Vulnerability

“Every morning, I set an intention to be courageous.”

Those words have been ambling around my brain for the last few days, ever since I heard Brené Brown utter them on Wednesday evening, during a Q and A on vulnerability at the School of Life in London. I was one of the lucky people to get in to the event – tickets sold out within 48 hours.

I consider the rush for the tickets and the fact that Brené’s Ted talks on vulnerability and shame have been watched by millions of people around the world a really positive thing – for all of us. The huge interest in her work means (or at least I interpret it this way) that so many of us, if not all of us, feel vulnerable and experience shame – despite the fact that an equal number of us tries to hide those emotions, often quite successfully.

So I can conclude that when I feel vulnerable or exposed to hurt or rejection or gripped by fear, it’s likely the person on the other end of the phone or sitting opposite me (this could be a friend, a boss, a potential employer, or prospective boyfriend or partner) is feeling the same or at least has felt the same at some point in their lives.

This is really good news, particularly when it comes to my ambitions to be a more widely published journalist and to get my books (I’ve now got two ideas on the go!) into print. When I quiver inside at the prospect of someone telling me my ideas don’t hold water or that my writing isn’t good enough, I can remember that the person I’m speaking to has quivered too. He or she may not be quivering in that moment – they may be completely unflustered during that particular exchange – but it’s likely they’ve quivered in the past. It’s probable they know very well what it is feel all aquiver (insecure, wobbly, shaky, nervous, unsettled, to mention just a few definitions).

I’m finding this realisation reassuring and I’m hoping I can use this understanding in my daily life to be more bold, more resilient and more accepting of my sometimes shaky insides.

That’s what Brené challenges us all to do through her talks and via her latest book: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

The title of the book comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote from 1910:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Putting ourselves in the arena and slugging it out may be terrifying, Brené said, but it’s nowhere near as terrifying or dangerous as looking back and saying, ‘what would have happened if I’d shown up for myself. What would have happened if I’d really tried?’

Brené made so much sense to me on Wednesday evening that it’s hard to pick out the best bits but I’ll try.

She said that setting an intention to be courageous every day is the only thing that saves her when she gets attacked or rejected – at least she can hold on to the fact that she’s been courageous, that she hasn’t got up in the morning and said, ‘I’m going to do my best to be liked today’.

She described vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure and said she’d spent most of her life trying to outrun or outsmart it, staying under the radar, trying not to get hurt – but this kind of behaviour comes at a huge cost, because “when we armour up against vulnerability, we armour up against love and joy.”

This makes perfect sense to me. I think I spent many years trying to do the same, trying to avoid vulnerability, to escape getting hurt, to avoid being laughed at and running from potential rejection, belittlement or that feeling of being overly exposed. And I did a pretty good job at it, climbing high and building a strong fortress around myself, comprised of achievement, status and external accolades. But something was dying inside. There were plenty of artificial highs and adrenalin rushes but the real me was missing, along with love and joy – I was numbed to them, blocked off from them. As Brené said, we try to perfect everything, control everything and please others as a barrier against vulnerability.

I also loved what Brené had to say about our tendency to expect the worst, to imagine catastrophe around every corner. I’ve blogged about this before, and particularly in my recent post ‘Be still my beating heart‘. Some of us imagine tragedy in moments of joy, she said, because we want to beat vulnerability to the punch, we don’t want to be caught off guard by uncertainty or pain.

Her solution to this is to try and practice gratitude in the moment – so when things are going well but I fear the worst, to say ‘thank you’ for where I am or what I have. Or when I’m stood in the park on a sunny day and I think the two men walking towards me are going to mug me (a throwback to being attacked at gunpoint in Mexico), perhaps I can look around and say thank you for the vivid colours of the trees (I still wonder where to draw the line between trusting the universe that all will be well and avoiding having my mobile phone snatched in London?! Expect the best, plan for the worst?).

The fear of being laughed at or belittled is the biggest bar to creativity, Brené said, but there’s never been a truly innovative idea where that didn’t happen. She also said she could wallpaper the room with rejection letters for her book proposal, which gives me great hope!

Being vulnerable and putting ourselves out there won’t be easy and it can be exhausting. But the alternative is a long, slow spiritual death – the sense, which I’ve experienced in the past, that our light has gone out. Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said: “What is to give light must endure burning.”

So now I turn to my attention to someone who, I believe, has dared greatly, has exposed her vulnerability and has most definitely slogged it out in the arena of life, with sweat, tears and probably some blood. There’s no sitting on the sidelines for my friend and former colleague Sophie Walker (@sophierunning).

Last night, I was at the launch of Sophie’s first book: Grace Under Pressure: Going the distance as an Aspergers Mum. It’s an incredibly powerful and moving account of Sophie’s struggle to nurture, understand, protect and get the appropriate support for her darling daughter Grace for many years before and after a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, while at the same time battling her own depression, anxiety and acute sense of failure. It also describes how Sophie found an outlet for her grief and pain through running and raised thousands of pounds for the National Autistic Society, of which she’s now an ambassador, all the while charting the ups and downs of her emotions and her marathon training on her blog. The book is inspiring, has an incredibly broad reach and I highly recommend it.

I take my hat off to Sophie – for her grit, her determination, her courage and her willingness, always, to get into that arena, no matter how big and scary it may seem. My wish is that we can all look to Sophie’s courage and that of her daughter to inspire us to get into the arena too.

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