Learning to Embrace Vulnerability

Last week, I got on stage at The Moth’s storySLAM event and shared a very personal story about struggles that I faced during veterinary school. During my second year, I was dealing with some serious mental health issues and had to take a short break from school to address them. It was a difficult story even to write, and when I heard my name called to get on stage, I felt my heart jump into my throat. Am I really going to get on stage in front of ~300 strangers and share one of my most intimate experiences? I did, and it was more rewarding than I ever imagined.

For those that are unfamiliar with The Moth’s storySLAMs, anyone wanting to tell a story puts their name in a bag, and 10 names are randomly selected to get on stage. Each story is scored, and at the end of the night, the person with the highest score wins. At the end of the night last Tuesday, I was tied with another storyteller for the high score, and based on the scoring rules, I won!

Since that night, I’ve been thinking about this experience quite a bit and wondering: what made getting on stage and sharing this very personal experience so personally rewarding? and why did others enjoy this story enough for me to get a high score and win the event? Most of the winning stories at the Moth’s events that I have previously attended were funny. This made complete sense to me because people love to laugh and laughter has been shown to provide numerous health benefits. My story did have glints of humor to break up the seriousness, but it would certainly not be classified as a funny story.

Then, on the way home from work yesterday, I caught a short segment of an interview on the radio with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. I was instantly fascinated with her and her work. First, she considers herself a “researcher-storyteller”. Holy cow, that’s me! Or, at least it’s how I would consider myself. More like a “pathologist-storyteller”, but still, close enough. She has spent 16 years as a vulnerability researcher, and her work focuses on studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. I have personally spent the last 14 years studying these things about myself through therapy and introspection. She is an author, speaker, and gave a very well-received TED talk about the power of vulnerability in 2010 . I listened to this 20 minute talk and took notes… four pages of notes! She did an amazing job describing her work in an interesting and relatable way.

So, what does Dr. Brown’s research have to do with my Moth story? The answer is vulnerability and courage.

After telling my story, we had an intermission. On my way to the bathroom (my legs were still shaking from the adrenaline) a large muscular man with a shaved head and killer beard stopped me. He said, “Lora, right?”

I nodded.

“Great story. That was really brave.”

I thanked him, but silently wondered, “Brave, really?”

As I listed to Brené Brown’s TED talk, I realized that what I did was indeed courageous, and that was exactly why the audience connected with my story and precisely what made me feel so good about sharing it. When I got up on that stage and bared my soul, I put myself in an extremely vulnerable position. According to Dr. Brown, vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. Back in May, I told a very different, but equally personal story about coming to terms with losing my mother as a 7-year-old child. I shared this in front of hundreds during the live storytelling event “Listen to Your Mother”. This was a similarly vulnerable yet rewarding experience. For years, I felt embarrassed of these experiences and struggled to share these feelings with even those that were closest to me, let alone an audience full of strangers. Opening yourself up to vulnerability is terrifying. Experiencing emotional pain and grief is unpleasant. In the past, like so many others, I preferred to numb my pain/grief/vulnerability in the form of binge eating, drugs, and alcohol. It’s easier to not feel those things, but here lies the problem (as so beautifully described by Dr. Brown): you can’t selectively numb the bad stuff (ie: pain, grief, vulnerability) and still fully experience the good stuff (ie: love, joy, happiness). And when we inadvertently numb the good stuff, we feel unfulfilled and miserable.

I have spent most my life being ashamed of my weaknesses and feeling unworthy of love. In many instances, I chose to isolate myself rather than leave myself vulnerable; I chose to numb myself rather than feel emotional pain. It took nearly 37 years, but I finally see the benefits of fully embracing my imperfections and vulnerability, and they are huge. Embracing these things opens the door to loving myself, something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. 

Is it easy to get on stage and share a very personal story with hundreds of strangers? No, definitely not. But honestly, I love doing it. It’s hard to explain how incredibly rewarding it is to share something that was previously a source of profound shame and see it met with love and compassion. This happened both of the times that I shared a highly personal story in front of an audience. 

I have personally found that the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the happier I am and the better I feel about myself. I was thrilled to find that there is actual research in this area, and I look forward to learning more about it. One of Dr. Brown’s books, Daring Greatly, is currently downloaded on my Kindle waiting to be read. In the meantime, I will continue this path of vulnerability and see where it takes me.

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