Thinking about the concepts of emotional intimacy and vulnerability? Think Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work who has been spending the last 12 years studying shame, fear, and vulnerability. Over 7 million viewers have watched her TED Talk on YouTube. She recently published a new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Brown feels that shame is a common emotion among us, and that many feel shame in our current social climate, even if they are just leading an ordinary life. Fear and shame consume a great deal of emotional energy. They rob us of the ability to apply our gifts and use our strengths.
In her research over the past 12 years, Brown identified some people, who are termed “wholehearted,” who feel that they are enough. They relate to the world from a platform of feeling basic self-worth. These individuals are aware that they have the power to make choices every day, and they exercise that choice. They operate with compassion, for themselves and others. “Wholehearted” people are mindful of the balance between work, rest, and play in their lives. They respect the courage it takes to be vulnerable. They choose openness with others.
No intimacy can take place without vulnerability-- it is a necessary precursor. Vulnerability is honesty about our fears, our feelings, and what we need from the people we are closest to. Vulnerability is a kind of glue that makes relationships closer. Brown notes that being vulnerable enough to express our joy is a particular risk, because joy is often fleeting. Sometimes we are reluctant to share it, thinking that it will cause the other shoe to drop.
Brown considers it a great loss when people disengage in their closest relationships, as if not being “fully in” will protect them from getting hurt. Living in a wholehearted way requires staying engaged with the intimate other, and being able to discuss it if it feels either one of you has disengaged. It's as if we have to risk disappointment, hurt, and rejection in order to be fully known, and know others.
Shame can mess up being vulnerable with those closest to us. It can make us judge ourselves unworthy of love, and not give others a way to reach us. Being resilient to shame means understanding what triggers yours, being self-aware, and being able to sort it out aloud with someone you feel safe with.
Setting boundaries with work and other demands on us can also take courage. Our society is very productivity oriented, so protecting your time for creative work, self-care, or family time can be disrespected or not understood by others. It takes bravery to construct the limits and boundaries you need to find your own personal balance for your life.
Brown finds, generally speaking, that there are unique gender differences with regard to dealing with shame. Men tend to get angry with others or disengage when shamed. Women tend to take their anger out on themselves. Keeping shame a secret inside you can impact your physical health. Letting shame out to a therapist, or someone close to you, can take away the powerful secret the shame held over you. (For example, those who carry the shame of having been abused as a child.)
Sexuality can bring up vulnerability and shame issues. For men, there are societal pressures to be stoic, calm, strong, work-oriented, and in control. Men are often afraid to be perceived as weak. They can fear rejection and criticism from women around courtship, intimacy, and sexuality. Women, Brown notes, have opposite norms to overcome, as they are supposed to be thin, nice, pretty, and quiet. What if being vulnerable makes you go up against these norms and be you?
Brown also has an interesting take on pornography, which she terms “looking for connection in all the wrong places.” Men may think they will spend a few dollars and avoid the risk of rejection, shame, or criticism, but then the behavior triggers more shame. Sexuality and intimacy can also be complicated for women by body image shame issues. (So then we have two people who don't feel worthy enough to connect authentically!) We must realize that we are each worthy of love and connection.
Brown's new book, and her body of research, challenge us to live fully, authentically, and with vulnerability. We need to support each other in asking for we want, and risking rejection and disappointment in life to get to the good stuff. Now that's a recipe for a life well-lived.