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Why Mental Illness Made It Difficult to Embrace Vulnerability

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There are times when you read a book at just the right time in your life and the words are exactly what you need to make a major breakthrough in your life. When I first picked up Brené Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly” – this was not the case. See, Brené Brown tells us that vulnerability (uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure) is an essential piece to living a wholehearted life… and that… sucks (*slams book closed*). Brené Brown may be my mental health hero, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what she has to say. Vulnerability is the last thing I wanted to embrace in my life. When I first went down the Brené Brown rabbit hole, I had been grappling with untreated mental illness for close to 20 years and the only truth that I could endorse at that point in my life was that opening up about my true feelings or showing any level of struggle = weakness, and even worse, it could cost you everything.

The risks of vulnerability, especially around something as personal and stigmatized as mental illness, are incredibly high. Transparency about my illness could mean I might lose out on opportunities for advancement in my job because I may be viewed as unstable. I could lose close friends who just don’t know how to deal with the fact that I often want to die. I could be deemed ineligible for health or life insurance. My every move could be scrutinized as evidence for or against my diagnosis – “She can’t be depressed, she was smiling yesterday!” or “She’s not manic, she’s just a night owl” (Who doesn’t sleep for 48 hours and take spontaneous trips across the country?)

So I wanted to tell Brené Brown that she could stuff it with her vulnerability.

But dang, she is so convincing with her extensive research based on the lived experiences of thousands of research participants and her words ring true as she weaves in her own experiences and struggles with vulnerability. My researcher analytical brain was immediately drawn in, but my repressed emotional brain said, “Shut it down!” Vulnerability is hard. It carries an incredible level of risk. But Brené tells us that it is worth it – “With every ounce of my professional and personal being, I believe that vulnerability – the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome – is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.”

Why is vulnerability so hard? Because shame is so hard. And unfortunately, our current society is a wasteland of worthiness and a minefield of shame. No matter what our measure of success is, it is a constantly moving target that is always just out of our reach. We make ourselves believe that we will never be enough. And my brain told me resolutely that mental illness = not enough. That kind of shame is an exquisite level of pain that feels intolerable, so it seems like the only other options are to armor up and numb the pain. I have quite the repertoire of numbing techniques whether it’s binge-eating, self-injuring, drinking or busying myself to the breaking point – there are very few limits to the lengths I will go in order to numb and avoid the pain of shame. Unfortunately, those outlets only vent the shame in the short-term, while compounding more shame on the other side. I know it’s true, yet I still do it because facing the shame head-on seems like an insurmountable and deeply painful task.

Unfortunately, when we armor up and protect ourselves from the vulnerability that might reveal our shame, we are also damaging our potential for positive experiences. Brené says, “Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”

Blast. So, do I just start shouting off the rooftops, “Hey! I’m bipolar, depressed, suicidal, oh and I hurt myself to deal with it!”? Well, no. I don’t think that’s what Brené is suggesting. But, how about when I refuse to admit this to even my family who loves me unconditionally? Keeping that secret is my way of armoring up to keep everyone at arm’s length. This strategy ultimately damages my relationships. It may be a more passive and avoidant type of damage, but it still destructs the foundations of connection. It subliminally communicates that: I do not believe I am worthy of your love; I don’t trust you to love me if you knew my imperfections; and if I can’t receive your love and care, I sure as heck can’t give it back with any level of authenticity. This is clearly not a recipe for joy, love or belonging. If I want to build authenticity in my relationships, I need to practice vulnerability even when it sucks.

Here’s the thing, I want to show up and live a wholehearted life. I want to embrace what I’ve learned from Brené Brown’s work and I want to be a catalyst for others to have courage and step into the arena. It is hard. I will fail and fall down face-first along the way. But I need my tribe to help me get up off the ground. I can’t do it alone, nor do I want to do it alone anymore.

I’ll leave you with a paraphrase of some of Brené’s core ideas that can be found in “Daring Greatly” (p. 10-11):

  1. Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women and children. We’re hard-wired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging and connection always leads to suffering.
  2. Those who feel lovable, who love and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love, belonging and joy.
  3. Belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen. It’s cultivated through daily choices and practices.
  4. The main concern for wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage, compassion and connection.
  5. The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion and connection.

So my friends, let’s go out, show up, be seen and live brave for the promise that it will be worth it in the end.

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Originally published: July 5, 2019
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