On Being Vulnerable and Connecting

Recently, a coworker of mine shared the following video with me and I think everyone should watch it:

The speaker, Dr. Brené Brown, gave a keynote at the management conference at my work today.

It reminded me of some conversations I’ve had with a few friends recently. As you may notice from my blog, I talk about just about anything1. When I do something stupid or absentminded or just plain silly, my first thought is usually: “Hilarious! I HAVE to blog that!” But I know that for a lot of people, looking stupid or absentminded or just plain silly is a terrifying prospect2. People might realize that you aren’t perfect! And, honestly, I wasn’t always so cavalier about this. I used to be much more of a perfectionist AND much more concerned what other people thought of me. I’ve been trying to pinpoint how I made this change and after talking about this with a few friends and thinking about it, there are a few things that I think played a part in it.

1. Going through a divorce. When my marriage fell apart due to my ex-husband’s infidelity3, I was a mess. At first, I didn’t tell anyone. Thoughts like “Everyone will think I’m a failure” and “Everyone will think this is my fault” and – even worse – “Everyone will think I deserved this” were prominent. It was horrible to feel that way and horrible to be so isolated from my friends and family. I felt very disconnected and alone. But I was paralyzed by the thought that people I cared about would think poorly of me and would see me as a failure4. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. After working with an amazing counsellor – who I was willing to talk to about my experience, my feelings, and my fears because she was contractually obligated to not tell *anyone* – I took the step of telling a friend of mine what I was going through. And, of course, she didn’t think poorly of me at all. She was unequivocally supportive and caring. So then I told another friend and got the same reaction. And then I told my sister and she was amazingly supportive too. Bolstered by the support, I was able to “come out” as separated. Through all of this, I learned that (a) I have friends and family who are more amazing that I’d ever known, (b) sometimes you need an outside perspective to help you see clearly, and (c) when you open up to being vulnerable and tell people things that you fear might cause them to reject you, they often open up to you too and your shared experiences and fears and love will bring you closer to them than before5. And this is exactly what Brené Brown is talking about – the only way to really connect with others is to open yourself up to being rejected. And, in some cases, you will be rejected. It isn’t always pie in the sky. But in those cases, you learn who your real friends are and who aren’t real friends.

2. Long time readers may remember when I was reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Well, there was a line in that book that really struck me when I read it and has stuck with me since then: “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” While we are all sitting around worrying what other people think of us, they are too busy sitting around worrying about what *we* think of them to be thinking all that much about us! I learned a long, long time ago that you can never make everyone else happy – it’s a fool’s errand and you’ll just be miserable if you try. Of course, it’s easy to say that, but much more difficult to actually feel it and act accordingly. But once you do, it’s very liberating. It means you don’t spend all of your time worrying about what will make other people happy with you and instead start thinking about – and acting on – what will make *you* happy with yourself. You are the one who has to live your life, so you should really do the things that you want to do with it, rather than what other people think you should do with it.

The offshoot of this is that when you are able to go through your fear of failing6, you get to do some awesome things! When I signed up to play hockey for 10 days straight, was I afraid that I might not make it? In the weeks leading up to the game, was I terrified that I made the wrong decision? You bet your ass I was! But I took a deep breath and did it anyways. And, in the end, I was one of the best experiences of my entire life.

A few of the other key things I took away from Dr. Brown’s keynote today7:

