I was so profoundly moved by Brown’s delivery and stellar content, that I viewed The Power of Vulnerability in conjunction with her subsequent discourse entitled, Listening to Shame. In Brown’s ancillary talk, Listening to Shame, she mentions how “Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul”. In The Power of Vulnerability, she synonymously cites shame in close companionship with fear as the most formidable obstruction to connection and, conversely, as the greatest facilitator for disconnection. If I were to relate the similar messages from both talks into a unifying statement, I would say that shame explicates a present-day cultural epidemic characterized by shrinking back from the courage to vulnerably be one’s authentic self apart from an unrealistic conception of identity. To be vulnerable is nothing to be ashamed of rather it is to be considered “our most accurate measurement of courage”. Instead, the current trend is to equate vulnerability, which Brown defined as “the courage to be imperfect” or “emotional risk, exposure, and uncertainty”, with weakness and to numb to it through self-destructive addictions or other means of emotional suppression.
“The courage to be imperfect” – that single line resonated through my soul and spirit as the central dilemma of adulthood and as the acute quandary of modern-day adolescence, tainted by arbitrary ideals of perfection promoted through advertising, etc. I have been negatively impacted by this abnormal paradigmatic and evaluative system of assessing human worth. In many ways, I have internalized this idealized model of what a successful woman is supposed to be and oftentimes, find it excruciatingly difficult to honestly and openly embrace my faults, much less communicate those “imperfections” with others. I was brought up on the notion that I mustn’t keep my emotions on my sleeves, that I must toughen up, or develop a thicker hide because the world is a not a nice place, but I have always been a believer in the good of the world. As a result of this dichotomous conflict of views, I tried to dull whatever pain or hurt feelings I had by not acknowledging them or judging any inordinate time spent in the “doldrums” as excessive or maudlin. My father’s words still ring in my ears: “Adversity is supposed to define you. You have to learn to be emotionally resilient”. I do not disagree with his words but he would too often focus on discarding my dreamlike wonder for the sake of pragmatism.
I feel that imperfection is too stigmatized; human life is too sterilized and wrongly portrayed as a linear or clear-cut endeavor; society is becoming more meritocratic and all too glorifying of a prototypically flawless evolution of always growing modern man/woman. The messy and organic aspects of our lives are being extracted as dispensable, therefore contributing to this stress pandemic. I say from experience that it is unbelievably tiresome to sustain a disguise. Your authentic self is ever writhing within, never at ease with the ruse. Performance, performance! Brown helped me to see that “performance” is what defines most of our lives. We recite lines and lies in order to remain hidden…but we’re a societal line-up of dramatists, actors, chameleon jesters of the courts… so afraid of the truth, of admitting our tears for the tragedies of life, of sharing our insecurities, of loving each other whole-heartedly despite the unknown risks that dwell outside boundaries of our safety zones. Who told us we had to be perfect? No tree grows in a straight line and how out of place that tree would be in a forest full of beautiful imperfections!
Gandhi once said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others”. I realized, in order to “lose” myself, I must first come to grips with my ego – the house of the harshly judgmental critic – so that I can listen enough to hear how similar I am to others. My internal critic has been given a megaphone for most of my life and has made me feel isolated from my peers. I hold myself up to lofty and impossible standards of…”performance”. Imagine an over-zealous soccer mom put on the speakers, broadcasting her cheering while her mortified daughter shrinks in response to her mother’s aggressive put-downs to the other team. Now imagine the inner critic yelling insults at you, despite how much you’re trying to do your best on the field but never being good enough to gain his/her approval. Then, picture yourself having to face the crowd of onlookers – embarrassment, shame, humiliation. The sources of my shame result from constant negative, “put down” speech directed at my efforts to combat my insecurities, fears, and uncertainties thus leading to the aforementioned feelings. However, in my opinion, vulnerability is a shared experience that should be shared with greater prevalence and frequency. In serving others, we come to see that we have more in common than we thought and that bridge of commonality can be the deciding factor in calling a truce with the war we fight within us. The futile war against our authentically imperfect selves and our culturally influenced selves that desire to keep this destructive duality of person going.