As soon as Brené Brown started talking about shame, she had my attention. I had been told that Brown was talking about vulnerability and connection to others, but to get there, she started in a much uglier place — one I could identify with.
Brown is a researcher in social work at the University of Houston. In a 20-minute TED talk she gave a few years ago, she talked about her research into love and human connection — and those things inevitably lead to vulnerability, authenticity and (for some of us) shame.
I had been told that her talk was about human connection — and how her work had convinced her that’s why we’re living this life — so I was curious what she had to say about it. It was easy to see it as interesting academic research when I first heard about it. What I got from listening was far more than academic. (I’ve embedded Brown’s TED talk at the bottom of this article, and I hope you’ll take the time to listen to her.)
Brown said her research showed that shame and fear are the things that keep connections from happening. We don’t connect when we feel shame about ourselves — and we’re afraid that others won’t see us as good enough if they see who we really are. That’s the part where she really had my attention.
I grew up in a family where shame was a common thing. I grew up feeling as though I could never be good enough. No matter what I did, I didn’t feel as though I was loved and accepted for who I was. There was always another hoop to jump through — emotionally — in order to be “good enough.” And I could never jump through enough hoops. My father would swear today that I imagined it all, but both of my sisters grew up feeling the same way. We’ve carried it into our adult lives and it’s reflected itself in different negative ways for all three of us.
It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that I really started getting serious about dealing with childhood issues. I’ve found them to be very much like Russian nested dolls. Each one you open just seems to lead to something else hidden underneath. Every time I thought I’d finally gotten to the root, I’d break through another layer and find another nested problem underneath.
I thought I had dug deeply enough to at least know where all the demons were hiding, even if I didn’t have them all under control. But five years ago, I made some bad decisions that lost the one person I most wanted and needed. I couldn’t figure out why I’d done the things I’d done, so I started digging again — only to find an ugly core of shame that I’d never quite made it to in my years of digging.
If you feel shame — and fear that you aren’t good enough — it’s very difficult to be truly vulnerable. But if you’re going to have relationships of any substance — especially romantic relationships — you have to be vulnerable if you want anything of value. What I figured out is that I had learned to fake vulnerability and intimacy. It wasn’t intentional, but part of me was so afraid to be seen — for fear of not being good enough — that I learned to project a fake vulnerability that was an interesting mix of emotional truth and fiction.
Brown said that people who are what she calls “whole hearted” in their connections aren’t like this. They believe they’re worthy of being loved. She said that the people who make healthy connections have the courage to be imperfect.
“And the last is, they had connection — this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity,” Brown said. “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which is — you have to — to absolutely do that for connection.”
For years, I wasn’t willing to let people see my imperfection except in very controlled ways. And I wasn’t willing to let go of what I thought I was supposed to be — for other people — in order to be myself. I had completely set myself up for failure.
For Brown, her work in this field and her realizations about what was required to connect with others led to a breakdown. That’s what she calls it. She said her therapist called it “spiritual growth.” She realized that she had a serious problem with allowing herself to be vulnerable. Everything in her research was showing her that she was living in ways that were keeping her from having healthy connections with others.
For those of us who have faced these fears, we’ve learned to numb our feelings, even if we don’t know what we’re doing. Some people use drugs or alcohol. Others use sex or gambling or some other addiction. For me, it was food. We use some addiction to “self-medicate,” because it numbs our emotions.
“The problem is — and I learned this from the research — is that you cannot selectively numb emotion,” Brown said. “You cannot say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel those things.'”
So when we numb ourselves to the bad things, we numb ourselves to much of the good things we want to feel, and we close ourselves tightly to avoid being vulnerable. She said we need to ask ourselves why we’re numbing ourselves and we have to learn to be vulnerable. Beyond that, we have to learn that we’re good enough — as the people we are inside — just as we are, even if we have to do a lot of repair work to tear down the walls and landmines that’s we’ve built to keep people away from our hearts.
“And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough,” Brown said. “Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says ‘I’m enough,’ then we stop screaming and start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
We’ve all faced relationships that didn’t work for one reason or another. Some people are in relationships that never should have started and they know they have to end. Some people are alone because they’ve isolated themselves emotionally and they’re afraid to let something emotionally healthy into their lives. We all have different stories. But many of us are alone because we’ve been afraid to be vulnerable and authentic about who we are. What does that have to do with love?
Brown said that people who had the courage to be themselves — to be imperfect and vulnerable and all those things that scare some of us — were willing to do things that scared people won’t do.
“[The ones who made healthy connections] talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you,’ first,” she said. “[They talked about] the winningness to do something where there was no guarantee.”
There are no guarantees when it comes to love. There are no guarantees that you’re not going to be hurt when you let yourself be vulnerable. But you can be sure that if you don’t allow yourself to really feel your emotions and deal with the hurts and allow yourself to be vulnerable and authentic, there’s a guarantee that you won’t find real connection with another person. And you can be certain that you won’t feel as though you’ve become the person you were created to be.
Over the years, I’ve learned more and more about love. I can’t say that I love perfectly today, but I can say that I’m more honest and vulnerable and authentic about it than I was a decade or two ago — or even five years ago. Growth is hard, but it’s worth it.
It’s worth it when you can have the courage to be the first to say, “I love you,” and know that it comes from a place of vulnerability and peace with yourself, whether you win someone else or not. I hope you’ll watch Brown’s TED talk, below, and ask yourself whether you’re vulnerable and authentic. If you’re not, maybe your relationships aren’t what they could be.
Whatever your situation in life, the question is worth asking. And when you have the answer — and know what it’s going to take to be authentic and vulnerable — it’s worth paying any price to change your life to achieve it. Without the connection that comes from that, your life might be pretty empty.
When I say, “I love you,” these days, it comes from a place of vulnerability and authenticity. Are you certain you can say that? I couldn’t have said it five years ago. I’m glad I can say it today.