Then, during my first round of summer classes in graduate school, I found my book. It's been my solid favorite for a good three years now. it's a fantastic book, it altered the trajectory of my life, and I am perfectly pleased to have it stand as representative of my beliefs and values.
The book is The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. Her other books are also excellent, but this is the place to start.
To begin with, Dr. brown was the ideal person to grab my attention. She's a researcher in the field of social work, as fond of data and information as I am, and precise in her thinking. If you want to earn my trust in your claims, rigorous methodology goes a long way.
Second, she came by her path of vulnerability the hard way. Vulnerability is the centerpiece to her work, the antidote to shame and the key to meaningful living. She's not praising vulnerability because she's been rocking it her whole life--when you take that approach then I tend to suggest that we are just two very different people. She's praising vulnerability because she spent most of her life not being vulnerable, and saw where it got her (or failed to). She demonstrated that change was both possible and worthwhile.
For a more in-depth account of how she defines it and what it means, go watch her TED Talk. Vulnerability is about, among other things: tolerating uncertainty, accepting imperfection, and being seen for how you really are. When I first encountered her that summer, I was the worst at all of these.
A partial 2011 list of things I avoided because they made me feel vulnerable:
- Talking in groups where I didn't know everybody
- Sharing personal information online
- Showing emotion to clients or supervisors
- Expressing affection for friends
- Inviting people to do things
- Hoping that something I wanted would happen
- Feeling proud of my accomplishments
- Improvised role-playing
- Contacting strangers
- Acknowledging that I have an anxiety disorder
The full list would be very long. Honestly, I would do just about anything to avoid feeling vulnerable. Unsurprisingly, this had a paradoxical effect--I constantly felt afraid that eventually my defenses would fail and I'd be hit with everything I feared at once.
With an extensively dog-eared copy of Dr. Brown's book and some very supportive friends, I slowly began to make progress on this front. It wasn't easy--the night I published one particularly personal piece, I woke up two or three times in the night with nightmares. I calmed myself with my copy of Gifts of Imperfection--this feeling I was experiencing was what she calls a "vulnerability hangover," and not a sure sign that I had just ruined my life.
And for taking these steps, I was rewarded very quickly. I developed a strong online social network. I was more at ease in practicum interviews, and got my dream site for a year. People wrote to me telling me how my sharing about my mental health issues had affected them positively. The things that had been so painful in the beginning became comfortable and even rewarding.
Which brings us to the paradox of vulnerability. Vulnerability is about uncertainty and imperfection. If sharing about my anxiety has almost universally been met with a positive response in the past, it might be helpful to other people and empowering to me, but it's no longer contributing to my personal growth. Once all the things that had scared me became comfortable, I hit a vulnerability plateau.
Sometimes it's nice to just be comfortable, to feel secure that most things are going to go the way I want them to. But it's also a bit flat. To that end, I am inventorying for new growth edges: the things that are well within my capability to attempt, but I avoid them because I can't be certain of the response.
A partial 2014 list of things I still tend to avoid because they make me feel vulnerable:
- Sharing out-of-the-box ideas with my supervisors
- Asking for favors when I don't feel confident the answer is "yes"
- Writing without a clear idea of what I'm doing
- Writing fiction
- Showing affection for my mentors
- Sharing opinions without solid data to defend against naysayers
- Asking for constructive criticism
- Doing things that might make people think I am emulating Mark, or otherwise acknowledging that I look up to him
- Acknowledging that strangely specific fear
- Discussing feelings of anger or hopelessness
- Volunteering for responsibility in judging or at church
- Writing judge reviews
This is a preliminary list, and I'm sure I'll be (mentally) adding to it as I go. In the past few weeks I've made a concerted effort to notice when I'm shying away and push through, to good effect. If you've made a similar list I'd be interested in keeping in touch about progress.