“To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight- and never stop fighting.” ~ E.E. Cummings
Don’t think you have worthiness issues? Never struggle with feeling good enough? That’s impossible according to author and speaker Brene Brown. Over the weekend I came across this woman’s work and it got me thinking a lot about how even the most confident among us still struggles with feelings of vulnerability. According to Brown, the only ones of us who don’t feel at least a little vulnerable are sociopaths without the capacity for empathy. In fact, Brown believes that, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” So what do you do when you aren’t feeling good enough or worthy of love, happiness and success in your life? Fortunately, Brown offers ten powerful practices that can lead to greater courage, confidence and self-acceptance for each of us.
First, here’s a little background on Brene Brown. Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the last ten years studying topics of connection, courage, vulnerability, empathy and shame. Her larger work uncovered that connection is a primary motivation of all humans, and that one of the biggest obstacles to connection is shame and lack of vulnerability. But there was more.
As she researched, she was eventually able to identify a group of people who stood out and managed to thrive and live “full-in” in spite of the circumstances of their lives. They also seemed more resilient against the limiting nature of shame and vulnerability. Brown calls these people the “wholehearted,” and discovered that they lived their lives fearlessly and authentically because of two things: 1) they honestly believed they were worthy of deep love and belonging in spite of any difficulties their lives might contain; 2) they were willing to continually engage in vulnerability even, and most especially, when it was scary and difficult.
After further study of wholehearted people, Brown was able to identify ten practices that these wholehearted people employ on a regular basis that allows them to resist fear and experience life feeling worthy, loveable and sufficient. Brown calls these ideas, “guideposts”. She is also quick to point out that these are not just ideas that you can read and then claim. Instead these are “practices” that need to be incorporated into ongoing choices and decisions that we all make on a daily basis. They are:
1. Practicing authenticity and letting go of what others think of us. The more we work to try to fit into what others think is good or valuable, the less likely we are to be our unique self. Brown says, “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” If we aren’t practicing authenticity, then we are hiding behind masks and living a life of incongruence.
2. Letting go of perfectionism and practicing self-compassion. Brown sees perfectionism as the fear-based armor we believe necessary to protect ourselves from others, and it is always focused outward on what other people think. She says, “Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” Face it, if you consider yourself a perfectionist then you are obsessed about how others view you all the time.
3. Letting go of numbing and powerlessness by developing a resilient spirit. Because so many people are afraid to reveal their true nature they will do just about anything to cover it up by numbing themselves—using addictions like eating, alcohol, drugs, shopping, hoarding, victimhood, busy-ness, etc.—actions all incorporated to avoid any pain that being vulnerable can bring. As Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions—when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
4. Practicing gratitude and joy and letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark. This is actually one of the most interesting practices because it explains why so many people don’t experience excitement and happiness in their lives. According to Brown, many people choose a life without joy because they “don’t want to be disappointed.” She believes that many people are making “disappointment a lifestyle.” It seems these people are thinking they can hold off feeing too sad or disappointed by moderating their joy levels—but instead of experiencing less sadness when something sad happens, they actually sacrifice their daily joy and resign themselves to a constant state of low-grade disconnection.
5. Cultivating intuition and faith by letting go of the need for certainty. Just like the last practice, many of us feel that being “certain” about how things are “supposed to be” is a way to protect ourselves against vulnerability. Unfortunately, just like the last practice, if we only do what we are safe and certain about, then we seldom experience miracles and unexpected possibilities. We are also eroding any “faith” and trust we have in something bigger than ourselves. This type of thinking also leads to “extremisms” of all types in attempts to control the world around us.
6. Practicing creativity and letting go of comparison. I wrote about comparison several weeks ago and I thought it was very interesting to see how it actually destroys our creative nature. Being creative asks us to risk exposing who we really are and what we are capable of in the big picture. But if you are afraid to be vulnerable then you won’t risk creating something that could be judged harshly or put down. Creativity requires a sense of worthiness and the ability to handle the possibility of shame.
7. Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Wholehearted people are willing to stop working, rest and enjoy themselves knowing that they are enough exactly the way they are. A work-aholic however needs to constantly push herself to prove to everyone that they are better, smarter, more loving, more whatever, etc. Wholehearted people know that some of the best experiences of life are those ordinary moments of play and connection and never sacrifice that to try to win other people’s love or approval. I like it when Brown says, “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.”
8. Practicing stillness and calm by letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle. Many people use constant anxiety and worry as another way to tamper down their disappointment and lack of excitement. Instead of cultivating a peaceful life in spite of the drama around them, they allow fear and anxiety to dominate their lives.
9. Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.” If we are working at a job we hate, hanging out with people that we think we must try to impress, and living a life that we think others expect of us, then we are being untrue to ourselves. Brown says, “Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket.”
10. Letting go of being cool and “always in control.” Brene Brown shared that a willingness to laugh, sing, dance and “be silly” was extremely difficult for her because she was raised to be tough, strong and always look “proper.” That led to constantly worrying about what other people thought and how they would judge that in her as a scientist, an author, a wife, and a mother if she were to let go and be honest enough to be truly vulnerable. But true wholehearted people are not afraid to celebrate and experience joy with wild abandon—and they have also given up the very erroneous belief that they are in control of circumstances in the first place.
Okay, so I found all of this information incredibly interesting—but what does it really mean to you and me? I think it is a great reminder as a writer and as a person I must be authentic and open, even and most especially when I’m afraid to do so. And while that is very easy to say, it is always challenging to do. As Brown suggests, we have to make such fearlessness a “practice” that we incorporate every single day into our choices and decisions. In other words, even though I really, really want everyone who reads this blog to like me personally and “love” my writing, if I only write things that I think everyone will like and love, then I’m only a watered-down version of everyone else. What makes my writing stand out—is my unique take on things.
Plus if I go around trying to be perfect and in control of everything that goes on, I insulate myself from true emotion and joy so much so that I’m in constant fear of being found out as a fraud or losing control. If I routinely compare myself and my writing to other women and/or writers, I immobilize myself with anxiety. Any time I try to do what I think “I’m supposed to do” rather than what I honestly feel inspired to do, then I’m saying I have no faith in either myself or the universal process that created me. If I insist on being right or extreme in any position, I’m really just trying to control the Universe in a way that I can easily understand. No, being vulnerable is never the easy way out. In fact opening up to the possibility of shame is the hardest thing most of us will ever do.
Brene Brown adamantly feels that being vulnerable is not weakness. All of her research shows that is the most courageous thing we can ever do to create a quality life. It connects us to others and into the infinite Source of all love, creativity and possibility—giving our life meaning and purpose. Without its practice we are mere shadows of a whole person.
As I say regularly, this article only scratches the surface of the wealth of insight provided by the work of Brene Brown. Of course it’s not for everyone because, as Brown says, “If comfort is a priority, then vulnerability will be difficult for you.” Overall, I find it essential to remember that staying open to uncertainty and being true to ourselves offers us far greater benefits than the alternative. Even though it may feel scary to face our fears of worthiness, it is immensely more life-giving and empowering than attempting to play small and sacrifice our true nature. And if real courage is measured by our ability to be vulnerable, then the most courageous act any of us takes in life might be to be nothing more than to simply be ourselves.
“Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express what we really are.” ~Miguel Ruiz
- A great way to get a feel for Brene Brown is to watch a video of one of her TED Talks where she explains how her investigation began, or read her current book Daring Greatly. http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.htm
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