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Vulnerability, Shame, Courage, and Connection

Updated: May 26, 2021


Meghan Wenzel, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Sometimes our feeling of vulnerability arises from a sense of shame. Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer (2018) in the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, talk about shame, saying that “Shame feels blameworthy, but it is an innocent emotion. Shame feels lonely and isolating, but it is a universal emotion. Shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is a transitory emotional state that only correspondents to part of who we are.” (p.121). As they state, “One of the reasons shame is so intense, is that it feels like our whole survival is at stake.” (p. 121).

Shame and vulnerability – certainly inter-related. If any of the students in your classroom has experienced abuse or neglect, they have likely felt these emotions. Similarly, some of our most aggressive students often act out of a sense of fear and shame. In fact, most everyone has had moments of shame. The feeling can be overwhelming. It is as if we want to hide – put on a mask – fearing that no one will like or love us if they really knew more about us.  Certainly, we have reasons to believe that if we only camouflage or disguise our flaws, perhaps we can squeak by.

Yet, how can we be fully authentic when we are hiding from ourselves? How can we take the journeys we are meant to experience, if we are hiding or suppressing a part of ourselves?  What can be done?


Self-compassion is a huge part of what we need. Neff and Germer in their workbook include dozens of exercises that can help us become more self-compassionate. Many of these exercises address ways to increase our mindfulness through breath, increasing our sensory awareness, and allowing ourselves to truly experience the moment. For example, they present exercises for walking mindfully, feeling the soles of our feet touch the ground. They also ask us to find and acknowledge our “critical voice.” These simple exercises can help open up parts of our experiences that we have shut out. Their message and solutions share much in common with Brené Brown’s description of vulnerability.


To reduce our sense of vulnerability will take courage. Courage: We must be brave enough to be vulnerable and share our failures. We can rebrand failure or shame as an integral part of the learning process. As Brené Brown helps us to acknowledge, only when we share our weaknesses are we able to live unencumbered and open ourselves up to success, love, and acceptance. Here are some steps to take in your classrooms:

Celebrate risk taking, failures, and vulnerabilities (Curwin, 2014).

  1. Have biweekly class meetings where students share a mistake they made, what happened after, and what they learned from it.

  2. Have an area in the classroom where students can brag about their biggest mistakes and what they learned from them.

  3. Incorporate the Socratic method by encouraging thoughtfulness, curiosity, and questioning:

  4. When a student makes a mistake in a class discussion, don’t say things like, “No, wrong, can anyone help him?” Don’t just call on someone else without further comment. Instead, ask the student, “Why do you think so? Can you give an example? If you could ask yourself a question about your answer, what would it be?”

  5. Provide a safe and supportive environment that allows students to take risks:

  6. Award a Risk-taker of the Month to a principal, administrator, or teacher who took a risk, did not have things go as expected, and learned from it.

  7. Rethink incentives/disincentives around risk-taking and allow for more experimentation.

Teach students how to learn from mistakes.

  1. Share some videos about how “learning from failure can be a key to success” (Borovoy, 2015).

  2. Teach students to work through what makes an answer right or wrong:

  3. Work through common mistakes students made on a test together to analyze what went wrong and how they can correct it

  4. Discuss the value in failing quickly (Giles, 2018):

  5. Teach students that failing is a part of life.

  6. There is value in identifying issues early on and addressing them early before they become too disruptive or entrenched.

Embrace uncertainty and encourage discourse and grappling with tough issues (Flanagan, 2015).

  1. Adopt a non-authoritarian teaching style to encourage exploration, challenge and revision:

  2. Encourage students to question things, and remember that you do not need to have all of the answers, just be open and honest about it.

  3. Present students with tough topics, grapple with them together, and spark curiosity with uncertainty:

  4. Teach students that things are not always easily resolved and complete.

  5. Show how the process of discovery is often messy and non-linear:

  6. Inventions and discoveries are often mistakes, coincidences, or the result of lots of hard work and iteration.

  7. Teach students about design thinking and how it’s a great method to use to tackle tough problems (Alrubail, 2015).


Thankfully, we do not need to do this work in isolation. We live in communities. Schools provide a natural community that can strengthen our connection. Connection: We expand our sense of belonging and our lives when we accept our vulnerabilities and share our authentic, imperfect selves with the world. Only once we show compassion towards ourselves to accept our vulnerabilities and show courage and willingness to share our full selves are we able to form deep and rewarding connections with others. Here are some classroom strategies:

Focus on building relationships and a sense of belonging to create a supportive and healthy community.

  1. Write introduction letters to each other (Connell, 2016):

  2. Write a welcome letter to your students and share some personal information about yourself – your talents, fears, weaknesses, dreams, etc.

  3. Then ask your students to write you a letter in return with their talents, fears, weaknesses, dreams, etc.

  4. Promote openness and emphasize mutual respect (Ministry of Education, Guyana, 2017).

  5. Establish clear expectations from the start.

  6. Create a code of conduct (ideally collaboratively) and post it prominently.

  7. Model respectful behavior at all times.

  8. Keep a calm, welcoming demeanor.

  9. Role play situations in which students need help showing respect.

  10. Provide students with consistency, enforce rules fairly, without favoritism, and enforce consequences as warranted.

  11. Whenever you must penalize a student, do so privately. Calmly explain the reason and end on a positive note. For example, “When you chose to interrupt the class, you knew the consequence. I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow in class.”

Talk to students about how our actions and choices affect others (Speech and Language Kids, 2016).

  1. Practice empathy and thinking through actions and outcomes as well as identifying and resolving emotions.

  2. Discuss motives and analyzing a situation and the various actors.

Replace suspensions with in-school engagement sessions.

  1. Allow students to work on homework or some other productive exercise.

  2. Remind students that they will always be part of the community and while they may have made a bad decision, they are not bad students or people.

Rethinking Vulnerabilities

Brown encourages everyone to rethink vulnerabilities. Instead of viewing our vulnerabilities as blemishes to conceal from the world, we benefit from embracing them and practicing self-love. Once we accept ourselves, we can build up courage to join the conversation and share our vulnerabilities and failures and start to learn from them. Once we are honest with ourselves and willing to share our full identities, we can begin to form deeper, more honest relationships and connect with others on a whole different level. Schools are critical places to teach students the skills and strategies they need to embrace, share, and rebrand vulnerabilities in order to live more rewarding and accomplished lives.


Alrubail, R. (2015). Teaching empathy through design thinking. Edutopia.

Borovoy, A. (2015). 5-minute film festival: Freedom to fall forward. Edutopia.

Brown, B. (2012).  Daring Greatly. New York: Avery Publishers

Giles, S. (2018). How to fail faster – and why you should. Forbes.

Ministry of Education, Guyana. (2017). How to achieve mutual respect in the classroom.

Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Thornton, M. (2015). Creating space for risk. Edutopia.

Editors Note: Obviously we think highly of Edutopia- what a wonderful resource for teachers and schools!


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