I think it’s safe to say that I am a Brene Brown superfan. I believe her work is some of the most groundbreaking work being done on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, and really, on what makes life worth living.
If you haven’t heard her TED talks, here’s her first one, “The Power of Vulnerability”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
And here’s her 2012 talk, “Listening to Shame”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0ifUM1DYKg
I love how her work extends beyond the academic and is working among the people who need it most: us. She transcends academics while still doing her work professionally within it.
What I love even more about Dr. Brown’s work is that she steps out from behind the academic shield and shows us how she is living her work herself. She dares greatly, making herself vulnerable to all of us. And so not only is she a brilliant researcher with some revolutionary ideas, but she’s just like you and me. She gets it. She still struggles with it. And she builds community with us by inviting us on the journey with her.
I’ve been following Dr. Brown’s work for several years now, and I have been working to practice Wholehearted Living in that time. I have grown a lot, but life continually throws me opportunities to become more, like with this move.
Moving to Seattle has been tiring. It has stretched me, and made me feel very vulnerable. But the place that vulnerability seems to hit the closest is in relationships. I remember how often my insecurities would flare up when I dated Ty back in Utah. The simplest, most innocent thing could happen, and if my insecurities were near the surface… really, if I was already battling shame, then all hell would break loose. I worried so often that I wasn’t good enough for Ty, that he would lose interest and go after someone else. Some of the stories my insecurities would make up were agonizing. Looking back, the underlying feeling in all those “insecure fantasies” was fear of being worthless.
These feelings are at the heart of Dr. Brown’s research. Even though I was eyeballs-deep in her work at the time, I still struggled immensely with fear that I wasn’t good enough for Ty. And it wasn’t just negative reactions or emotions from him that would spark it. Sometimes, the mere lack of positive affirmation would send my insecurities (my shame gremlins) running amok.
The breakup in January turned my shame gremlins into full-fledged shame Godzillas. I still can’t go back and read those old journals because of how packed with pain they are. Needless to say, for months I was a pretty big disaster. It’s a miracle I passed my classes that semester. I dated a bit, and when I finally started developing deeper feelings for a guy I found myself hitting a familiar pattern, one I know all too well today.
The first date always goes well. First dates are a total crap shoot, because you don’t even know the person, and so there is no reason to expect that it’s going to go amazing. I go in hoping to have a pleasant time and good conversation, and I’m never disappointed in that.
Problems arise when things go well. Too well. (I realize how ironic that phrasing is, but this really is the point where things get difficult). Second dates are much more difficult, because suddenly, I’m invested. I want things to go well. And this time my brain chemistry is off the charts because I’m on a date with a boy I like. I once heard the saying that “when the heart is involved, everything comes out in ‘moron’.” That’s about right. Second dates are when I’m totally awkward, foggy-brained, and suddenly without a personality or an interesting thing to say. And it sucks.
What’s fascinating, though, is what happens when touch gets involved. If he takes my hand, if we cuddle, or if he kisses me, suddenly all the walls come down. Sure, dopamine is still raging through my brain, so I can’t vouch for the intelligence of my conversation, but the anxiety and the fear of rejection completely disappear. I think it’s safe to say that touch is a primary love language for me.
Before things become official, though, there is a period of pendulum-like swinging between guarding myself out of sheer vulnerability while hungering for the intimacy that I can almost feel, and opening up and actually connecting with the other guy.
I recognize that some of this comes down to abandonment. The most painful emotion I’ve ever felt has been being left by someone I loved. It fuels the shame gremlins and wreaks havoc with my fear of worthlessness. And so while I starve for the deep emotional and spiritual relationship that vulnerability can bring, I also battle the incredible discomfort and exposure it brings. That excruciating vulnerability…
I don’t know how to break that cycle. And I think I’m having a difficult time identifying when I’m feeling shame or just vulnerable. I’d be willing to bet that today’s fear of not being good enough for a guy was a shame storm of large proportions. The ironic part is that now that it’s settled down, I realize I’m feeling shame over having felt shame. I am embarrassed about how emotionally upset I got, how much my irrational thinking spun wild stories, feeding the shame gremlins even more.
But all things considered, I did better today than with any shame storm before. I was aware, I recognized the urge to numb away my feelings or to discharge the pain by casting blame or accusations. I resisted that, and instead felt my way through the struggle, called a friend and talked through it. I didn’t even make an ass of myself to this guy. And honestly, that’s pretty damn good if you ask me!
I need to stop being so hard on myself. I actually felt that pretty strongly today at church. In the liturgy of the episcopal church there is a prayer that we all say together after we take communion. It is so cleansing for me. It goes like this:
Eternal God, heavenly Father, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and you have fed us with spiritual food in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
As we prayed this today, I felt compassion, and I felt the prompting to be more compassionate with myself. And that is the crux of Dr. Brown’s work.
When we live from a place of worthiness, a place of “I am enough, right now”, then we engage the world authentically, and we connect with those around us. Such a life is vulnerable, but as Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”