Transforming Shame into Courage


A couple of weeks ago I met with my therapist, and he showed me a video of a woman named Brené Brown.  In her presentation she talked about our society’s intolerance for vulnerability, and I saw a lot of my life in what she was saying.  I started thinking about how I have sought interactions with men online that have virtually no risk of vulnerability. As it turns out, guys react pretty predictably to affection from someone they find attractive.  There is a high level of certainty, and almost no chance that I would be hurt.

My therapist had a copy of one of Dr. Brown’s books, The Gifts of Imperfection.  I was impressed enough with the 15 minutes and 58 seconds I had heard from her that I decided that I would go buy a copy of the book.  After our group therapy session later that evening, I pulled out my phone, and looked up the bookstores on my route across the city back to my suburb.  I found one that had a copy, and I drove just fast enough to make it there before the store closed.  (It didn’t take any additional speeding, just the amount I usually indulge in.)

The ideas of embracing vulnerability seemed to fit with some of what I was trying to do in my life.  When I started telling my story to members of my family, I felt incredibly vulnerable, but I then felt safer than I had before, knowing that I could be vulnerable with them, and still be loved.  As a result, I started to read the book I had purchased.  (It took me a while to get to it, as I tend to read several books at once.)

While the first few pages of the introduction were interesting, they did not hit me with the same force as the last pages of the intro.  I was in a bit of a fragile state at the time, which might explain some of it, but not all.  I was waiting to see my therapist, and I had our meeting time wrong.  I thought that we were going to be meeting at 3, when it was actually supposed to be 4.  (I confirmed this by looking at my calendar, but not before I felt abandoned by him for missing our meeting without so much as a text message.)  Once I realized that I was early, I decided to sit in my car and read.

On page 6 of the book, I started to cry.  (It’s one of those that has the intro numbered with letters instead of numbers…)  The sentence that set off the monsoon was, “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.”  I cried because I felt what I had been giving up for years.  I avoided love that was offered to me, I put off finding someone to fall in love with.  I cried because I saw a glimpse of what I still needed to do to get to what Dr. Brown calls a “wholehearted” life.  I cried because someone else understood what I was feeling, even though she didn’t know I existed.  I cried because, and also without cause.

The next evening I decided to read a bit more in “The Gifts of Imperfection.” It talked about courage.  It claimed we need to learn to courage, and said that just like we learn to swim by swimming, we learn to courage by couraging.  Because words mean different things to different people, (I could write quite a bit, and have, on literary/linguistic deconstruction….) Dr. Brown tells a story illustrating what she means by courage.

“I saw courage in my daughter, Ellen, when she called me from a slumber party at 10:30 P.M. and said, ‘Mom, can you come get me?’  When I picked her up, she got in the car and said, ‘I’m sorry.  I just wasn’t brave enough.  I got homesick.  It was so hard.  Everyone was asleep and I had to walk into Libby’s mom’s bedroom and wake her up.’

I pulled into our driveway, got out of the car and walked around to the backseat where Ellen was sitting.  I scootched over and sat next to her.  I said, ‘Ellen, I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things you will ever do.  I suffered through a couple of really miserable sleepovers and slumber parties because I was too afraid to ask to go home.  I’m proud of you.’

The next morning during breakfast, Ellen said, ‘ I thought about what you said.  Can I be brave again and ask for something else?’ I smiled. ‘I have another slumber party next weekend.  Would you be willing to pick me up at bedtime?  I’m just not ready.’  That’s courage.  The kind we could all use more of.” (page 13)

When I read that passage, I started to cry.  It reminded me of an event from more than a decade ago, one that I’ve always felt the need to spin.  I would keep everyone else from knowing the real reasons behind my actions because I felt ashamed, not of my actions, but of my reasons for them.

My senior year in high school, I decided I didn’t want to wrestle.  I made the decision late at night during an all night practice.  It was supposed to be an all night practice to build team unity.  Unfortunately, it did the exact opposite for me.

A day or two earlier, I was wrestling in practice, and I sustained a head injury.  I was in the down position, and the wrestler in control had my head posted on the mat.  While my forehead was being pressed into the mat, another wrestler nearby was flipped over.  As he flipped, his foot rotated through the air, and came to rest at the base of my skull, with considerable force.  I blacked out momentarily, and then became dizzy and disoriented.  I went to the trainer’s office, in spite of my coach not wanting me to. (He was worried about people claiming injury and then just wandering the halls to avoid practice.  The trainer assured him that I was not doing so.) I was asked to follow the trainer’s finger with my eyes, repeat a series of numbers in reverse order and the like.  I distinctly remember thinking, I don’t know that I would be able to give you those numbers in reverse order if I hadn’t just been kicked in the head.

