Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Going From Shame to Joy

University of Houston Researcher Brené Brown on why staying vulnerable and owning even those parts of your story that may be shameful is essential to a joyful life.
April 26, 2012
Psst: don't tell anyone my secret. I spent last weekend immersed in shame. Struggling to maintain my openness. It’s a tough combo that makes most of us want to run and hide. 
The setting: “The Anatomy of Joy,” an Omega Institute workshop, offered lessons from research on vulnerability and shame done by University of Houston social science researcher Brené Brown. In the past year, since going public with her research in a 2010 TEDx talk, "The Power of Vulnerability," viewed now by more than 6 million people, she has lived through feeling ashamed and exposed talking about topics that nobody wants to discuss: shame and vulnerability.  

So Brené and I spent the weekend together. Virtually, as is the way of all modern relationships. “Women and Power” gave me a live streaming video window into a heart she shared freely. Here she was talking to me and 8,500 other virtual friends in New York and around the world about how leaving yourself open, suffering yourself to be vulnerable despite the fear of being humiliated, is what ultimately leads us to joy. 
A paradox.
I was watching with something other than journalistic detachment. Having suffered my own humiliations recently—suffering the limbo of a project I passionately believed in going unfunded, profound misunderstandings with a colleague, a relationship on the brink, I wanted to learn from her. Like you, perhaps, I long for joy. 
If you've listened to her most recent TED talk, "Listening to Shame," you know that the response to her “vulnerability” led to her having what she called a "breakdown", and her therapist characterized more positively as a “spiritual awakening”.

What was the source of her awakening? Finding in her research, after six years and thousands of hours spent conducting interviews with people, that the secret to getting to joy, to embracing life and all its imperfections wholeheartedly is accepting yourself, imperfections and all
Wholeheartedness means self-acceptance despite shame, failures, needing others—and not having to be perfect. 
Love and acceptance. The very things we are all looking for. 
This simple findingadmitting your vulnerability could lead to joy--so shocked the “take no prisoners,” former University of Texas party girl-turned-social work researcher that Brown had to step away from her research and go into therapy for a year to figure out this "vulnerability thing", describing her own aversion to admitting she might be less-than-perfect by confessing she “didn’t even hang out with people like that.” 
Coming to Terms
Happiness,” says Brown, “is circumstantial; joy is internal and very deeply spiritual. The things that bring us the most joy in the long run may not always make us happy in the moment.” 
The things that bring us joy may not make us happy. 
Another paradox. 
It turns out that those people who were truly joyful, wholeheartedly “all in”, had one thing in common:  
“I came across a group of people who were fundamentally different. They woke up every day and acknowledged, ‘I am enough.’” Self-compassion, self-acceptance, these are not just words to those wholehearted people, but a way of life. For most of us, in a society that worships perfection, we are never enough—and think others judge us as harshly as we judge ourselves.
How does this lack shape us and contribute to a culture marked by shame? “We live in a culture of deep, deep scarcitynever enough...relevant enough, popular enough, rich enough...there is "never enoughness". I call these the shame Gremlins: you are never good enough, and who do you think you are!”

Flashback to the perfect job, "acting" as director of external affairs for a nationally-ranked graduate school of public policy. Back in the '90s, before news was a blood sport, I started building the institutions public reputation from scratch working with a brilliant facultyupgrading "the best kept secret" of a school near the nation's capital into a nationally recognized institution that turned out some of the best-prepared up-and-comers in the worlds of policy, economics, and politics. I started a regular policy series by news makers, news reporters and policy makers, involving students in the process. I orchestrated a globally televised  Presidential Primary debate before that became an Olympic sport, inviting students and faculty involvement, that thrust the school and, indeed, the university, into a wider international arena.  

I so loved what I did that I wanted to make the position permanent. To be hired on permanently do my dream job, I had to interview; I had done my job well, raising the profile of the school and its faculty, developing rapport with my colleagues, trust from the faculty and increasing recruitment in the process of its growing public reputation.  Slam dunk, no?

No. I didn't get my own job. Then I was asked to train my successor, who didn't have the skills the position called for. I mean, are you serious!?

That hurt, of course, but I was ashamed to confess this. I hid away to lick my wounds. 

To mask our imperfections, to deny the very vulnerability that allows us to connect, expand creativity, allow intimacy, we armor ourselves to meet the day without showing our human chinks. It’s exhausting and isolating to live such a guarded life. 

Does the Mask Keep Us Safe?
 Brené argues no. Stuffing down shame, numbing the pain, also keeps us from feeling joy. ”We can talk about joy and happiness, but if we don't talk about what gets in the way…what gets in the way of us being ‘all in’?” To keep ourselves safe, for hiding all our imperfections under the skin we, as a society, have become the most over-medicated, surgically perfected, addicted, anxious, depressed and distracted adult cohort in the history of this country. So it would seem that guarding ourselves from sharing our pain with others—staying vulnerable—has resulted in stress, disease and lack of connection. In a word: shame.
As her data bore out, life is no less difficult for the people who saw themselves as worthy of love and belonging. “But this group,” Brené observes, “in the midst of struggle, said, ‘This is really hard, but I am still worthy of love and belonging.’ 

The whole-hearted folks she was talking to, "also made different choices than I was making. ...things like cultivating self-compassion; like they would talk to someone they care about. They let go of perfectionism. They'd cultivate play and rest and let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. Let go of anxiety as a lifestyle. 
“Here's what I learned is essential: love and belonging,” Brené attested. “These are irreducible needs. We are hard-wired for connection. It is why we're here. Love and belonging are two of the most powerful expressions of connection.” 
The common thread for the wholehearted people in her study was in practicing gratitude. 

Practicing gratitude—I could do that. Being thankful for all what is right here-right now: to wake up with my dog cuddled beside me. To listen to the rain from the warmth of my kitchen with a cup of tea and nowhere special to go. To talk to a friend. 

Everyday moments as the path to joy. Not one moment, but a lifetime of moments adds up to something joyful to celebrate. 
Learning this has been a profound awakening. To acknowledge, “I am good enough.” To own my story and share it—in all its glory and shame. To stay open and not succumb to numbness. 

Ah yes, back to that story of not getting my own job? I was shocked. Needed time to retreat and figure things out.  Out of the ashes, I set to work on a novel, Satan's Mortgage. Transformed my hurt, anger and embarrassment into creative output. Good therapy.

So, of course, it's not all about the defeats. There are triumphs, too. And moments that fill the everyday. Still, it is painful to admit my failings in the story I show myself and the world and not shut down. But, as Brené relates, telling the whole story and remaining vulnerable despite the shame offers our best chance at getting to joy. 

I am practicing. Despite the letdowns, my failures and imperfections, “I am enough.” Good enough. Kind enough. Pretty enough. Smart enough to find joy in life. I am doing the best that I can. 
It's a secret we can all share. And sharing secrets like that earns Brené Brown a standing ovation.

What moments in life have you been keeping secret? 
Digging Deeper:
Books, blog and more
2012 TED Talk On vulnerability
More on the value of self-compassion