CNM 042: Vulnerability, Trust, and Shame – with Sandra Lax, MSW, RSW, CDWF, CSAT, CMAT

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Welcome to the show!

In this episode, I’m bringing back our guest from the previous episode since we ran out of time and had some unfinished business.

If you haven’t heard it yet, feel free to check out Sandra’s last episode all about cheating and infidelity – CNM Episode 41: What To Do About Cheating & Infidelity.

Sandra Lax is a therapist based in Toronto, as well as a certified facilitator of Brené Brown’s program, The Daring Way. Today, she’s bringing us some surprising research on vulnerability, trust, and shame.

Here’s the interview!

Interview with Sandra Lax on Vulnerability, Trust, and Shame

Brian: Welcome back to the show, Sandra. It’s so nice to have you back.

Sandra: It’s great to be back. Thanks, Brian.

Brian: Absolutely. We’re picking up where we left off. We had some topics come up last time that we didn’t get a chance to delve into in a lot of detail, so I thought it would be a great idea to  give its own episode because these are important and somewhat popular topics. There’s some recent research and studies that have been done that I think could be useful to people. We’re talking about trust, shame, vulnerability, and some fringe topics related to those.

Question: The first thing I want to ask is how did you get into working with things like vulnerability?

Sandra: I grew up believing that vulnerability was the antidote to life like above all else, do not show yourself. I grew up with a lot of image management going on in my household and we, above all, didn’t share what’s happening inside and outside the house. I found myself, probably in my 20s, in a relationship with a man that I just fell head over heels with. We were hot and heavy for the first little while and then he sort of disappeared, and I didn’t know why. We connected back maybe a month later and I said, “Tell me what happened.” He said, “You’re just too vulnerable.” It felt like a truck hit me. It was the thing that I was told not to be and right in my face, this thing that I was practicing being more in my skin and sharing it, did not pan out well – at least I thought at that time.

Fast forward, a few years later, there was a woman who was doing a talk on the power of vulnerability. Her name was Brené Brown. Everything about what she said resonated with the way that I wanted to live. I studied, researched, and learned everything I possibly could about her and I ended up signing up to get trained by her. Because something in me knew that being vulnerable was the only way that I really wanted to live life and the messages that I got early on were not the ones that were going to bring me the most fulsome experience of life on this planet. I call myself a vulnerability warrior now, but I certainly wasn’t that way growing up and not even in my young adulthood. That’s what brought me here.

Brian: Thanks for sharing that. I want to really dig in to the topic here because I think that a lot of us want to be able to be vulnerable. And it goes different for men versus women. I know as a man, you’re really told not to be vulnerable because; it’s a sign of weakness. But I feel like that leads to getting closed off in life, and not really living life to its fullest.

Let’s unpack this a little bit and talk about shame and trust as well.

Question: I think that most people have a fairly common impression and realistic view of what vulnerability means, but are there any myths that you’d like to dispel about vulnerability before we get started?

Sandra: Yeah. In her research, Brené came up with four vulnerability myths. Before we go into that for a moment, I’ll just say that vulnerability has become a real pop culture word. But if we just take and simplify it, it simply means being real, being ourselves, and living in our skin. A word that was really popular a few years ago was being authentic. For me, vulnerability is transparency.

There are four myths about this transparency (or being real or authentic) that can get in the way for us. The first one is what you said – which is what a lot of men carry – vulnerability is weakness. Actually, what showed up in Brené’s research was the exact opposite; vulnerability is really the measure of courage. The paradox that she talks about is that we’re drawn to seeing vulnerability in other people when we think about someone getting up to do a talk, a presentation, or something creative. We look at it as strength in them. ‘Wow, look at them being able to stand in front of many people and share this.’ When we’re in the exact situation, we don’t want anyone to know that we’re feeling scared, nervous, or overwhelmed. Vulnerability looks like courage in you and weakness in me; that’s the first myth.

The second myth is that we think that we can opt out of it, like when that man said, “You’re just too vulnerable,” I declared that I would never be vulnerable in a relationship again. That was really hard because to be alive is to be vulnerable. In fact, Brené defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. We have to face those things every day. If we suit up and close that up, we basically won’t have any real relationships and then we’ll experience loneliness and wonder why we’re lonely if we’ve created that for ourselves. We really can’t avoid being vulnerable because it’s really how we’re built, we’re wired for connection.