My mom came and picked me up, since I was not allowed to drive.  She was told to wake me up every 45 minutes that night, just to make sure that I could still wake up.  (I’m sure she found this whole experience very disconcerting, given that she could barely stand to come watch my wrestling matches.)

Because of the concussion, I was told that while I could attend the all night practice, I was not allowed to participate in any of the physical activities.  I didn’t understand the reasoning behind it. (I understood I shouldn’t wrestle because it could cause another blow to the head, but I didn’t know that increased blood pressure from any activity could lead to death.)  I spent much of the night watching the rest of my team playing basketball, and engaging in other athletic activities.  I had to stand there and watch.  Not really part of the team, not really separate from it.

After a while, I got tired of watching, so I left, and went to the locker room.  That locker room had been a special place to me since my oldest brother had been an athlete at the school some years earlier.  I had fond memories of the traditions associated with the room, and of time I spent there with my other older brother when he was on the wrestling team, and I got to come practice with him.  I went to the locker room as a retreat.  As I sat in the locker room, crying, I decided that I wouldn’t wrestle that year.  I didn’t feel like a part of the team.

The feeling was exacerbated by that night, but there was a bigger reason I felt disconnected.  I didn’t know if I could do it.  I didn’t know if I could be a varsity wrestler.  I didn’t know if I had the skill to beat the others in my weight class, but more than that, I didn’t know if I had the emotional fortitude to be what I thought a varsity wrestler was supposed to be.  I didn’t think I had the required bravado to be the first string guy.

Instead of sharing my concerns with anyone, I told people I was leaving the team because I didn’t like the level of vulgarity on the team.  I put it all on other people, and concocted a story that would make me look like the hero standing against the forces of evil.  True, there was a lot of vulgarity, and a fair bit of lewdness, but it only bothered me because I was afraid to let down my facade that I was somehow above it.  In reality, I simply was not ready to be what I thought I had to be, so I left.  I ended up driving home that night in some of the worst weather I remember during high school.  The roads were covered in ice, and I couldn’t drive more than about 5 miles per hour.

I felt like a failure that night, and every time I thought about it.  After having read Dr. Brown’s description of her daughter’s actions, I remembered the night a bit differently.  I started to wonder if it was really a night about failure, and whether a different perspective could have made a difference.  I started asking myself questions about the event, and as I am want to do, I grabbed a keyboard, and started typing.

Was walking away from wrestling my senior year really an act of courage?  Did I find shame in the fact that I was quitting when I should have taken heart at my willingness to walk away from something I loved because I was not ready for the spotlight and potential failure that would come with finding out that I wasn’t good enough for varsity?

I know I lost the opportunity to find out if I was good enough for varsity, but I don’t know if I should be a varsity wrestler.  Maybe what I was supposed to be was the compassionate friend that Bobby (one of the 7th grade wrestlers I coached that year) needed when he returned from his suspension and was shamed by everyone else.  May I was supposed to be the friend that touched Alex’s life. (Alex was one of Bobby’s teammates, whom I befriended).

Was my wanting to be a varsity wrestler me trying to be what I thought I was supposed to be?  Had I mistakenly assigned that position the role of determining one’s worth in the high school ecosystem?  Did I think that was what I was supposed to be because it was what made my hero brother happy when he was doing it?

Was I actually being courageous when I walked away from that false image of what I thought I had to be?

The idea that what I thought was a cowardly act could in fact be one of courage changed what I felt about the incident.  For the last decade, I never really wanted to talk about why I didn’t wrestle my senior year, even with myself.  I wanted to sweep it under the rug, and pretend that it didn’t happen.  I wanted it to go away, but as is often the case, when things are swept under the rug, the rug tends to get lumpy, and it takes some doing to make everyone believe that the rug is actually smooth.

I don’t know that I am going to start telling everyone I know about the real reasons behind my decision to quit my high school wrestling team. Dr. Brown talks about sharing our stories from our heart, but with the caveat that we aren’t supposed to share it with everyone, but rather those that have earned the right to hear it.  My therapist tells me that vulnerability must always be accompanied by good boundaries.  (By now some may be wondering why I’m sharing this with the entire world, when I’m not supposed to share with everyone.  The boundary here is my anonymity.  the world that reads this post does not know who I am, and those that do, are those with whom I would be ok sharing the story.)

There are some things that I don’t think I’ll be able to simply re-evaluate and have them transform from shame to courage.  Some of the things I’ve done were not things that I’ve misinterpreted as being something they were not.  Some of the things I’ve done can’t be called courageous unless I redefine a whole lot of things in my life, like my religious beliefs. (I have no intention of doing so.)  That being said, understanding that courage is something that can dissipate shame, and that by practicing courage, I can get better at it, I have a new tool in dealing with life.  I have a new understanding of why it has been helpful to reach out to those who care about me and telling them the story of which I have long been ashamed, and I have a new appreciation for their support, and what it does for me.

You may have noticed that this post has very little to do with sex-addiction or with homosexuality, at least not directly.  I don’t know if I’ve written it that way on purpose to emphasize the universality of transforming shame into courage, or if it’s just how my mind happened to write things.  Either way, take a look at the video that I linked at the beginning.  If you have a chance, take a read through some of Dr. Brown’s writings.  It may be something that could help you in your life, whatever your circumstances.

Thank you for reading.  I appreciate it.
Feel free to let me know what you thought of my story, as well as thoughts you might have on Dr. Brown.

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4 thoughts on “Transforming Shame into Courage

  1. Thanks for your story, and for your willingness to share your own vulnerability. I do have the same question for Brené Brown as the above poster: what does she have to say about the gay identity? Given her themes of shame and vulnerability and the centrality of these themes in the identity of one who is either gay or SSA, it seems to me that saying nothing is a bit of a deafening silence. I have written twice to her via email about this but have never received a response.

    1. Brene’s books don’t specifically go into the ramifications of her research on gay individuals, but I think that you are correct that shame and vulnerability are huge in the lives of gay individuals.
      I understand the frustration of reaching out to someone and not hear back, but I doubt that she is avoiding you. She seemed to be a very caring individual when I met her at a book signing for “daring greatly.” I’ve meant to reach out to her myself, but haven’t gotten around to it.

      1. Thanks, Legien!

        You inspired me to reach out a third time to Brené Brown. Here’s what I wrote:

        “Hey Dr. Brown!

        I’m a psychologist in private practice, specializing in couple and family therapy. I teach and supervise in an AAMFT-credentialed training program at the Jewish General Hospital here in Montreal, and also serve as a faculty lecturer on family assessment and treatment at McGill University in the new (2014) M.Sc. (Applied) program in Couple and Family Therapy within the Department of Social Work. I stumbled upon your work several years ago—several of my female clients were reading “The Gift of Imperfection”—and I loved your very brave TED talk on “Listening to Shame”. As the Dad of two adopted sons, now aged 12 and 14, I’m listening to your “Imperfect Parenting” talks while I drive to work.

        I’m also a gay man, and the process of coming out, first to myself and next to others, has been slow, excruciating, and only occasionally liberating—partly because of growing up in a conservative evangelical church where being gay was pretty much the most unacceptable and ‘shameful’ thing I could be.

        And here’s my question: have you done any research into shame in the LGTB community? Or any work with LGBT youth or adult populations? Because I would venture to say that it’s pretty much the most shame-filled population out there, with the shame often being reinforced by a large conservative element of the population as evidenced in heated reactions to the Marriage Equality decision in your country a few months ago. While listening to your talk on parenting, I realized that a word you kept using—’Worthiness’—would actually be a better antonym to Shame than is ‘Pride’, the word chosen by the Gay Community to represent claiming a new identity. It’s all about escaping a lifetime of shame and of living someone else’s life in order to feel worthy, to step into our inherent worthiness.

        I’d love to hear you address shame and vulnerability in the context of sexual orientation. Primarily same-sex attracted people likely represent only 4-6% of the population. The Trevor Project (“It Gets Better”) is trying to do this work with gay youth in order to save lives. I think you have a voice and a platform from which you could really make a difference. (As your daughter said, “you’re famous”!) I’m not sure if this would be a matter of dissonance for you because of your religious values—churches can be among the most egregious sources of shame out there—but for those of us who grew up with a constant sense of being “the Other”, your words could really make a difference.

        Thanks for reading this (I hope it’s reached you), and thanks for the amazing and courageous work you’re doing on what is at the very core of being human. I know you must be extremely busy (being famous and all ;-), but I’d love to hear back from you or even from one of your minions/ henchmen on this matter.

        Respectfully yours,

        –Darrell Johnson
        ______________________
        Dr. Darrell R. Johnson,
        Psychologue/ psychologist
        (514) 213-5502 | http://www.drjohnson.ca | Dj@drjohnson.ca

        1965 Ste-Angelique, Suite 203, Saint-Lazare, QC • J7T 2Y4
        4260 Girouard, Suite 250, Montreal, QC • H4A 3C9

        Sent from my iPad”

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