A common thread woven into the lives of many people I know is a longing for deep, meaningful connection. As human beings we are hard-wired to bond and form relationships with others. While early humans required those connections to meet the needs of basic survival, modern humans require those connections to thrive and live fuler, happier, healthier lives. Yet, so many of us consistently feel as if we’re on the outside, unable to form the bonds we so crave. I’ve seen more and more people lately saying they have no one to talk to and feel isolated and even more disconnected due to the pandemic. And while the pandemic has definitely led to a lot of us missing day-to-day interactions with other people, I think that sense of disconnection has been highlighted by the absence of the superficial relationships that act as a panacea for the kinds of connection we truly long for…and without those filling our empty spaces, we can get to the heart of what is really missing and understand that the key to forming truly meaningful connections is to allow ourselves to be fully seen.
By the time I first watched Brené Brown’s TEDx-Houston Talk titled “The Power of Vulnerability,” I was deep into trying to figure out how to live authentically.
I had varying degrees of success, depending on where I was in the cycle of shame, sense of worthlessness, and avoidance that had plagued me since the moment my mother told five-year old me that my father neither loved nor wanted me. I was tired of playing pretend about who I was and the struggles I’d been through so I could win the approval of the Queen Bees I’d been trying to please my whole life. I craved engaging with people I actually liked on a deep, genuine level where we could both be seen and appreciated for who we really were.
In 2016 when I first stumbled onto Brown’s research about shame and vulnerability, it resonated deeply with me and I knew it could help me as I continued to shed the layers of make-believe I’d been hiding behind most of my life. I had just moved to Chattanooga and once again facing the fear of rejection and being an outsider, I had to choose between hiding behind a mask of the “good girl; the perfect wife and mother” who has it all together and never shows any emotion other than restrained happiness…or I could just be imperfect, happy, joyful, angry, hurting, lonely, kooky, honest me. So, after watching and re-watching Brown’s talk and reading anything else by her I could put my hands on, I took her lessons to heart.
As someone who could have been a poster child for her lessons on shame, I knew exactly what she meant when she said “Shame unravels connection.” The shame I had carried my whole life around being an illegitimate child and not knowing my father was a wall that kept me from getting close to anyone. I believed…because of the seed my mother planted that I was somehow unworthy of love because my father didn’t want me…that no one could ever love me or be my friend if they knew the truth. I lied about my origins every single day of my life until I was 19-years-old. And then one day, my desire to fully connect and love another human being – and to be loved in return – grew so strong I decided to let myself become vulnerable and so I leapt. I told the boy I’d been dating for six months the truth about not having a father or knowing who I was. I was fully prepared for him to be repulsed and think I wasn’t good enough for him or his family, but I also knew that I couldn’t fully love someone unless I could show my true self and be loved in spite of what I perceived as my faults. That baby step into vulnerability and allowing myself to be seen started a project that has been building, with false starts and stops along the way, for over 20 years.
Once you break the seal on something you feel ashamed of or something that makes you feel unworthy of love, it loses its power. Since then, I’ve grown more comfortable sharing that part of who I am. That’s not to say there haven’t been other life traumas or situations that caused me to close part of myself off or hide the parts of myself I fear others might judge, and again, find myself disconnected from the people I longed to be close to.
Thanks, however, to the lessons in Brown’s research and teaching, I’ve continued to dig deep to find the courage to shed the layers of self-protection that stand in the way of authenticity and let my real self shine and share the painful and embarrassing and harder bits with the people I genuinely believe have my best interests at heart. Is it always easy? Nope. But I believe that ultimately the reward of being seen and loved for who I am instead of who I think I ought to be is worth it. The bonus is I get to see and love all those people for who they really are because when I let my guard down, it’s an invitation for them to do the same.
What are you holding back that makes you feel less than or unworthy of being loved and appreciated completely?
Whether it’s embracing your imperfect body with love instead of making a self-deprecating joke because you assume someone else will; or admitting to your friends that your husband cheated on you in spite of the fear they will pity you; or confronting your feelings about the way you think your body failed you in the fertility process; or admitting to your partner that you were abused; or simply asking someone for help because you feel utterly overwhelmed at the moment; or any of thousands of other scenarios…allowing yourself to share your truth when you have no guarantee of the outcome is a game-changer. It’s a pivotal moment when you recognize that you…the full-on, honest-to-goodness, authentic YOU…deserves love. And that’s when you become what Brown refers to as wholehearted. She says, “Wholehearted people have a sense of courage.” She goes on to point out that the original meaning of courage was “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”
I know that I could not have survived this past year with my emotional well-being intact without certain friendships that are rooted in revealing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves…in being wholehearted. Out of our vulnerability we have carried each other’s pain and discomfort, yes, but we have also discovered shared joy, creativity, and a greater sense of belonging. This time, when so many feel lost and alone is the perfect time to let go of any shame you’re holding onto and to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart! Let yourself be seen and in turn see those around you for who they truly are and forge new connections that will sustain you.