The third myth that Brené talks about is vulnerability is oversharing. In her TED talk, she says that it’s not live-tweeting your bikini wax. I think in today’s world, we’re really exposed to people thinking that what they’re doing is vulnerability, when in fact what they’re doing is oversharing. Brené would say, “We can’t hot-wire a connection.” What we’re doing when we’re oversharing is either trying to hot-wire a connection or garner attention. Vulnerability is really about trust, intimacy, and connection, done in organic way that happens in stages.

The last myth that she talks about is, “I can go it alone,” which is just never true. We cannot do vulnerability in isolation, but we romanticize the idea that we can do it that way. The actual point of vulnerability is connection. Those are the four myths based in her research of what we equate with vulnerability.

Brian: Right. While you were discussing the second myth, I was really thinking about how I notice people sort of vacillate back and forth between overly rigid and overly loose boundaries, where people say, “Oh, no. I’m going to build a wall around myself so no one can hurt me again.” If it doesn’t work, they feel very lonely, then they open up and go too far to the other side. I see that happen from time to time.

Thanks for sharing about vulnerability. Let’s move on to the topic of shame so we can all get on an even-keel about that.

Question: What exactly does shame mean and not mean to you?

Sandra: Shame is that full-contact experience. It’s a full-contact emotion that tells us that we don’t belong, that there’s something in us that doesn’t fit within the context of where we are. Brené would say there are three things about shame that we need to know. Number one is it’s universal; everyone has it. The only people who don’t have shame basically are sociopaths – a little bit of shame, okay; being a sociopath, not so great.

The second thing is shame is a driver for disconnection. You see it a lot in mental health issues. People who isolate believe that they’re not worthy and they isolate more, whether that’s with mental health issues, addiction, or simply being a human on this planet. I think of times where I really have to, even at this point, talk myself up because I tend to be an introvert. So, when I go to a party, I really have to tell myself that I belong there, that I’ll be able to engage in conversation, and things like that.

We see people who give talks, do public events, or seem to have an easier time socializing and we think that they don’t have shame, that they just come at it easy. But in fact, that is not true. It’s not what I see in practice and it’s not what I see when I speak with my friends. But we all experience some sort of disconnection and really have to remind ourselves that we are worthy of love and belonging.

Brian: It’s funny, I often say that my wife has no shame. She loves being in front of people and does comedy improv every single weekend at a theater. She has an unusually low amount of self-consciousness. She’ll get up, perform in front of people, make mistakes, and doesn’t seem to care – it’s amazing. When we go to a party, she’s the same way. I’m more of an introvert like you, so I do have to psych myself up. It’s kind of funny to me that you say that because I do the same thing. If I’m feeling a little insecure, I might even go into the restroom during the party and say, “Alright, let’s get it together.”

Sandra: I do the same thing, exactly.

Brian: My wife and I are both open with each other, but she just doesn’t understand that. It’s a completely foreign thing to her. It just makes me laugh, different people, different ways; introverts have similar characteristics, extroverts have similar characteristics. It’s funny how we don’t necessarily understand the other one that well. It’s just a quick observation.

Sandra: Yeah. And thinking about your wife and her doing that, I really see the lens of vulnerability and courage of her just putting herself out there and doing that. I think when we see someone doing it easily, we don’t think that it involves a lot of vulnerability and courage. But anytime someone’s doing something creative, it does require that and it may just be something that’s more ingrained in her bones.

Brian: Absolutely. Moving on from shame – let’s talk about trust and unpack this a little bit more. Something that you mentioned to me in a previous conversation is this anatomy of trust that Brené has brought to the surface. It’s broken down into seven parts and it could also be helpful to people with codependency.

Question: Can you talk about the ‘anatomy of trust’?

Sandra: Yeah. There are some things I’ve learned, and they just hit me in a way where it’s just like punches in the gut. It’s what I’ve been looking for without knowing that I was wanting to look for it. Brené Brown has a model for understanding and unpacking trust, both within ourselves and within the context of any relationship we’re in. I now walk around the world checking off these seven traits and seeing in my relationships how many of them meet them, what’s missing, and then have conversations based on what I feel we need to develop more.

