Vulnerability is the Best Measure of Courage
Recently, I discovered Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast. Although I rarely watched her on television, I now avidly listen to her audio show, both intrigued by her inspiring messages as well as impressed with the insightful individuals she invites to share their stories. Oprah’s guest list amazes me… Eckhart Tolle, Don Miguel Ruiz and Paulo Coelho… Shirley MacLaine, Shondra Rhimes, and Maria Shriver. She’s even interviewed Tom Brady and Jimmy Kimmel! But, in my opinion, three of her best shows feature Brene Brown. If you’ve never heard of Brene, she’s a social scientist and research professor at the University of Houston and author of many books, including Daring Greatly and Rising Strong. What impacts me the most about Brene during her SuperSoulinterviews is her uncanny ability to speak the truth in simple, plain language. She’s a master at explaining a complicated concept by applying it to real life situations, ones that we can all understand and relate to.
This morning during my run, I listened to Oprah’s most recent episode featuring Brene. Entranced by her stories, I continuously wanted to stop… open up “Notes” on my iphone… and write down Brene’s words of wisdom. Her verbiage resonated strongly with me. I kept thinking, Wow, she’s nailing it. But then she said something that hit me hard:“Vulnerability is the best measure of courage.” This made me stop… physically and mentally.
You’re courageous if you show your vulnerable areas? Wait…weren’t we taught that it was bad to reveal our weaknesses? I thought that a strong person kept a stiff upper lip, hid her issues, and didn’t wear her emotions on her sleeve. After all, if people know our faults, our insecurities, and our deficits, aren’t we at risk? Can’t they use that knowledge to hurt us? The rest of the run I contemplated these questions.
After reflecting on her insightful quote, it became clear to me that it’s easy to own our positive qualities. We all like to identify with our perceived strengths, those traits that our high school friends mentioned when they wrote in our yearbook. But the shadows, those inferior qualities that we don’t like and often refuse to acknowledge, well that’s another story. We do our best to hide these disowned parts of our personality from others and ourselves at all costs. Why would we ever expose our soft side? That’s the exact area that we need to protect, armor, conceal. Right?
Actually, no… these shadows, our vulnerabilities, need to be allowed out of the dark. For if they are ignored, berated, hidden, how can we ever resolve these issues, deal with what’s truly holding us back in our growth towards becoming the best versions of ourselves?
What if we didn’t look at these weaknesses, vulnerabilities, the “less than” sides of ourselves as bad? What if we accepted that everyone has challenges, areas that actually provide opportunities for personal growth? If we shift our perspective and changed our paradigms, instead of admonishing our shadows, could we shine a light on them? If so, would they still be our shadows? For how can a shadow exist when it is illuminated?
Maybe you’re asking, “Why go there? Can’t we just leave those unacceptable aspects of ourselves alone, ignore them, and pretend that they don’t exist?” Of course we can. In fact, we’ve become quite adept at hiding these unwelcome elements of ourselves. But if we continue to snub the undesirable parts of our being, do you really think that they’ll go away on their own…disappear forever? That would certainly be lovely, but I doubt it will ever happen. So, what if we took another approach and decided to embrace those shadows, offer them love, help them come into the light, where they can be realized, accepted, and maybe even healed? Perhaps a real life example will help illustrate this idea.
One of the shadows or vulnerabilities that I have recently “shined the light on” is my need to control. Whenever I feel like part of my life is in chaos, I immediately switch into my Type A, obsessive, organizing, take charge personality. I’ll start cleaning out drawers, rearranging furniture, tackling that storage closet in the basement, and dealing with projects that I’ve put on the back burner. But it doesn’t stop with a healthy house cleaning. Nope, my control shadow is sneaky… it disguises itself as “productive,” but in reality it can be quite damaging. I often start micromanaging those around me, overstepping boundaries as I try to “fix” what’s wrong in my husband’s and my two adult sons’ lives. I might not be able to control my bedlam, but damn it, I will definitely get the rest of my life (and the lives of those closest to me) in order!
Now if I were to shed a light on my controlling tendency, what might I find? I’ve recently been thinking a lot about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I try to control to combat my fear. It’s as simple as that. When I’m afraid that I cannot “fix” something that’s going on in my life, I redirect my energy and “repair” what I can. While intellectually I recognize that I can do nothing about the original issue, to deal with this feeling of helplessness, I start “doing” in other areas of my life and at times, cross boundary lines and try to “do” what is not mine to “do” for others. Illuminating this shadow has allowed me to look at the root cause. Have I conquered it, banished the shadow forever? Absolutely not… but I am now conscious of the why behind these actions.
Understanding that fear drives my controlling behavior allows me to be aware of this unhealthy pattern, perhaps even prevents myself from falling into these predictable “doings.” Hopefully, by owning my shadow, accepting it, I can stop in my tracks, acknowledge that I’m afraid of something, that I feel helpless. Then, maybe I can deal with the real issue and feel the accompany emotions instead of focusing my energy elsewhere, avoiding the inevitable pain of accepting what is. It won’t be easy, but the best choices rarely are, another tidbit Brene Brown shared today!
The bottom line is that it takes courage to allow people to see all of us, to expose our shadows. We prefer to bury the beasts, hide the hideous, and conceal our conflicts. But, our shadows define who we are, just as much as our strengths do. Permitting others to witness our weaknesses, taking off our armor, and opening our hearts sounds terrifying. There’s always a risk that we’ll be hurt, humiliated, ridiculed. But what about the reward of owning our dark sides? What if we tried to shine the light on these shadows? Could we learn to accept those things about us that make us cringe, embarrass us, and give us remorse? Could owning all of us help us to change negative behavioral patterns, ultimately opening ourselves up to receive more?
I believe that it’s the only way to make a change. Accepting all of who we are, the good, the bad, and the ugly… and then owning the emotions that go with the realization that we can be better is truly the definition of courage… it’s being brave enough to accept those parts of us are not perfect.
Just for tomorrow, decide to be courageous…. wear your heart on your sleeve… open yourself up... allow others to see who you really are. If you’re hesitant to show a weakness or display a vulnerability, then ask yourself this… “What is the worst thing that might happen?” My guess is that the other person who you don’t want to see that “shadow” already recognizes this trait in you, knows what you’ve been hiding, ignoring, or concealing for so long. And if she didn’t already realize it, if she’s a good, kind soul, she’ll accept you for who you are… your wonderful, imperfect self!