“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen
Today I finished reading a book that I will be so bold as to deem life-changing. It’s called Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by social researcher Brene Brown. I will admit that I picked up Brown’s work because I kept seeing the title on lists of must-read books and because I had heard about but never seen her watched-by-millions TED talks. But I think I also found her book because I subconsciously knew that I needed it. Though I share many personal aspects of my life here, I still have a “problem” with vulnerability.
Sometimes I feel like I have shared too much, sometimes I feel like I haven’t shared enough, but either way I usually send my thoughts out into the “world” feeling a mixture of fear and fulfillment. Fear because I am making myself vulnerable, but also fulfillment because I am making myself vulnerable. It’s like a catch-22. It is difficult for me to fully embrace vulnerability because to be vulnerable is often seen as a way to make yourself weak or prone to attack. How many of us have been fearful of being seen as vulnerable? How often have we been told to mask or hide our emotions lest we be seen as weak? Even the dictionary defines vulnerability as “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.”
Brown’s years of research illuminate this lens through which many of us see the world, a dichotomy she describes as “Victim or Viking.” We either see ourselves as victims, like the world is out to get us and that our vulnerability is preyed on, or we see ourselves as vikings, like it is ourselves against the world, that vulnerability is for sissies. Brown’s dichotomy sounded all-too-familiar. I discovered that I have played both of these roles in my life, both of which led me to being very unhappy and both of which led me to drink the way I did.
I was a victim: because my own father treated me and my sister the way he did, by molesting us and then abandoning us, how could I trust anyone? How could I be vulnerable when I had been taken advantage of at my most vulnerable; as a child? Which led to the other role. I was a viking: because I had been through what I had been through, I was a tough, strong woman, a woman who would not let anything bad happen to her again (ha!). I rarely cried or talked about my feelings unless, of course, I was drunk, when the hidden pain I felt was manifested ten-fold. I would have epic fights with my boyfriend or friends, I would sob about my lot in life, I would lash out under the influence because when sober all I knew how to do was shut down.
When I quit drinking I no longer had the so-called release that alcohol gave me, the option of letting my emotions run rampant because I did not know how to manage them. When I quit drinking, I could have easily let myself slip back into the victim role, of seeing myself as a wounded person whom was fragile beyond repair. Or I could slip into the viking role, thinking of myself as some kind of warrior-martyr because I quit drinking. But with a clear head, I discovered that neither role really seemed to fit anymore. I was not a victim, but I was also not a viking. I have transcended a painful situation, but this does not make me a battle-survivor, nor does it make me a survivor of fate. I’m not interested in surviving, I’m interested in living.
I want to live a wild, free life, and a way to be truly wild and free is to be vulnerable, to show up with an open heart. Brown calls vulnerability “life’s great dare.” Vulnerability doesn’t have to be viewed negatively, like a dog rolling onto her back and exposing her belly. According to Brown, what vulnerability really is is “life asking, ‘Are you all in? Can you value your own vulnerability as much as you value it in others?’ Answering yes to these questions is not weakness: It’s courage beyond measure. It’s daring greatly. And often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory march as much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.” In other words, it’s worth it if you want to live, not just survive.
What quitting drinking did was force me to open me up, rather than to continue closing myself off. It opened me up to the shame and guilt I felt for so many years and tried to mask. But because this opening up happened, something else also happened. It opened me up to discovering a life beyond the shame and the guilt. I thought about why I felt the way I did, why I had done the things I’d done, what I was going to do about it now. Because as we all know, we can’t change the past. We can keep retelling our stories of woe to ourselves, reliving the shame and the hurt, or we can try to write new stories for ourselves and for others, by examining the shame and hurt and doing our best to move forward.
I found that my old ways of self-preservation were flawed, this much was clear, but I was also relieved to discover that I didn’t have to keep my guard up all the time, that I could lay my rusty, flawed weapons down. That I didn’t have to be perfect, that my pursuit of perfectionism was what had kept me in the dark of the shame I so desperately wanted to evade. Brown shares that “Slowly I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known. The shield required that I stay small and quiet so as not to draw attention to my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was exhausting.” I, too, realized that I had not only been holding up a shield, keeping me and others from knowing my true self, but also that I had been polishing this shield like a badge of honor. What it was was a false sense of security; I never felt truly safe with this so-called protection of masking my emotions.
Brown’s book made me think about my decision to write this blog; am I doing this for the right reasons? Am I looking for pity or sympathy; do I want to be seen as a victim? Am I looking for validation or respect; do I want to be seen as a viking? Or am I doing this because I want to make a meaningful connection? Brown writes, “Connection is why we’re here; it’s what gives purpose and meaning in our lives.” We feel shame when we feel like we don’t belong, when we harbor feelings of disconnection. This can lead us to leave ourselves open to hurt (like a victim), or to close ourselves off in the attempt to protect ourselves (like a viking). Now that I am no longer closing myself off, am I laying myself too bare? I wondered.
I wondered that perhaps I was divulging too much after being closed off for so long, but then I read what Brown calls the reason we’re here: connection. I do not write these words to just dump my emotions, desperate for approval or recognition. I write these words because I wish to be truly vulnerable, the kind of vulnerable that allows others to do the same. To take off our masks and lay our weapons down, to be open and honest with one another, to dispel feelings of loneliness or shame. I am only able to do this now because I no longer see myself as a victim, as prey to the talons of fate and misfortune, as a receiver of rotten luck. I also no longer see myself as a viking, as a tough chick who doesn’t care about anything or anyone, including myself. I see myself as a vulnerable, powerful human being whom wishes to connect with other human beings in a real way.
I don’t want anyone to feel like I used to feel before I quit drinking: alone, confused, guilty, regretful, different, unable to communicate their feelings. But so many people do, as Brown’s research shows. I see that so much of my internal pain was caused because it was internal. Because I kept everything inside, it festered. It festered within until I drank too much and exploded on someone close to me, or on myself. I wish to give voice to the internal pain to grow as an individual, but also to cultivate a sense of belonging for whomever needs it.
I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t belong, to feel uncomfortable in your own skin, to feel afraid. Every human being does. We keep this cycle of pain and shame going when we sweep it under the rug, when we don’t talk about what’s important to us, when we act like we don’t get hurt because underneath we’re so hurt we can barely move. We keep the cycle spinning when we divulge details of our lives without any purpose, when we seek sympathy or attention by any means necessary.
So how can we be vulnerable in a way that keeps our hearts safe while still keeping them open? We can do this by being authentic, by respecting ourselves and thereby others, by extending love to ourselves in order to extend it to other people. Brown says that “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering of trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
Because I was stuck in the cycle of shame, I could not allow myself to truly be vulnerable, to connect with those around me, which simply underscored my private fear of never belonging. When I broke free of this cycle I yearned to see myself, to let others really see me. How could I do this? By writing about my life. Not as a personal diary for the world to see, not as a way to garner pity or validation, but as a way to connect. To navigate the pain in order to experience and endorse love.
Daring Greatly taught me that being vulnerable means having the courage to take “life’s great dare.” To live imperfectly but fully. By loving, sharing, respecting, engaging. Yes, being vulnerable is still scary. But as Brown shares, “nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous, and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.”
I wish you a wild, free life.