Liu: Accepting flaws creates a better sense of self

Cara Liu

Have you ever felt shame when you said or did something out of place, and then never wanted to do it again because the experience was so humiliating? We have all told ourselves, “I’m not [blank] enough”, with the [blank] being anything that we feel we are lacking. Though we have all felt this way, there is a simple solution to such feelings of shame. Dr. Brene Brown of the University of Houston, said in a 2012 TED talk that the only antidote for shame is to acknowledge its existence, an act that involves us to be open and vulnerable to our feelings — especially shame.  

Of course, this all sounds incredibly counter-intuitive. I myself was doubtful and treated the claim like a suggestion from Dr. Phil, but after further reading and some serious soul-searching, I am quite sure that being vulnerable would be the be-all-end-all to many of our problems as well as the key to love and happiness, also known as the secret of the universe.

From a young age, we have been taught to follow the rules or risk being an outcast. Aside from knowing things like not to chew gum in class, we also learned to abide by certain unspoken social rules set by our family, friends, and teachers. Personally, I learned very early on in elementary school that the contents of your lunch determine how much respect your peers would have for you, and that fried vegetables with noodles did not put you in their favor. After that, I started to stick to “safe” lunch items such as sandwiches and fruits.

When I started investing my reputation into what people said about my lunch, I became nervous and unsure because my worth as a person was in the hands of my peers. Many people cannot think ‘outside the box’ because the cookie cutter culture they grew up in just did not encourage it.

Some people use shame to control others, either without being aware that they are doing it, or intentionally, as a way to keep them in their place. One young mother who is a friend of mine admitted she would criticize her child because she feared that he would grow up too proud and would not be able to handle criticism, thinking that she is preparing her child for the so-called real world. It seems that shame is such a part of our culture that it even implants itself in child-rearing simply because it is so widespread.

Such total conditioning to condemn those who are different prevents us from being honest with ourselves. For example, many young women learn that we need to be perfect at everything we do and are, despite the fact that we know how ridiculous such an expectation is. To hide our insecurity about not being pretty, smart, slim or friendly enough, we judge how other girls hold up to the same ludicrous standards.

Young men have been known to do the same, except that for them, it is all about being tough. They prey upon other guys who are not as strong or masculine in order to hide their fear of being soft and weak. Shame prompts us to act in ways we are not proud of, and it becomes very dangerous when we equate our achievements and failure to love and belonging, or lack thereof.

When there are such high stakes placed on our ability to perform or conform, we lose touch with ourselves and our lives. We can start to feel fatigued and depressed, and we either retaliate with anger or we numb ourselves with some kind of stimulus, like entertainment, drugs, alcohol or sex.

Too often, we are so eager to reject or hide from a sense of hopelessness that we cannot even begin to decipher. We create an addiction to these stimuli. Ironically, being aware of this auto-pilot phenomenon in yourself is the first step to getting rid of it.

This is not cause for worry, as it is not nearly as painful as it sounds. The cure, according to Dr. Brown, is to stop propagating thoughts of shame by seeing shame for what it really is and by sharing your hurt and troubles with others. This requires that you be attuned to your emotions, to your state of mind and to the warning signs that tell you to take a step back.

When we let ourselves acknowledge that we are flawed, just like everyone else, we allow ourselves to be more human, and thus more capable of empathy and compassion. We are connected through our experiences with shame, and by supporting each other instead of competing with one another, we can foster a community that is both genuine and kind.