The Scary Layer Underneath Vulnerability: Shame

by Terry Gault

In 1993, I was cast in the title role of an adaptation of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” the poetic philosophical treatise of Freidrich Nietzsche.

With 5 weeks left, we were still working on refining the script to its finished form. The language was dense. The play was rich in metaphor and symbolism. I knew the part would be daunting but I’d already played Hamlet. I figured, “This can’t be harder to do than Hamlet. I can handle it.”

As I began working on the piece, I was hit in the face by a couple of frightening realizations:

  • I spoke about 70 – 80% of the lines in the play.  Many of my lines were lengthy monologues: lectures, confessions and diatribes, where I was not in dialog with another character.
  • I had a very limited understanding of what my character was saying. This line epitomized my challenge:?“How could they endure my happiness if I did not wrap my happiness in winter distress and polar-bear caps and covers of snowy heavens?”?Believe me; putting this line in context does not make it one iota clearer.

I was having a great deal of trouble memorizing the lines. The night before we opened I still had the script in my hand, which is unheard of. The day we opened I had 8 full pages of text to memorize. Most of it was just me babbling on about God-knows-what.

To make matters worse, my agent, the man responsible for sending me out for commercial auditions (film, TV, commercials) would be in the audience.  In addition, my wife and several close friends and theater associates would be in the audience.

On opening night, I forgot my lines. As I mentioned, there was no dialogue with other actors.  Therefore, no one could jump in with their line and save me. There was a long pause that must have lasted a full minute – no exaggeration.  Afterwards, I apologized to my fellow actors. They kindly tried to console me but I’d have none of it.

That night I went home and wept. Such a feeling of shame overcame me. My training and my personal ethos demanded that I always be prepared when I perform. I had failed utterly.  I was ashamed that I came off as ill-prepared.

The Fear of Public Speaking is a frequent topic of conversation in our workshops and we help clients transcend that fear.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’  You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

This is how I feel today looking back on that awful experience of 1993.  Having survived an intense experience of shame and realizing that it’s lasting effect on my life was not that significant, the shame gradually starts to lose its power.  Then the fear of the shame also starts to lose its power.

It’s not just fear, it’s also shame that haunts us.  When we die, it’s done.  We don’t care anymore what people think of us.  When we screw up in front of an audience, our shame lives on in our minds, cascading into infinite what-ifs … coming back again and again, like a hated but intimate relative who won’t go away who whispers our darkest secrets into our ears, taunting us with stories of our incompetence and stupidity.

Yes, there’s something to this idea that’s it’s not just the fear, it’s the shame we must conquer.

This video by Brené Brown titled, “Listening to Shame” dives into this topic beautifully.

YouTube / TED – via Iframely

This is a great follow-up to hear talk about The Power of Vulnerability.

I love this point that she makes:
… let me go on the record and say, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.  To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that. Adaptability to change is all about vulnerability.

I also love this quote she shares from Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts. It is not the man who sits and points out how the doer of deeds could have done things better and how he falls and stumbles. The credit goes to the man in the arena whose face is marred with dust and blood and sweat. But when he’s in the arena, at best he wins, and at worst he loses, but when he fails, when he loses, he does so daring greatly.”

She points out that the biggest critic we face is ourselves.  Learning to be compassionate with ourselves is critical in order to embody courage and to experience joy and gratitude.  It give us the freedom to speak up in any situation, whether it be in front of a group of strangers or our friends and families.

She adds:
We’re pretty sure that the only people who don’t experience shame are people who have no capacity for connection or empathy.

Your shame makes you human.  Without it, you are a sociopath.

She adds:
Empathy’s the antidote to shame. If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

When you share your stories from a vulnerable place, you are saying, “Me, too.”  It connects your deeply to your audiences.

If you are willing to confront your shame, come face-to-face with it, you will feel a great sense of liberation and freedom and joy.

Speaking in public should be joyful, not shameful.

photo credit: fireflythegreat


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