Being vulnerable sucks. There are few instances I can think of where putting myself out there, exposing my needs or weaknesses or fears to someone else, did not make me want to run the opposite way or forget I had any of the feelings in the first place. That big important thing I wanted to talk to you about? Never mind.
I am not often what Brené Brown refers to as a person who is whole-hearted, though I’m not in the minority, either. The whole-hearted are those with the courage to be imperfect, to be kind to themselves first, to invest in relationships with uncertain outcomes, to say “I love you” first. Those who fully embrace vulnerability.
Brené Brown’s TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability came to me on a particularly bad day last fall — I was at the beginning of my second year in a career I strongly disliked and my short-lived romantic relationships had completely fizzled out just in time for the holidays. An anonymous follower on Tumblr sent it to me with a note saying, “You might like this…” We all know what that ellipses means: Wow, girl, you’re in rough shape. Apparently, my blog posts about more-or-less never dating again were not as strong and fearless as I had imagined them to be.
Every few months, I watch the talk again to remember how I want to treat myself and how I want to lead my life. Brown is incredibly funny and – don’t worry – pretty uncomfortable with being vulnerable, herself.
A few lessons I came away with:
1. We are neurobiologically wired for connection. It’s science. Shame unravels connection, and shame is, simply, the fear of disconnection. The fear that something about us, our weight, our beauty, our money, our baggage, whatever, will make us unworthy of connection.
2. What underpins shame is excruciating vulnerability–that, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen. Enter terrible vulnerability feelings. Enter feelings of not being enough. Enter the desire to numb it all. Enter “leaning into the discomfort.”
3. Emotions cannot be selectively numbed. You cannot deaden negative emotions without deadening the rest. When you numb the bad, you also numb the good like joy, happiness, and gratitude. You become miserable, and, as Brown puts it, “have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin” to deal.
4. It’s better to believe you are enough than to hide behind all of the ways you feel you are not. Being vulnerable leaves you open to negative emotion, but, more importantly, allows you to experience positive ones.
5. Our children are not perfect, nor should they be. This is the part of Brown’s talk that I keep in my journal because it is as much a guideline for how we should treat our children as it for how we should treat ourselves: “They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems I think that we see today.”
6. When we let ourselves be vulnerably seen, and allow the risk of experiencing all of our emotions, we begin to recognize that being vulnerable means we are alive. When we live from this whole-hearted, vulnerability-accepting place that recognizes we are enough as we are, we are kinder and gentler to ourselves and the people around us.
After watching Brown’s talk, I spent a year being single and learning to more fully love myself. I took this time to embrace the parts of me I had always seen as negative — my sensitivity, my so-called baggage from bad relationships, the fact that I sometimes stay in pajamas for two full days, my super-weird food allergies — by learning to see these as parts of my life that I did not need to explain away.
And, just about a year after I first watched Brown’s TedTalk, I left the career that made me miserable. I can speak from personal experience when I say that the last year and a half of attempting to live my life whole-heartedly has been better than any of my half-hearted living before it. I hope the next time you feel ready to ask for a raise or afraid to tell your partner how you’re feeling, you consider what it truly means to be vulnerable.