I had a horrible post planned about defense mechanisms tonight. I wrote it this morning and all day I just had this ache inside of me that I was feeding you garbage if I hit the publish button this evening. I mentioned I’ve been struggling creatively lately and I wanted to just leave it alone and let inspiration hit me. At the same time, I like writing and I like that it has become a habit. I wanted to make sure I wrote a quality post tonight.
I left work and went to the gym hoping to find something creative to write about. I took a shower and cooked, both of which give me a way to passively think and allow myself an opportunity to explore what I want to say. Nothing hit me.
Just like always, life has a way of mystifying and serving me in a way I can only see as spiritual intervention. I sat on the couch and began watching TED talks on my Netflix. My sister had been watching them all night and I wanted in on the action, especially since I wasn’t really doing anything else worthwhile.
It would be unfair of me to not divulge that I had to hold back the mist from my eyes as I watched this talk. I had no idea what magnificence I was about to hear as I clicked the play button on Brené Brown’s talk. I didn’t even know she was a social worker, a mental health counselor’s (sometimes) friendly cousin. Life intervenes on us like that.
Shame & Guilt
Brené begins her talk with the basics on her studies in shame and guilt. Being no stranger to those feelings myself and now working with addicts every day, I thought her definition of shame was spot on.
The fear of disconnection; the awareness of excruciating vulnerability.
I remember speaking to one of my peers the other day about how I’ve never met a person in therapy (except those with personality disorders) who honestly liked themselves. I start most of my sessions with clients asking them about how they feel about themselves and if they feel they are worthy of love. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they don’t know. (Whoa, poetry, Batman!)
She went through all her research and looked at those who found refuge from shame and guilt and found that those who do not struggle chronically with this issue have a sense of worth. Those who have love and belonging have it because they believe they deserve it.
As she dug further, she went through a crisis I remember experiencing when I was in therapy and one that I only saw clearly in my path to being a mental health counselor.
Brown discovered that those who have worth are incredibly vulnerable. These people have a few common traits wrapped into their vulnerability:
- Courage – as Brown defines it, “The heart to tell your story.”
A fellow counselor once asked me why I went to therapy. They said, “Weren’t you scared? What pushed you?” Being completely honest, I was in so much emotional and existential pain, I needed relief. I’ve always been proud of myself for going to therapy, but I’ve never felt that what I did was monumental. I wanted relief from pain, end of story. I will tell you though that after unabashedly telling my story and finding my relief, I will never hesitate to tell my story again. I tell my story on this blog every day and I know it makes me vulnerable. I like this feeling. It means I’m alive. It means I’m connecting with others.
- Compassion – I’ve mentioned the need for self-compassion. We have to learn to be kind to ourselves. We have to believe we are worthy of kindness from ourselves before we can believe we deserve it from others.
- Connection – as Brown said, being able to “let go of who you think you should be,” because it’s what gives us our opportunity for connection. When we let go of our ideas about how we should appear, we become authentic and can truly connect without the limits of expectation.
When you have these traits, you view your vulnerability as something that makes you unique and beautiful.
For example, I was once ashamed of the fact that I’m a crier. I cry at commercials. I mist up sometimes when I’m telling an impassioned story (or writing a blog post see here and here, those were sob fests). I cry when I see puppies and I get wet eyes when my clients say something monumental for the first time. I used to feel it made me vulnerable and that people would see me as weak. I would run and hide in bathrooms. I would lose my cool trying to hold back my tears. Being afraid of crying made me more likely to cry.
As I’ve aged and grown in myself, I’ve accepted that I’m a crier. I know this because I know I’m incredibly emotional and it’s something I like about myself. My emotionality makes me a good counselor and a good human being because I know how to relate and I have empathy for my clients. I find the fact that I cry a peanut butter commercials and anything mildy emotional to be a beautiful quality I have. I find I don’t feel scared about crying now and I allow it to define who I am in a way I’m proud to show. I find when I cry now, it’s not in a bathroom, but into the arms of someone I love. That feels good.
People who are vulnerable are happy. They don’t view it as an excruciating task – they view it as something that is necessary to life. You have to continuously emote to receive love, which is a scary prospect to a lot of us. You have to understand that life is difficult and sometimes we get hurt, but it’s no excuse to not keep trying and giving. You have to be wholehearted.
I’ve had a lot of these thoughts swirling around in my head as a clinician since I started counseling others and seeing in them what I once was too afraid to see in myself. I never crystallized it and put it as beautifully as Brown did in her TED talk. I feel it was cosmic influence that I found someone who discovered and shared these truths.
Let’s be honest, I’m practically the poster child for therapy. I am still profoundly affected by my personal experiences with therapy. Some of it was because I had a great counselor and I was doing the first real, constructive work on myself in my lifetime. I believe most of it is because it was the first time I had allowed myself to be vulnerable because I believed it was necessary to my future happiness. I had spent roughly 21 years being terrified of trusting. I had lived in fear that I would be betrayed and that I would never find the love I wanted. I believed the horrible things I thought about myself because I was too afraid to believe the good things about myself and find out that they weren’t true.
I’m not done going through my experiences with wholeheartedness – I will be done when I die. I am so thankful I’ve had these experiences already and I get to spend almost everyday for the rest of my life helping others see vulnerability as a strength instead of another opportunity for an emotional wound. I encourage you all to begin your own paths to wholeheartedness in whatever way you feel necessary. Have the courage to tell your story.
Brené goes on to explain how our lack of vulnerability affects our lives – from religion, to obesity, to addiction, to politics. We are a society and a culture plagued by a lack of vulnerability. I will continue to do my damnedest to change this daily and I hope we all change the situation for ourselves and our friends over the next few years. Let’s all be a little more vulnerable, mmm’kay?