Vulnerability

On Shame and Vulnerability

I listened to Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly over the past couple of days, I am now onto her book Rising Strong. My former psychologist suggested that I read Daring Greatly two years ago, which I brushed off at the time. Truthfully, had I listened to Julie back then, I might have more of a headstart on the personal work that needs doing now (I am not stubborn at all!). For those of you who aren't familiar with Brené's work, a great introduction to her research on shame and vulnerability can be found in her wildly successful TED talk. I like Brenê, and while I have never met her, I feel like I know her in part, because of how she communicates. I guess one of the benefits of listening to a book, vs reading a book, is that you get to hear the author read their work, which I think imbues it with more gravitas. I like the fact that she swears, she is real, she tells it like it is, and probably most importantly, she makes me squirm.

You might think it odd that I like that she makes me squirm, but in truth, I have always respected those who speak with clarity, who challenge me, who force me to look at myself. I don't suffer fools or small talk very well. I am someone who lives a lot in my own head, and I feels deeply, passionately most people say, but I rarely have a clue as to what I am feeling or how to name or process those emotions. I have worn Teflon most of my life, and for a long time, even was proud of that; I have been labelled a shit disturber, and a bull in a china shop and these are the kind descriptions.

What I am learning from Brown is that shame is a powerful thing, which impacts us early on, and has long-lasting impacts on how we live out our lives. As I have listened to Brené talk for well over twelve hours now, I am slowly realizing how many significant shaming events I endured as a young person. I was mercilessly ridiculed for having red hair (Howdy Doody red hair long before ginger was in style). I wore glasses starting in grade one, had big ears, and was completely awkward. I was punished by my grade one teacher for getting my work done too fast, was thrown down the stairs by bigger kids in grade two, picked up by my ears (literally) by my teacher in grade three for being a smart ass, and the list goes on. This bullying and shaming continued throughout my time in school, even until grade twelve where I was still mocked for my hair colour and appearance. When I look back on my grade twelve grad photo, even I am a bit shocked at how much I look like a complete cowboy nerd. I was so shy, so unsure of myself, so utterly lost. I was selected to travel to Ottawa in grade twelve as a participant in the Forum for Young Canadians. It was quite the honour, only four hundred kids from the entire country were selected, and there were thousands of applicants. I was so excited, and when I got there, that awkward, acneid, weird cowboy nerd was almost univerally rejected by the other attendees in my cohort. Frankly, I hated high school, and couldn't wait to get out of the small community that I grew up in. For as long as I could remember I felt like an outsider.

It wasn't until I spent a year in Denmark after graduating that I started to grow a little self- confidence. The year I spent in Europe after high school was cathartic. I got a chance for a new start, got a chance to be part of a new culture, a completely differnet social mileau. I left for Denmark an awkward cowboy, and came home one year later as abearded, pipe smoking, clog wearing european intellectual (my parents almost didn't recognize me when I came through the airport).

Yet upon entering university later that year, I remember that same lost feeling flooding back, as I  wandered through long hallways at the U of L in what seemed like an endless sea of people who wanted nothing to do with me. But it was in university that I decided (a forceful act of my will) that I was no longer going to be someone who lived on the peripherie, and I forced myself to move out of my protective shell and into what Brown calls the arena. I have made it my goal to live in that arena ever since.

Brené Brown's work leans heavily on a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech that he gave where he made this statement - 

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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I am someone who is pretty risk tolerant (perhaps an understatement) and I have generally thought of myself as someone who has life pretty well put together. Confidence has never been in short supply in my life, or at least that is the mask that I put on most days, the version of myself that most who know me get to see. I think, in retrospect, that my resolve to live in that arean (although I wouldn't have described it as such until recently) forced me to put myself in harms way. In univeristy I got myself elected as the President of the Students Union. In grad school, I got into a pissing match with my supervisor and in protest wrote the LSAT and applied to law school. Upon being accepted, I quit my MA program (despite my wife Michelle's protest) moved to Edmonton and started law school. While I enjoyed much of law school, I quickly discovered that law wasn't what I had envisioned. My articling year was another year of battling an extreme fear and shame culture, topped with a little corruption. 

Actually, looking back, I now see how even the training we receive in law school and in the practice of law, solidifies and galvinizes unhealthy communication practices, competitiveness, us vs them, argue to the death, bully, the list goes on.... and I now see how as part of this journey I am now on, I need to unlearn much of what I acquired during my legal training. 

While I have lived in the arena, for many years, and most recently in the last twelve years, starting and growing my own business, I am beginning to realize that I have done so, mostly with little or no awareness of my own emotional wellbeing throughout. I have had little awareness of how I have used shame, avoidance, and many other unhealthy mechanisms to get through it all. In short, I am beginning to see that despite all of my accomplishments, I have not been living in a very wholehearted manner. It is namely this deficit that I hope to figure out along the way.

Whether you want to read about my journey into wholeheartedness and vulnerabilty, and away from the crippling effects of shame is up to you. I would like to say that I don't care if anyone reads this (me wearing Teflon) but that is simply not true. But I am not writing this so that it will be read widely. But rather, I am writing this, because just like I think and process things verbally, on the fly (I argue with myself and others a lot), I also know that I process things more effectively when I write. Perhaps it is the creative process that Brown talks about, which has a healing effect, I am not completely sure? But what I am sure of is that when I put my thoughts down (on virtual paper) and then publish them, I have to own them, which makes them more real, more powerful; and thus, I will continue to write and publish my thoughts regardless of whether I have an audience in the process. Because at the end of the day, what I am after is transformation, a move towards vulnerability, leaning into the hard truths, so that I can be a better dad, a better husband, a better boss, a better friend, a better member of the human race.