Courage, Compassion, and Connection: The Gifts of Imperfection
The second the talk ended, I grabbed my stuff and ran-walked to my car. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, my face was growing hotter. I felt small and my heart was racing. I tried to push back the instant replay of me acting crazy, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The shame storm was brewing.
When the shame winds are whipping all around me, it’s almost impossible to hold on to any perspective or to recall anything good about myself. I went right into the bad self-talk of God, I’m such an idiot. Why did I do that?
The greatest gift of having done this work (the research and the personal work) is that I can recognize shame when it’s happening. First, I know my physical symptoms of shame—the dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, hot face, racing heart. I know that playing the painful slow-motion reel over and over in my head is a warning sign.
I also know that the very best thing to do when this is happening feels totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out! We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion. We need courage, compassion, and connection. ASAP.
Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes. I remember saying out loud: “I need to talk to someone RIGHT NOW. Be brave, Brené!”
But here’s the tricky part about compassion and connecting: We can’t call just anyone. It’s not that simple. I have a lot of good friends, but there are only a handful of people whom I can count on to practice compassion when I’m in the dark shame place.
If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. We want solid connection in a situation like this—something akin to a sturdy tree firmly planted in the ground. We definitely want to avoid the following:
1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel so sorry for you) rather than empathy (I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: “Oh, you poor thing.” Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive southern version of sympathy: “Bless your heart.”
3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: “How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?” Or she looks for someone to blame: “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass.”
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
6. The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you: “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”
Of course, we’re all capable of being “these friends”—especially if someone tells us a story that gets right up in our own shame grill. We’re human, imperfect, and vulnerable. It’s hard to practice compassion when we’re struggling with our authenticity or when our own worthiness is off balance.
When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, we need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.
I called my sister. It’s only been since the 2007 Breakdown Spiritual Awakening that I’ve called one of my sisters or my brother for shame-cyclone support. I’m four years older than my brother and eight years older than my sisters (they’re twins). Before 2007, I was pretty vested in being the older, perfect (aka uptight, better than, and judgmental) sister.
Ashley was amazing. She listened and responded with total compassion. She had the courage to tap into her own struggles with worthiness so that she could genuinely connect to what I was experiencing. She said wonderfully honest and empathic things like, “Oh, man. That’s so hard. I’ve done that dance. I hate that feeling!” That may not be what someone else would need to hear, but for me it was the best.
Ashley wasn’t uprooted and thrown into the storm created by my experience. She also wasn’t so rigid that she snapped with judgment and blame. She didn’t try to fix me or make me feel better; she just listened and had the courage to share some of her own vulnerabilities with me.
I felt totally exposed and completely loved and accepted at the same time (which is the definition of compassion for me). Trust me when I tell you that shame and fear can’t tolerate that kind of powerful connection surging between people. That’s exactly why courage, compassion, and connection are the tools we need for the Wholehearted journey. To top it off, my willingness to let someone I care about see me as imperfect led to a strengthening of our relationship that continues today—that’s why I can call courage, compassion, and connection the gifts of imperfection. When we’re willing to be imperfect and real, these gifts just keep giving.
Just a quick follow-up to the story: About a week after the wrestling match/parenting talk, I found out that the school was experiencing a hovering problem—parents were in the classrooms all day and interfering with instruction and class management. Without telling me, the principal and PTO president had required the parents to attend my lecture. They told the parents that I was coming to tell them why they needed to stop hovering. In other words, I was set up as a helicopter-parent mercenary. Not good. I may not be a fan of hovering in the classroom, but I’m also not a parenting gun-for-hire. The irony is that I had no idea that was an issue, so I never even mentioned the topic.
With this story in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the concepts of Wholeheartedness and how they work together.