By Ciel Patenaude –
“Life is the flower for which love is the honey,” wrote the besotted French poet Victor Hugo in the late 1800s. “Where there is love there is life,” said the social activist Ghandi, apparently no less moved by the power of love in the 20th century. And even our recently departed brilliant prince of the wonderfully weird, David Bowie, vocalized his beliefs on the big L more recently, singing “The greatest thing you will ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return.”
We love love. As human beings we are seemingly unable to resist the drive and desire for love, the want for connection that transcends and enlightens our everyday experiences and takes us, hopefully, into the realm of the sublime: the world of myths and gods and Disney, of soul mates and never-ending romances.
But while our natural affinity for love and to love is undeniable, it would appear (from statistical evidence reflecting the state of relationships, individual emotional instability, and divorce rates in our culture) that we are not particularly ‘good’ at love, as harsh as that might sound. Is it, perhaps, our desire for Disney princess perfection or the sublime of the soul mate connection that is causing this, resulting in our inability to experience love as anything less than ideal?
Brene Brown, a social researcher and professor at the University of Huston, suggests the root of our inability to live well with love may actually stem from one specific core emotion: shame.
And what is shame, exactly? Shame is the core sense that something about us is unlovable and flawed. It is the cutting off, discrediting, and devaluing of pieces of ourselves, forcing us to try to become someone we are not, who we believe will be more appealing to others. Shame corrodes our confidence, and causes us to hide and shrink from the world or to consume ourselves with overworking and overcompensation so as to go beyond those parts of ourselves that are supposedly unlovable.
We all have shame, but of varying levels and kinds. We can have ‘healthy’ shame, which is a good thing – that which is expressed when we do something ridiculous and reflect on our poor judgment after – but we can also have ‘toxic’ shame. Toxic shame is said to stem from our childhood experiences (the complexities and occurrences of which are far too grand in scope to go into here) and, according to psychologist Sylvan Tomkins, developed in moments when we sought positive reinforcement for something we did or were doing but received anger, judgement, or a lack of attention entirely instead, causing us to think that something about us was basically wrong and unlovable.
…That time when we were three and drew fantastic art on the wall, but got far less than congratulations for our work, for example …
From a place of shame we attempt to ‘create’ our lives as something we think will be approved of just as we create our self image, and this includes our relationships. We seek a partner, sadly, that fills the holes in our sense of self—someone who allows us, however temporarily, to not see or feel those places of pain and self doubt, either by their supposed perfection or how perfect our lives seem in that moment with them. On paper surely we can all see how futile this practice is, and yet in a society that is so heavily focused on external images and living up to standards of the moment, and so often lacking in support for self awareness and practices of whole-person healing, our habits reoccur: we want something or someone to help us with this pain inside, left, as we are, without understanding how to deal with it.
But shame can be attended to and moved beyond, and in the space that occurs in the absence of all that self judgement we allow ourselves to be seen and vulnerable, and this (according to Brown) is the place where real love exists.
None of us are perfect; we are all wounded. And yet, perhaps it is this very woundedness where love begins, and where we are truly able to connect to another person beyond the expectations of our egos or the increasingly insane demands of our society. Perhaps all the beauty and possibility of love lays in the vulnerability of exposing our shame, of naming the pains we carry and showing the cracks in our self image to those around us, freeing them to do the same. As Leonard Cohen once wrote, perhaps we must “forget [our] perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
In the flight of Cupid’s arrow this February 14, may we think of love this way: as the path of increasing vulnerability and courage in the face of the shame we each carry, and the willingness to let ourselves be seen, just as we are, and trust that we are all the more loveable for the wounds we carry.
Ciel Patenaude is an integrative health & shamanic practitioner based in Williams Lake, BC. A highly trained and naturally gifted intuitive healer, Ciel holds a BSc in Biology, an MA in Integrative Healing, and is a certified yoga teacher & wellness coach.