Some truths create more questions than answers. I thought this would be a quick post about my reaction to a TED video featuring Dr. Brene Brown and her views on expanding perceptions and how it relates to our ability to connect. Instead this post has become a self-examination of my own personal answers to the questions sparked by her discussion.
Just as Penelope Trunk weaves mesmerizing blog entries, Dr. Brown’s oral stories describe the intriguing concept of “Wholeheartedness”. A finding that, according to her, has changed the way she works, lives and parents. It poses the question of how we cultivate the compassion, connection and courage needed to embrace our imperfections and to recognize we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging and joy. The first two minutes of this video was enough to let me know I was in for an uncomfortable growth experience.
During Dr. Brown’s research, it became apparent that a common trait shared amongst the subjects with deep personal connections was “Courage”. This word was originally defined as “to tell who you are with your whole heart”. The research subjects who displayed courageous behavior also conveyed the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others. A willingness to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were. And the ability to fully embrace their vulnerability.
The courageous believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful. These people are willing to say I love you first and risk rejection. They believe vulnerability is necessary and fundamental.
Dr. Brown refers to these people as the Wholehearted.
I’ve always thought of myself as courageous. Willing to say what others would not. Willing to take a chance and express gratitude or generosity with no expectation of return. But despite all that, something became very apparent as I listened to the video.
I have a problem with vulnerability.
This affects my ability to develop deep and meaningful connections with people. At the root of my limitation in creating deep connections is shame. It’s rooted in the lack of control early in life. The inability as a child to make my mother’s life easier. The powerlessness of not being able to keep my brothers and I together after my mom became ill. The loss of my mom to a tragic accident once I left home for college. And finally, what felt like the ultimate betrayal by own body when I was diagnosed with cancer twice before the age of 30.
After dealing with so many challenges in life, it’s not easy to convince myself to be vulnerable. So instead, I’m generous, patient and friendly. Typically women are the ones seen as motherly and possessing the comforting shoulder to cry on. This is not the case for me. I freeze up when I see tears. The day after Christmas, I was returning gifts to a department store and not far from the entrance was a man crying as if his heart was broken. It was a loud, heart rending cry. Although, there was great pain, there also seemed to be a great freedom in expressing his obvious grief. On some level, he created a connection with those around him. A connection based on despair and discomfort but it was a connection just the same. I can only hope he found release in the tears and is better today.
My difficulty establishing connections is why I enjoy connecting others. One of the most rewarding aspects of what I do with this blog and day-to-day business is to connect people who I think can benefit each other. People who I believe will truly connect and perhaps create a meaningful relationship. This is my gift. And perhaps my apology.
According to Dr. Brown, we cope with the shame of vulnerability in several ways:
- We make everything uncertain, certain. Religion which is generally based on faith has become certain. “I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up.” When we’re vulnerable, we’re afraid and when we’re afraid we’re angry.
- We numb it. This is the most common coping mechanism in dealing with shame. And it includes more than just addictions. The problem is that we can’t selectively numb emotions. When we numb vulnerability, we numb happiness, joy and ultimately we feel vulnerable again.
- We perfect. The unprecedented rise in plastic surgery is no coincidence. So many of us are turning to plastic surgery, anorexia, rigid life planning and self denial to fix our perceived flaws. We rush to fix our perceived flaws without truly examining them.
- We pretend that our actions do not affect others. Whether it’s treating someone rudely, being selfish or simply ignoring other’s needs.
There is a way around this.
- Let ourselves be deeply, truly and vulnerably seen.
- Love with our whole hearts.
- Practice gratitude and joy in moments of fear and uncertainty.
- Believe that we are enough.
In the words of Dr. Brown, “when we work from a place of being enough, we stop screaming and start listening to those around us. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us and kinder and gentler to ourselves.
Dr. Brene Brown is a Shame and Empathy researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She’s also the author of “I thought it was just me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame”.