A reflection on shame and vulnerability

Being vulnerable is risky.

I think about that a lot in my work, which frequently has me exploring with people the less-pleasant aspects of themselves. And then while recently watching the new season of Shadow and Bone on Netflix (a fantasy series based on a set of YA novels—mild spoilers coming up), I heard a line that resonated deeply. The context was of a character with a history of keeping closed off rather than risk being vulnerable, in response to which another character said:

I will have you without your armour… Or I will not have you at all.”

That got me thinking about the clothes that we wear underneath armour, and our nakedness underneath that. And the whole thing got me thinking about an old story.

An origin story of shame

The ancient Hebrew creation story, as documented in the Bible, begins with a man and woman who are described as, “both naked, but not ashamed”. But then they make a terrible decision in a bid to have their eyes “opened”, which seems to be a metaphor for “seeing things as they really are.” As the account puts it:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (‭‭Genesis‬ ‭3‬:‭7‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

It turns out, then, that the desire to “see things as they really were” only leads to seeing their own selves, and not pleasantly. Their newly acquired self-consciousness is of a self at risk from other selves. In psychological terms, the story offers an origin story of shame as rooted in feeling self-consciously unsafe in the presence of another self.

Feeling naked and ashamed, they resort to blame rather than take responsibility. Or to stick with the psychological language, we might say their new state of self-conscious vulnerability (feeling naked) and the unpleasant emotion of shame (feeling unsafe) triggers attack of the other (blame) and a blindness to their own agency (responsibility).

And so, they end up clothed: covering up in front of each other, afraid and ashamed to be truly vulnerable. That leaves them feeling vulnerable and not just hiding from, but also attacking each other.

The story roots shame in, not just feeling naked, but in feeling unsafe while naked. And it highlights two (likely recognisable) responses:

  • We hide ourselves when we can and cover up when we can’t
  • We redirect shame outward as blame

From naked to clothing to armour…

As kids, we start off naked, physically and emotionally. We’ve nothing to hide. But as self-consciousness grows, so does the potential for shame. And we learn quickly learn to cover up with all kinds of “clothes”: layers to hide our real feelings, our desires, our pain, our scars.

Do that long enough, and you might even lose the ability to remember what lies underneath it all.

That’s why so much effort in relationships goes into just making sure our clothes stay on, or at best figuring out how “naked” we can afford to be. You learn there are those you feel comfortable “wearing little” with, and those with whom you won’t turn up in anything less than “fully clothed”. And you learn to figure out who’s which.

But as that line from the show indicates, to protect themselves, people sometimes go beyond clothes to full armour. In the show, the character with the “armour” had experienced severe trauma of a violating kind. They’d been betrayed by someone they trusted, someone they thought they could be vulnerable with—only to find themselves hurt by that very vulnerability. It’s a shame where blame is all too valid.

That kind of painful experience, to continue with the clothes metaphor, is like being stripped—made “naked” against your will, sometimes literally. And it leaves the person feeling violated. It’s hardly surprising that an experience like that leaves you, when you’re able to clothe yourself again, wanting stronger, more protective clothing. Wanting armour.

The problem, as with any kind of protection, is that keeping things out tends to entail keeping yourself in. Fences too easily become prison walls, and insulation becomes isolation.

As CS Lewis so astutely pointed out in his classic, The Four Loves:

“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.”

There is no intimacy without the risk of being hurt: to the extent that you protect yourself from the possibility of pain, you also cut yourself off from the possibility of the intimacy that makes life rich and meaningful.

Ready to get naked?

Understandably, if you’ve been “stripped”, you might well consider that a perfectly acceptable trade-off.

More often, though, I find that people don’t even realise the trade-off from their self-protection efforts. Not everyone readily makes the connection between their relationship difficulties and their avoidance of risking vulnerability. That said, simply making the connection doesn’t make it easy to resolve, for a simple reason: the only way out is through.

There is no way to rediscover the willingness to be vulnerable and the possibility of intimacy without risking being hurt again.

You see, shame isn’t something we can deal with on our own, because we feel it, not on our own, but in relation to others. And so, like many human problems, unless we’re prepared to avoid any real relationships altogether, we will only resolve it in relationships. These relationships might be with loved ones, good friends, a priest, a therapist or counsellor. At their best, these relationships form a safe space to relearn trust and the risk that always entails.

Within those relationships, you can learn to take the armour off again, one bit at a time, and maybe eventually even get to taking off the clothes underneath. You can learn to distinguish the inevitable pricks within any relationship (others being just as imperfect and with jagged edges as you) from the deep stab of betrayal. With time, you might even learn again to be “naked” without shame.

And every time you reach out and risk being vulnerable, you push powerfully back against shame and exercise your agency. I spoke earlier of the valid blame in shame from betrayal—when protective “clothing” is stripped away and vulnerability attacked. But even when the blame is acknowledged, and there are due consequences for the offender, shame doesn’t simply go away, because consequences don’t change the fact that agency has been undermined.

When you’re wounded in that way, you’re made to feel your ability to choose doesn’t matter. It’s a lie.

It is not enough to know that, though. Not intellectually, anyway. No, it’s something you have to know emotionally. In your heart, as they say, not just your head. And the only way to know something emotionally is not to learn it, but to live into it. That’s what you do every time, in the face, of shame, you reach out and risk vulnerability.

You take back your agency. You say to the world, “I get to choose, and my choice matters.” It’s not easy, but—my goodness—it’s so worth it when you come through on the other side! And I assure you, while the path is always risky and the process never easy, but progress is always possible.

If you struggle deeply with shame, I hope for you that you find a relationship within which you can feel safe to risk vulnerability again.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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