  • Motivation is about what we know/trying to get people to do things – and it’s hard to keep motivating people – that takes a lot of energy
  • Inspiration is about being. It’s about being someone that others would want to be like.
  • When we are opening ourselves up and being vulnerable, oftentimes what others see is a not a person being vulnerable, but a person being courageous to put themselves out there
  • We often squander our moments of joy by thinking “This is too good. When is the other shoe going to drop?” (Like when you look at your beautiful sleeping baby and then think about all the horrible things that could happen to them). This is because we feel vulnerable and we think the only thing worse than having a bad thing happen is being blindsided by that bad thing. So we try to beat vulnerability to the punch.
  • Research shows that those who are leading a joyful life actively practice gratitude. Having an “attitude of gratitude” is not enough. You can’t just expect to have a “yoga attitude” – that doesn’t mean jack on the mat. You have to practice yoga to be good at yoga, and you have to practice gratitude to make it work.
  • Guilt = feeling bad about what you did (e.g., “I made a bad choice” or  “I made a mistake” )
  • Shame = feeling bad about who you are (e.g., “I am a bad person” or “I AM a mistake.”)
  • People tend to be either prone to feelings of shame or prone to feelings of guilt when situations are bad (though you can’t measure this reliably in kids before about grade 4). Those who are shame-prone are more likely to not finish high school, to engage in risky substance use & sex, to be depressed, to commit suicide.
  • The best predictor of if a child will be shame-prone or guilt-prone is parenting. E.g., parents telling their kids, “You are a bad kid,” “You are stupid,” etc. leads to shame-proneness, while “You made a bad choice” leads to guilt-proneness (and yes, while guilt-proneness sounds bad, it’s actually the better way to be!)
  • We can’t give our kids something that we don’t have. It’s very hard to get your kid to believe that they are worthy when you demonstrate that you don’t feel you yourself are worthy.
  • Shame requires secrecy, silence and judgement to grow. Everyone experiences shame sometime (the only ones who don’t are sociopaths), but shame-resilient people name shame. They talk about it and shame can’t hold on when you get empathy from others.
  • The number one barrier to belonging is, funnily enough, trying to fit in. If you show up in a group trying to fit in (which usually means acting like someone you are not), if it doesn’t work out, you’ve failed at fitting in (and, really, if it does work out and you fit in, now you have to pretend to be someone you are not to continue to fit in); if you show up as your authentic self in a group and it doesn’t work out, you still succeeded because your goal was just to be you.
  • If you can honestly say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks,” then you’ve lost your capacity to connect (again, only sociopaths really don’t care what anyone else thinks.) But if you are defined what everyone else thinks (or care about it too much), you won’t be your authentic self and then you won’t be able to connect either.
    • Think about the people whose opinion of you truly, truly matters. The list shouldn’t be very long. You should really be clear about who is on that list. And then don’t steamroll over these people, who really matter, to try to impress or please other people.
  • “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the jackass whisperer.” Stratton (in the book “Unmarketing”)
  • The three most contagious affects are: anxiety, shame and calmness.
  • People react in one of two ways in response to anxiety: overfunctioning (i.e., kick into series getting-shit-done mode) or underfunctioning (i.e., can’t do anything). When Dr. Brown first described these two, I thought, “I don’t do either of those things when I’m anxious.” And then she said, “For overfunctioners, it’s easier to do than to feel.” And then I immediately wrote down: “I’m totally an overfunctioner.” I think I respond to anxiety by overfunctioning both because it allows me to feel like I can have some control in a situation that’s out of control and because it allows me to numb out of my feelings because I can get lost in my work.
  • In a stressful situation, calm people: (1) breath. Seriously, they take a few deep breaths before they react. (2) ask a lot of questions. They don’t just start reacting, but rather try to sort out the information they have/the sources of that information/the accuracy of it, etc. (3) They ask, “Do I have enough information to freak out about this?” (usually the answer is “no”) and, if yes, (4) They ask,”Will freaking out be helpful in this situation?”8
And now, in the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to write out a gratitude list related to this post:
  • I’m grateful that I work for an organization that brought Dr. Brené Brown in to talk to us about this really challenging, but really thought-provoking and useful stuff.
  • I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work through some hard times and come out the other side knowing myself better and with some skills to deal with challenges and anxiety. For this, I’m extremely grateful for the amazing counsellor that I worked with and my amazingly supportive friends and family.
  • I’m grateful to have a blog where I can write about not only the silly things I write about, but also about things that matter to me. And I’m grateful to have a little community of friends (whether I’ve met you in real life or not) here that I can connect with through my writing and then your writing comments and then our shared dialogue (and sometimes that dialogue even gets taken offline!)
  1. And, while there are some things that I don’t blog about (things that it just might not be prudent to put on the record), if you know me in person, I’ll generally tell you those things too. []
  2. Dr. Brown’s talk went into more serious stuff – not just funny, embarrassing stuff, but stuff where you feel like you *are* an idiot or a bad person. See the stuff about “shame” later in this posting for more on that []
  3. Gawd, just writing that out for the world to see makes me feel *really* vulnerable! []
  4. Which is kind of ironic, because it was my fear of being rejected by people I cared about that lead me to isolate myself from those same people I cared about! []
  5. And, in many cases, they are relieved that they can tell you something that they’ve wanted to share with someone too, but have also been afraid to talk about. []
  6. The definition of courage isn’t “not being afraid,” but rather “feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” right? []
  7. Some of which I already knew but were good reminders []
  8. Note that this is very similar to the Serenity Prayer. And honestly, even though I’m an atheist, I’ve adopted the sentiment of the Serenity Prayer in recent years and my life is immensely better for it. []

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