Last week a friend shared with me two Ted Talks by author and social work professor, Dr. Brené Brown, dealing with the uncomfortably, touchy-feely subjects of shame and vulnerability. As Prof. Brown eloquently points out in her first talk on ‘The power of vulnerability,’ these are the last two topics that people want to talk about. Typically when one brings up shame and vulnerability people shut down and become closed. They disconnect. Ironically, in her research she found that shame and vulnerability are in fact the two “elephants in the room” that people most need to talk about when confronting many of the intractable problems in society today, such as racism and white privilege, among others.
On top of that Dr. Brown revealed another bombshell finding from her research. Her studies have shown that shame and vulnerability are at the root of authenticity. As she went on to explain, being authentic means having ‘courage.’ Interestingly, ‘courage’ comes from the Latin word ‘cor’ meaning ‘heart.’ In fact, the original definition of ‘courage’ in the English language was ‘to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.‘ This insight triggered me to reflect more deeply on my own recent struggles with shame and vulnerability.
In the past year I have been forced to confront my own shame and vulnerability. Last September I published my memoir Walking in Footsteps of Promise in which I shared many very intimate details about my life, including my biggest secret of all. Something that I had kept bottled up inside of me for almost 25 years. However, in order to share my story I realized that I needed to “lower my shields” and tell people who I am with my whole heart. To get to that point I had to endure many sleepless nights in which I agonized over whether I could bring myself to expose my darkest secret to the world. I feared most of all the loss of connection with people around me. What would my friends, colleagues and students think of me if they found out about my secret? Would I become unworthy of their respect and love?
Deep down inside I knew that if I wanted to tell my story earnestly I would have to share completely. I would have to be vulnerable and put myself ‘out there.’ Otherwise my story would fall flat on it’s face. It would be inauthentic to conveniently leave out the most impactful event of my life just to save face and preserve my pride. However, it was not easy to let go of this feeling of shame and to allow myself to be vulnerable. It was one of the hardest things I have done in my life.
So when I finally hit the publish button for my memoir I held my breath and internally freaked the hell out. It was a surreal feeling of having both a weight lifted off my shoulders after fifteen years and at the same time wanting to panic as if I had just hit the self destruct button on my life. It was nightmarish yet also refreshingly liberating. After that I realized, with my secret out in the public domain, I did not have anything to hide from people. I was free to be open and to connect with others around me. I had room to be my authentic self for the first time in over 25 years!
Yet I know I still have a long way to go to reach my goal of living a rigorously authentic life. It is a marathon not a sprint. So step by step I am conquering and reconquering my shame, which in turn allows me to keep pushing the boundaries of my vulnerability farther and farther out. I am building the courage to always tell my story with my whole heart.
Let me know what you think about shame, vulnerability, and authenticity in the comments below. Thanks!