She uses the acronym B-R-A-V-I-N-G as the anatomy of trust. What that stands for is first and foremost, Boundaries. In order for us to trust anyone, we and someone else have to come to the table with a certain amount of boundaries. Some of the questions we ask are, “Did I respect my own boundaries? Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay?” In her research, those actually help to develop a system of trust within any relationship as I mentioned with ourselves or with other people.

The second one is Reliability which I think we can all understand in terms of ‘Are my feet moving in the same direction as my mouth? Am I reliable when I say I’m going to do something?’

The third one is Accountability; “Did I hold myself accountable?” I think it really helps with relationships in general, especially with codependency because sometimes, in codependency, we take on more than what we’re meant to do, we apologize for more than what’s ours to carry; “Are we in a relationship with someone who can be accountable for their stuff so that we can be accountable for what’s really ours and not for what’s not ours?”

The fourth is Vault; “Am I holding sacred what people tell me and sharing appropriately the information that I know?” We can think of those people, who within the context of friendships or relationships, are telling us something that’s happening with someone else and make us think, “Wait, if they’re telling me something that’s happening with their friend, what if they’re disclosing our friendship with someone else?”

The fifth one is Integrity; “Did I act from a place of my integrity?”

The next one is Non-judgment, which I think is the hardest one for us all to do. We look at things through schemas as a way of understanding, but that can go into another sphere and become toxic judgment. With non-judgment the questions are, “Did I ask for what I needed? Was I non-judgmental about my needing help or about someone asking me for help?”

The last one – the one that I love the most and has probably shaped my life in a way that I couldn’t probably have imagined before – is Generosity. We think of generosity as, “Am I a generous person?” But we don’t tend to think of it as, “Did I make the most generous assumption?”

I’ll give you an example. If my friend calls and says, “I just can’t meet today. It doesn’t work for me,” before I might have assumed that, “I’m not important,” or “She hasn’t value the relationship,” or “He thinks that he can take advantage of me,” and things like that. Whereas now I believe, “Wow. What’s the most generous assumption I can make?” What it usually looks like is, “Wow, she must have a lot going on right now.” What happens for me is I get the freedom from not having all that negative self-talk and self-doubt, and the person that I’m in a relationship with also gets the freedom to say, “It’s okay. You can be human.” But there is also another angle with that which is – if it happens too often, then that goes back to the reliability and integrity. Then we need to have a conversation about that.

I love this anatomy of trust so I practice it with myself. I go down the seven parts of it and say, “Am I doing this with myself? Because if I don’t trust myself, then I’m not going to show up in relationships in a trustful way.” Likewise, when I look at my relationship and something’s going on, it’s either it’s a difference of values that’s coming into conflict, or some part of this anatomy of trust has been fractured in some way.

Question: Are there any common patterns that you notice in people if they’re feeling shame, trying to avoid vulnerability, or having trouble trusting themselves or other people?

Sandra: Yeah. There’s a lot of ways that we try and get out of vulnerability or shame. Three that Brené speaks about very specifically are perfectionism, numbing, and foreboding joy. I’ll break it down. If we are feeling uncomfortable, we don’t think, “Oh, my gosh. It’s okay to express this uncomfortableness,” rather we think, “Oh, I need to make myself more perfect so that I don’t screw that up next time.” If shame is in the driving seat, perfectionism is riding shotgun, and then fear is that backseat driver that’s really annoying.

In our society we want to be perfect, look good, and make it seem that life is so easy. You talked about that male message of shame which is above all else, “Don’t be perceived as weak.” Women have different shame messages which organize around gender and that is, “Do it perfectly and don’t let them see you sweat,” which is really unattainable. But the measure that we get is, “If I screw this up and someone’s onto me – that it’s not easy – I’m going to try and make it look easier next time,” which means, “I’m going to perfect even more.”

The next thing that we tend to do in our society is we numb. Vulnerability can be excruciating so instead of doing that, we drink, we drug, we sex, or we stuff ourselves with pizza, Big Macs, and brownies. Then we wonder why we’re in a position of looking for meaning and purpose in our lives.

The last thing that we tend to do – and it took me a while to wrap my head around this – is we forebode joy. The way that Brené says that is that joy, in her research, was found to be the most vulnerable emotion that we experience. I would have thought that it’s shame, fear, or pain but it’s actually joy because it can be so fleeting. She will say, “When we lose our tolerance for joy and lose our vulnerability to be in joy because we know that it comes and goes, we start to forebode it,” which means that we start to dress rehearse tragedy.

