This article was based on the TEDxHouston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” by Brené Brown:
Connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. What we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is neurobiologically how we're wired.
When Brené Brown decided to study connection, she found that when you ask people about connection, the stories they told were about disconnection. During her research, she ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way that she didn't understand or had never seen. This thing turned out to be shame, which can be easily understood as the fear of disconnection. People wonder if there is something about them that, if other people know it or see it, they won’t be worthy of connection.
Not Good Enough
This shame is universal; we all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. This shame is a feeling of "I'm not good enough," or smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, etcetera. The thing that underpins these feelings is excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
During her research, Brown found that there was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from the people who really struggle for it. That was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of love and belonging. That's it. They believe they're worthy. The one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we're not worthy of connection.
Worthiness and Courage
The people who felt they were worthy of connection were whole-hearted people, living from a deep sense of worthiness. What they had in common was a sense of courage. These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassion with other people if we can't treat ourselves kindly. As a result of their authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do for connection.
Something else these people had in common was that they fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to tell someone they loved them, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, and the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
The Dangers of Numbing
Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. We live in a vulnerable world, and one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. You can't selectively numb those hard feelings without numbing your emotions. So, when we numb those feelings, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. Then, we are miserable, and we start looking for purpose and meaning, so we feel vulnerable, and it becomes this dangerous cycle.
One of the things that we need to think about is why and how we numb. Sometimes numbing can lead to addiction. Another way people try to numb is by trying to make everything that's uncertain, certain. People also try to perfect, most dangerously, our children. Children are hardwired for struggle when they get here. Our job is not to make them perfect. 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."
We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corporately -- whether it's a bailout, an oil spill, or a recall. We pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a huge impact on other people. We need to be authentic and real and say, "We're sorry. We'll fix it."
We need to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen and to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee. We need to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror when we're feeling vulnerable. We need to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophising what might happen, say, "I'm just so grateful because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive." Most importantly, we need to believe that we're enough so we can be kinder and gentler to the people around us, and kinder and gentler to ourselves.