I think one of the hardest things about trying to live wholeheartedly is what I sometimes call ‘condescending concern’. Since being all-in requires that we be vulnerable, it is sometimes the case that people who attach a certain value to shame as a corrective social tool see that vulnerability as weakness of heart or psychological defect. I’ve had extensive discussions with people who value shame as a corrective tool or behavioral deterrent. And I always put forth the following as part of my response: just because something is expeditious and effective does not make it the correct or humane tool, nor does it speak at all to the consequences of its use.
Shame does, in fact, modify behavior quickly and cleanly. It has the added benefit that the shaming party experiences a very particular kind of sadistic thrill that often accompanies assured perceived moral superiority. However, shame is also operant in some pretty insidious and intractable social conditions — you know, like addiction, eating disorders, personality disorders, and violent behavior. If you’re interested in the research behind the connection between shame and dysfunctional or maladaptive behavior, I’d highly recommend Brene Brown’s work in The Gift of Imperfection as further reading material.
Condescending Concern is one example of how people who value shame allow shaming behavior to operate as a mechanism of control, manipulation, and micromanagement, but get away with doing so by couching it in terms that read as caring-based. Here is an example:
Person A states a boundary about a behavior he or she finds hurtful. This requires a great deal of vulnerability and courage, as the transgressor need not respect that boundary or its statement, may react with hostility or anger, etc. Taking the risk of putting your needs out there with uncertain outcomes is a whole-hearted act.
Person B responds with condescending concern. “I’m worried about you that this bothers you so much. Have you spoken to your therapist about it?” or, “I’m concerned. This sounds so unlike you. What’s really going on here?” or, “I’m deeply worried about your ability to be my equal in this relationship. I would never place such a boundary with you.”
In each of these cases, Person B’s response calls into question Person A’s capacity to accurately identify, communicate, and make decisions about the kinds of feelings belonging to Person A, and the degree to which those feelings are deemed normal, healthy, and appropriate. By doing so, Person B injects an element of power exchange into the dialogue that allows the stated boundary to be sidestepped or trivialized. By reinforcing our dominant cultural narrative that having needs or limits is a sign of a flacid will, weak character, or personal failure, Person A is set up perfectly for the kind of sabotage that would benefit Person B, the boundary transgressor: Shame is that sabotage, because shame is a force that promotes unworthiness, disconnection, and inauthenticity.
What isn’t being acknowledged aloud in the conversation above is that Person B is at least somewhat aware that what he or she is saying is dishonest. If the boundary were actually unreasonable, Person B could simply say, “I regret that I won’t abide by that boundary, it requires too much of me (or whatever).” By defaulting to condescending concern, Person B tacitly acknowledges that the boundary is reasonable, and he or she has very little cause to violate said boundary, except that Person B would prefer to do otherwise. By trying to distract from the boundary itself, and shame Person A into backpedaling, Person B wriggles out of the internal strife of having to say, aloud, “Your boundary is a reasonable one, but I still prefer to act as I’ve been acting, even if it hurts you.” Because very few people are comfortable being That Guy (perhaps rightfully so). Rather than saying, “there is a lack of compatibility here, and perhaps we should figure out what we want to do about that,” (which could mean sacrificing the relationship), Person B is trying to shift focus away from changing his or her own behavior, and superficially towards the health and well-being of Person A, undermining Person A’s ability to confidently self-determine, show up, be seen, and engage authentically.
Part of being wholehearted and getting comfortable with vulnerability requires that I sever any attachments I might have to particular outcomes. I might fall in love with someone who will leave me. I might give birth to a child that dies. I might befriend someone who betrays me. But I might equally fall in love with someone who finds me to be a passionate source of joy and inspiration, give birth to a child who is resilient, healthy, and imaginative, or befriend someone who challenges me to continue reaching for my best self, even in the face of failure. Wholeheartedness means greeting the world with openness and curiosity, rather than expectations. Authenticity means showing up and saying, “Here is who I am, and who I aspire to be. That person is imperfect, but I have sweat blood to become her, and I will not abandon her merely to fit in or meet expectations.”
Because here’s the thing. Loving yourself means knowing that you’re not just here to meet expectations and fit in. Truly belonging and connecting deeply requires that you allow yourself to be extraordinary. That means the triumphs and the short-comings are all part of the deal, and that your worthiness is not a function of the accolades or jeers of others. And protip: People who are also wholehearted are approaching you with the same curiosity and openness, and as such, operate from a place of abundance rather than scarcity! That means they’re far less likely to judge, project, or shame you than you realize.
As I try to generate ways to redirect condescending concern (and responses like it), I am left with things like, “Being hurt by hurtful behavior is not a sign of weakness, but of honesty. Please address my boundary, and I assure you I will take care of my well-being.” or, “I understand this is an uncomfortable conversation, but please focus on what I am actually saying, rather than how you view my feelings.” or, “I’m actually fine, but I do need this boundary addressed and respected.”
I have more to think about, but coming up with ways to redirect people who try to distract me from my own trajectory and worth feels productive and worthwhile!