The famous story she tells is that she was going on a plane to do an Oprah SuperSoul Sunday. As she’s getting on the plane she’s like, “Of course, of course my plane is going to crash. This is it. This is the pinnacle, this is as high as it gets to sit down with Oprah and do her SuperSoul Sunday,” because it’s so vulnerable for her to be in that experience of, “Wow, look at what I’ve accomplished in my life and look at where it’s bringing me. I’m a few hours away from sitting down with someone I really admire,” to be in that sort of gratitude can be really vulnerable.

Brian: Yeah. That’s fascinating. It reminds me of the notion that something’s got to go wrong because everything’s going so good right now.

Sandra: Exactly, exactly. When is the other shoe going to drop? She comes up with a term for it which is foreboding joy, waiting for the other shoe to drop rather than being in the vulnerability of, “Wow, things feel so good right now – right now, in this moment.”

Brian: Some of the other things you just mentioned, the common patterns, the numbing for example, we do this with shopping, sex, and different things like these, I hear those things referred to as process addictions from time to time too.

Question: If you find yourself in a pattern where you’re doing one or multiple of those things and you’re able to admit to yourself that it’s probably an underlying symptom of something, is there some way to know that it has to do with trust, shame, or vulnerability?

Sandra: Yeah. If we’re rumbling with trust, shame and vulnerability, what it usually means is that we’re out of our own authenticity. Let me break that down in a different way. When we are in our authenticity and living in our skin, we generally don’t want to harm ourselves.

You see people who you think are really living in their skin. People who come to mind for me are Oprah, Tony Robbins, and people that really inspire me. Although Oprah has talked about her struggle with food and Tony Robbins loves to work – so we could look at that as potentially compulsive working. They generally don’t want to harm themselves.

I think it’s an indication that people who harm themselves tend to carry shame. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of, “I don’t feel good about myself. I don’t feel like I belong so I’m going to fill myself with things that medicate that feeling,” but then lead me to wanting to isolate more. It’s a really good indication if you’re doing these things that there’s some shame and mistrust onboard, real self-doubt, and moving away from living as we truly are and owning our whole story. That’s really what this Daring Way work from Brené is all about; living in our skin and owning our story of struggle, triumph, and everything in between.

Brian: I want to ask you more about The Daring Way program because you’re a facilitator. But before I do that, I have one more question about vulnerability.

Question: We spoke once before this and you mentioned something about the positive side effects of vulnerability and things that we might not realize. Would you take a minute and talk about some of those things?

Sandra: Yeah. I’ll say, and I’m mirroring what Brené says which is, “If you are signed up for a life of vulnerability, you’re going to get your ass kicked.” What we’ve talked about in this podcast is about how vulnerability is a driver for connection both with our spouse and others. It also can feel incredibly scary, and it doesn’t always land. There’s something called a vulnerability hangover. I’ve experienced it personally when I’ve done vulnerability. I practice my courage and it just really doesn’t land. That can feel awful.

But if we look at it in a bigger context, one of the side effects from my standpoint is that I see people in a whole different way. I don’t think Brené talks about this specifically, but since I’ve been practicing this vulnerability and shame resiliency work, and living wholeheartedly, my respect and admiration for people has gone up tremendously. I now look through the lens of people being brave and vulnerable. When someone approaches me to ask me a question on the street, “Where do I go next?” I think that takes a certain amount of vulnerability to do. When someone calls me and reaches out for support, in my professional practice or in my personal life, I see that as bravery. I want to meet that bravery with a level of respect that I might not have had before doing this work.

The other side effect that I’m not sure people talk about is that because I see people now through the lens of bravery, courage, and a higher level of respect for that, I’m much less judgmental. I still struggle with judgment at times, definitely for myself and for others, but much less so than I used to. I think that comes from the flip side of doing the shame resiliency work which is really around empathy and self-compassion, which are the antidotes to shame. If we are more empathetic with ourselves, we become more empathetic to others. If we practice compassion with ourselves, we’ll have a tendency to do the same with others. I think those are some of the side effects that I personally experience and I’ve seen others experience on this journey.

Brian: Okay. Great.

Question: There’s another one I remember that was interesting, it had to do with physical intimacy. Do you remember that one?

