When I first started dating my husband, there were things I did not tell him. Big deal, you may be thinking. Who tells it all at the beginning of a relationship? After all, it takes a while to find out if that person is trustworthy and deserving of our stories, right? Well, it wasn’t just that I did not tell him things, but I actually glossed over some details that really should have been revealed. When the details eventually came out (because they always do), my now husband was understandably hurt and upset. There was a period of time when I did not know whether we would stay together – that’s how much hurt was wrapped up in my omission. And even though what I failed to tell him was not inherently harmful, my omission haunted us for a very long time. If I had only told him the whole story from the very beginning, things would have been so much different, and so much easier. AND, I would not have to live with the knowledge that I hurt the man with whom I was falling in love.
I think most of us have “if only” stories. I have many more than just that one, and they all have different plots, reasons for the desire to have done things differently, and motivations for why the particular act was done that way in the first place.
I can admit now that my omission was motivated by shame, but it took a long time for me to come to that realization. You see, when I left out the important detail, I was afraid. Afraid of what this amazing guy would think of me. Afraid that he would decide he did not want to go out on another date with me. Afraid that I would feel worse about myself than I already did when I heard myself admit my truth to him. And here’s the thing – when the truth did come out, several months later, all of those same fears were there, but they were greatly magnified. By keeping my truth to myself out of fear, I had made the truth even more scary.
I didn’t know anything about shame when all of this took place, and because of that, I was not well-equipped to work through the difficulty of the situation. When I read I Thought It Was Just Me, I started to have a series of “aha moments,” and so much started to make sense. What I learned is that one of the biggest components of shame is the fear of disconnection. Everyone wants to connect – it’s hard-wired into us. But we also all have things about us that we do not necessarily want to share with others because we are ashamed of our behavior, disappointed in our past choices, or even embarrassed. According to Brené Brown, what keeps us from sharing, as was the case with me, is the fear of disconnection. If I reveal myself, I may be rejected. If I am rejected, I have little chance of connection. If there is no connection, I am alone. And if I am alone, then I really don’t belong anywhere, right? If I stay silent, I can still belong. No one will reject me.
Recall the definition of shame: it is, according to Brené, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” If I believe I am unworthy of acceptance and belonging because of my past mistakes, then won’t others think that, too? So why would I ever reveal that part of myself and open up to others?
Well, this is exactly what was going on inside of me – and I didn’t even know it. I just knew I didn’t want to tell my story. I already felt crappy about something, and I knew in my heart that I could have made much better decisions. There was NO WAY I was going to show this amazing new man in my life the skeletons in my closet. That, my friends, was my shame coming out in a huge way. And believe me, the thing you don’t want to reveal about yourself doesn’t have to be criminal, morally repugnant, or deviant in order for shame to kick in – mine sure wasn’t any of those. Trust me, it can be anything you beat yourself up about.
But an amazing thing happened when my skeletons came out. I was met with grace and forgiveness. I was blown away. Another amazing thing that happened was my now husband opened up to me and shared a very similar story. We were not that different. Here I was, thinking IT WAS ONLY ME, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. And you know what happened inside of me? My body, which had been completely tense, relaxed. My stomach, which had felt so incredibly sick, suddenly felt ok. My hands, which had been shaking, calmed down. My fear, which had been overwhelming, turned to intense relief. But more than the physical changes that occurred, were the emotional changes. I was vulnerable with my now husband, and he in turn was vulnerable with me, and we grew closer. And every time we are vulnerable with one another and reveal ourselves, we grow closer. That does not mean the shame evaporates. I still have trouble revealing parts of myself of which I am ashamed. But it is getting easier for me to trust that when I do, the connection will not vanish.
It takes courage to reveal ourselves. We risk rejection, disconnection, and more shame. Brené cautions that for these reasons, we ought to be careful to share our stories with those who have earned the right to hear them. Even then, the story may not have a happy ending. We may, in fact, be rejected. But I think we gain courage by sharing. And the rewards of being understood, accepted, shown grace and empathy, and receiving vulnerability in return, have proven to me, time and time again, to be well worth the risk.
What I have written about above is just one example of the fear of being known. Fortunately, when I have been vulnerable with my husband, I have been met with grace, acceptance, and love. But that has not always been the case with others. I have, in fact, been rejected, and it has been painful, for sure. And that pain has threatened to eradicate my desire to be vulnerable in the future. I plan to explore this in future posts, but for now, I will say that despite the rejection I have experienced, I have gained courage in revealing myself and speaking my truth. I do not want to hide in shame, and I do not want to shy away from vulnerability. As I stated before, we risk so much when we show ourselves, but I encourage you to do so, because the rewards of being truly known, accepted, connected, and understood, are so much greater.