Dearest monks and artists,
On March 13, 2021 I am really excited to be co-leading a Zoom retreat with Dr. Jamie Marich on Dancing with Fear in Troubled Times. Jamie is a trauma therapist (among many other gifts) and one of our wisdom council members. Here she shares about Vulnerability and Spirituality: The Journey Out of Shame:
The French writer Anais Nin declared that “Shame is the lie that someone told you about yourself.” This definition of shame resonates with me more than any other that are out there. As a child who survived spiritual abuse in a conservative home and as a woman who learned how to heal herself from the peril of addiction, mental illness, and living a life in several tucked away closets, I know shame. Intimately.
And I believed several lies about myself that were put there, often by those closest to me. That I was too fat or ugly. That I would never belong because I was too weird. That no one would ever want me. That I was defective. That I somehow belonged to Satan because I rejected many of the Evangelical teachings in which I was partially raised. That something was wrong with me because I was attracted to people of all genders and that I could not see “God” as something so binary. God never fit into a box for me, yet for so many years of my young adult life—as I struggled to find healing answers—this is where I went to find him. Yet I ended up finding the God that I truly needed through embracing my humanity, by getting vulnerable in the way that being human requires.
Even though Brené Brown has made the word vulnerability popular in her stellar work over the last decade, people do not seem aware of its true meaning. Vulnerability is not just something you can simply define by one of Brené’s often-memed quotes. Vulnerability is more than just taking a risk or putting yourself out there into the metaphorical arena. At its core, being vulnerable is about engaging in trauma work, aware that this healing can and usually does cause more pain in the process. If you’ve ever taken a course with me or have read one of my books, you know that I am a language nerd, and that my working definition of trauma is any unhealed wound—physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual. This simplified definition derives from the word origin of the English word trauma—it comes from the Greek word meaning wound. Well guess what? Vulnerability comes from the Latin vulnarare, meaning to wound; another form, vulnerabilis, means injurious or wounding.
While the pop psychology understanding of vulnerability implies that one might get hurt if they want to take risks to grow, I will go a step farther and contend that hurt of all kinds is inevitable. Here’s the lesson I’ve learned in my processes of coming out of the shame closet through my years in recovery: Vulnerability is about facing our wounds head-on and then deciding what we’re going to do in response to their impact. Are we going to ignore the wounds and thus open ourselves up to being hurt even more, or will we take the chance of feeling the pain we’ve stuffed down all the way through in order to experience freedom on the other side? I will spare you the details of my entire trauma narrative, yet I'll paint enough of a picture to qualify. By age four it was clear to me that I was too sensitive to survive the life I’d been dealt. By age nine I was already thinking of ways to destroy myself because I didn’t feel safe either at home or at school, and by 19 I was in full-blown addiction, the ultimate response of a developing brain that was bonded to dissociation in order to survive.
I was born susceptible; life made me increasingly more vulnerable. Hurt was my baseline, and even though I got sober at 23, it wasn’t until 25 that the chronic suicidal ideation largely dissipated. Had I kept all of this bottled in, assuming I would have survived past my thirties, I’d still be hurting, albeit in a much more pervasive way and I’d not be writing this today as a sober woman. Sharing the pain with others is imperative, and I first learned how to do this privately with an amazingly trauma-focused sponsor in a 12-step program, then through high quality trauma therapy. I agree with Brené’s fundamental teaching that shame cannot survive when it is shared in safe spaces. And I am grateful that the God of my understanding revealed those safe people and safe enough spaces for me on the years of my journey.
Yet a common struggle for religious folks or for people who walk a spiritual path is to navigate the balance between being spiritual and being vulnerable.
“Can’t I just pray to the God to be healed?”
“Doesn’t admitting that I have mental health or other challenges mean that I don’t trust God enough?”
“What if God is displeased with me? (because of who I love, how I am, etc.)”
“I believe that God doesn’t give me anything more than I can handle.”
These are all lines that I have heard people utter, and I even entertained them myself at earlier parts of my spiritual journey. I am sad that a disconnect seems to exist between being a spiritual seeker and a fully vulnerable human being. In my experience, one can most definitely inform the other.
What if we could learn to embrace spiritual practice and our spiritual belief systems as a path that can help us more fully embrace our humanity, warts, wounds and all? And what if we could fully dive into the experience of being human, which includes accepting the invitation to engage in deep healing work, and let that river of humanity carry us even deeper into connection with spirit, with source, with the God of our understanding? Even though my spiritual path in recovery draws on many faith traditions and spiritual practices, one of the reasons that I have stayed rooted in my Catholic-Christian identity is because of the Incarnation. The idea that God was willing to become a human being and show up for the human experience is one of the most wondrous aspects of what I believe. I take delight in the notion that when I pray to God, that God knows the pain, the joy, and the struggle of being human.
So when I engage in the deep healing work that has come in the form of trauma therapy, recovery steps, embodied practice, expressive arts processes, and sharing vulnerably with others, I do it with the help of God. In my early twenties when I began this journey, I did so from a very religious place. Yet even in that experience a very meaningful prayer emerged for me: “God, Divine Mother, teach me what I need to know. Reveal what needs to be revealed.”
As I prayed that prayer I did not receive a miraculous cure, I never saw the sun spin, and my rosary beads never turned gold. What happened is that the people I needed to meet who helped me to tend my wounds and heal from them showed up in my life—my first recovery sponsor (who I met through church), a series of tremendous therapists, and a plethora of wise teachers. God reveals their presence through other human beings who can, if we let them, help us to vulnerably and honestly step into the fullness of our human experience.
Thanks so much to Jamie for her willingness to be vulnerable and transparent and invite each of us onto this journey of healing. Please join us for Dancing with Fear in Troubled Times.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner