, you have no choice but to bear the consequences of your everyday choices while you sleep or dream, or while you lie awake at night wondering what went wrong, or while you wonder why you feel so bad when you wake up in the morning.

Sleep is the chief nourisher, as Shakespeare said, but it’s also your doorway to all of the scary, troubling, difficult manifestations of any guilt or shame you might harbor while you sleep and dream – or try to sleep and dream.

In light of these observations, the question, soul and spirit, active and balanced: how does this manifest?, is really quite simple to answer.

You know your soul and spirit are actively in balance when . . .

  1. you fall asleep quickly and easily
  2. you stay asleep and your sleep is sound
  3. you wake up feeling rested, refreshed, and ready to go

Sleep, then, becomes a kind of yardstick by which to gauge the balance of your conscious efforts to actively share your love and joy in harmony with others.

Soul and spirit, active and balanced: how is this maintained?

I can answer this question in seven words: this is what this site is about.

I think it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyways) that the reality that underlies an answer to this question is hugely complex and unusually complicated, and yet the answer itself is simplifiable (I know this isn’t a word – yet) and accessible to almost everyone.

And what about the role of vulnerability and shame?

Let’s quickly revisit the solar metaphor that I crafted earlier in this post.

I’ve already mentioned that the sphere in this metaphor represents the essence of what you are and that the core within the sphere represents the essence of who you are.

The membrane represents the boundary between you and your relationships – your relationships with one other soul and spirit, with the world, with others, and (strangely enough) with yourself.

As for love, you do not express love. You are love. To follow the metaphor, you radiate love. You resonate in love with other souls from the heart of your soul, from within the essential core of who you are.

As for joy, you do not contain joy. You express joy. To follow the metaphor, you pulsate with joy. You vibrate as joy with other compatible spirits by and through having and sharing a mind of your own.

To carry the metaphor further, the permeability of your membrane represents the state of your vulnerability.

If your intolerance of vulnerability hardens your membrane, making you impervious to the energies of love and joy, then intimacy and empathy will soften it until you feel capable of receiving love and expressing joy.

A relatively robust vulnerability means that your membrane is relatively permeable, making it relatively easy for you to be open and willing to share the love and the joy, the peace and the bliss.

A fallow, feeble, or fragile vulnerability means that your membrane is too soft and too weak, making it relatively difficult for you to be the love that you are or to express joy freely and spontaneously.

A calcified membrane means that you’re essentially dead to love and joy. Psychopaths take note.

Vulnerability is not weakness.

Shame is an intensely painful feeling coupled with the belief that you’re inadequate or flawed in some way, making you feel unworthy of peace, love, joy, bliss, connection, and belonging (in fact, shame is so painful that some of us would rather sit down and watch others ridicule and humiliate each other on reality TV than to have an honest conversation about shame, inadequacy, and unworthiness).

With vulnerability, you have access to love and joy by having the courage to be who you are, to become what you are, in the face of any fear of what you might have done or failed to do.

Or what you might do or fail to do (let us not forget that shame isn’t just about the past).

Your feeling and belief that the objects of these fears might come to light to threaten your connections (or your capacity and ability to connect) underlie almost everything you say and do.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, unconditional love, by itself, is not the answer.

Unconditional love, by itself, is not the answer to negotiating your relationship with vulnerability and shame, and by itself, unconditional love is not the answer to negotiating your relationships with those people in your life whose relationships with vulnerability and shame are less than ideal.

In negotiating these relationships (with yourself and others), you don’t want to be too hard and you don’t want to be too soft; you don’t want to appear too strong and you don’t want to appear too weak.

You need a carefully cultivated balance (not too active, not too passive; not too assertive, not too receptive; not too aggressive, not too submissive) born of experience leading to wisdom. Ideally, this cultivated balance will co-exist in harmony with your natural balance between love and joy.

A Few Parting Thoughts

I believe in giving credit where credit is due. A lot of the research referenced in this post comes from the remarkable work of Brené Brown. I’ve watched every video on her work that I could find and I recommend that you listen closely to what she has to say about vulnerability and shame, connection and the courage to share.

If you felt ashamed by reading this post, please don’t be too hard on yourself. The fact that you felt ashamed at all is a very hopeful sign. It’s means that you’re human – beautifully and imperfectly human. Embrace this.

This post might also have sparked a need to spill your guts and share your shame. Please do yourself a favor and do this with someone you trust, or if you can’t trust your judgment at this time, find someone whose judgment you do trust, or failing this, create a sacred space for yourself and read it, write it, paint it, or draw it out of your system.

Unless you feel that it’s necessary to share your shame with the world online as a character-building exercise, provided of course you already have a strong and redeeming character, it’s best to keep it private – for everyone concerned. Courage is a virtue, but then, so is discretion. Keep this in mind before you broadcast your deepest, darkest secret.

If those of you who feel up to it, here’s an exercise you can do in your spare time:

Be a witness to your four basic relationships: observe the varieties and relativities of vulnerability. Do this with yourself and others, alone and with others. Who seems robust and wholehearted in their vulnerability? Who seems invulnerable (observe their intolerance of vulnerability)? Who seems fallow (not yet fully developed or cultivated) in their relationship with vulnerability? Who seems feeble? Who seems fragile? Apply the power of unconditional love, stay connected to your inner wisdom, express your joy when that seems possible, and watch what happens.

Good luck.

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