Sandra: In terms of vulnerability?

Brian: Yeah.

Sandra: Oh, they have better sex!

Brian: Yeah.

Sandra: Totally, yeah. Think about it – if we’re living in our skin and we’re able to express what our wants and desires really are rather than focus on perfectionism and performing, we’re much more in the experience to have that intimacy and to take risks. One of the definitions of vulnerability is risk. It’s great to be able to communicate to our partner, or if we’re not in a relationship, to ourselves, about what we really want to experience, and be able to communicate that – what we do in our lives shows up in the bedroom. If we’re practicing vulnerability in our day-to-day lives, we’re going to bring it into the bedroom, and the sex is going to be hotter and heavier and more often.

Brian: There you go, there is the number one tip for the show to everyone listening (laughs).

Sandra: Yeah (laughs).

Brian: Thank you for that. Now, I want to actually ask you more about the program you were mentioning a minute ago, Brené’s program called The Daring Way. I understand that you’re a Certified Facilitator and it’s quite a program.

Question: Would you mind sharing what it is that you discuss in the groups (Brené Brown’s Daring Way Program) that you facilitate?

Sandra: Yeah. Each group is different and we cover different topics; everything ranging from work to relationships. The last one I did was on body love. I’m gearing up in the fall to launch a men’s only group, and also a healthy sexuality group. You can really pick any topic that you are struggling with in your life or you want to delve deeper into.

There are so many self-examination groups and workshops out there. What I really love about this one is that we’d look at what holds us back and really rewrite a script that doesn’t include the old shaming messages that we got growing up. Sometimes it takes one message in a person’s life to transform the way that they look at themselves. I remember someone who was doing The Daring Way, and he once heard on a school yard that he had big, funny looking ears. So from there, he labeled himself as ‘ugly’ his whole life. This person was in his 50s. He got to rewrite the script of how he wanted to perceive himself and let that message go which he had been carrying his whole life. Think about how that would change his interaction in social settings, in work settings, in day-to-day living, and living in his own body. A big part of it is rewriting the script based on one’s own truth and perspective that’s rooted in worthiness.

I love facilitating the program because you never know what’s going to happen next. Whenever you run (or you’re involved in) a group, it’s automatic shame reduction because the most powerful words that you get to hear in that group is, “Me too.” You start to feel less lonely which leads to more courageous sharing, so I love that the group can hold the space for that.

The other thing I love about The Daring Way process – like we talked about within the context of this podcast – is Brené has an amazing ability to wrap really understandable words around complex topics. Who can sit down and say, “These are the seven elements of trust?” We’ve been more kind of abstract about, “Trust is something that you need to have,” but how do you do it? Here she lays the foundation, “This is the way you do it,” then a person lives with, “If I’m practicing these things, trust will grow exponentially in my life. If I’m practicing my shame resiliency skills,” which she also breaks down, “This is how I’m going to have more shame resiliency.” Because the goal is not that we shouldn’t have any shame – we’re all going to have shame, we’re all going to feel those moments of uncomfortableness or those gut-wrenching moments where we start to blush or our heart rate starts to raise fast – the idea is, “How can I move through it without going into a shame shit storm or further down the vortex of shame?”

Brian: Great.

Question: Anything else about The Daring Way or should we keep moving on?

Sandra: I think that’s it. It’s really transformed my life in ways that I cannot ever imagine, and it’s really my passion to share with other people. If you want any more info, just look me up.

Question: Where should they do that if they want more info?

Sandra: My website is sandralax.com and you can find more information right there.

Brian: Okay. Great.

Question: As we get ready to wrap up, what is your biggest piece of advice around vulnerability, shame, and trust?

Sandra: I would say, give yourself permission to screw it up and circle back often.

Brian: Excellent. I won’t even dig into that, that’s nice and simple. I like it.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we wrap up?

Sandra: I’m really grateful and I hope this helps someone in some way. It’s been an honor to be part of your podcast, so thanks for asking me for the first time and for asking me back. I love to do this work and I love sharing it. Thanks for the opportunity to do that.

Brian: It’s my pleasure to have you back. You bring some great information and great expertise. We’re glad to have you. I hope this isn’t the last time we talk either. Thanks for coming on the show again and we’ll see you next time.

Sandra: See you next time.

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