psychology

Vulnerability

Apparently, there’s a new movement afoot.    It’s all about the wonders of being vulnerable and in order for the world to continue on its axis, we must all be live and breathe in the suits we wear, purchased at the Vulnerability Shop at the nearest mall.

I don’t get it.

I’ve lived 54 years on this Big Blue glass cat’s eye and I always thought vulnerability was one of the worst words anyone could think, write, utter, use an an adjective to describe a levy, a military position or a person.

Vulnerability means a breach…a breach means weakness and weakness is just a hop, skip and a jump away from full on catastrophe.

Nope, says Dr. Brené Brown, the latest avant thinker on the Oprah Winfrey Shelf Of Iconography.   She’s been a frequent  guest on O’s channel and can be seen  on several different Super Soul Sunday segments.    She’s a human Pez dispenser of tweetable quotes that delight Oprah and sates her audience of the wisdom starved.  brene

As for Brown, she’s a Texas girl, I think.    At least her accent is persuasive.   I do know for a fact that she has Lone Star roots.  She was educated  at the Universities of Texas and Houston, respectively.   She’s a professor of Social Work  at U of H, but I have a feeling that she’ll have her own show on OWN soon.   Oprah has a big ol’ girl crush on this chick.  I’ve seen that look in Oprah’s eye before.   Last time it glistened that way , Dr. Phil’s career was was born.

Anyway, Brown is obviously a clever gal who is likeable once you realize the platform on which she speaks.    She’s also  one of the few scholars around who researches, writes and lectures on the subjects of shame, authenticity and of course,  vulnerability.

Now, here’s the deal with all this:  I actually think I can better understand the psycho/social/political ramifications of the human genome project on  Aloite Muslims who eat pork platters during Ramadan, than comprehend this stuff.

But Brown is growing on me.  According to her curriculum vitae,  has spent more than a decade studying connection – specifically authenticity, belonging, and shame, and the affect these powerful emotions have on the way we live, love, parent, work and build relationships.

Easy enough to comprehend, but why is it hitting me in the forehead and circling there like errant electrons?

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”

― Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Yeah, right and all, but how is this mindset any different from that of any other professor cum New Age human guilt remover?

Well, when I did a little digging, I realized that Brown isn’t trying to remove shame from our lengthy lifetime library catalogs of failure.   She wants us to embrace it.     She claims guilt is good and one helluva motivator to ‘stay on track’ because it’s in direct correlation with our behavior.    And providing we’re not sociopaths, we know that guilt rears its little head when we compare something we’ve done—or not done—with our personal values.      Thrill stealing,  eating two pounds of Amedei  truffles in thirty minutes,  cheating on a test,  philandering…. any good Catholic or Jew will tell you  the list of guilt ridden examples is endless.    The deal is, the discomfort it causes can, if we let it,  result in positive changes, namely in how we see ourselves and others.

Brown goes further to explain that there are huge differences between classic guilt and that good oil’ get down dirty shame which she insists is a totally separate emotion.

But wHat’s the difference?

She cites this example:    ” If you made a mistake that really hurt someone’s feelings, would you be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake”?    If you’re experiencing guilt, the answer is yes: “I made a mistake.” Shame, on the other hand, is “I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” Shame doesn’t just sound different than guilt; it feels different. Once we understand this distinction, guilt can even make us feel more positively about ourselves, because it points to the gap between what we did and who we are—and, thankfully, we can change what we do.”

Okay, but wouldn’t we have to be fairly evolved to separate the emotional wheat from the condemning  chaff as soon as its presented to us?

In Laurieland yes—in Brené Brown’s very researched world, no.

She also writes about perfectionism which she claims isn’t at all about  achievement, but rather a   belief that if we live perfectly, look and act perfectly, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame of ourselves and others. But the word perfect is an aberration.

I grew up in a world that was based on  on performance,  the focus was on the outer Laurie and how that reflected on my parents.    Grades, manners, sports, how I dressed,  cheerleading, gymnastics, being popular at school,  being loved by my teachers who because of the small town I called home, had also taught my sisters, most of my cousins, aunts, uncles and my mother and father.     I sought praise from my parents, but that was for naught.  They were withholding, at least to my face.   I’d hear  from other people how proud they were.    I guess they didn’t want to play favorites or fill my head with ego.     So, I went to great lengths to hear I was talented, smart, funny from anyone with a pulse. I didn’t care that my friendships  should have clued me in to the fact that I was a good friend in returned,   that my good  grades reflected my intellect and drive…that a display case filled with ribbons and awards indicated my talents.       I needed a constant flow of emotional recompense from outside sources.

But the reality is I’m hardly alone in this sad pup tent.   I know tens of people, especially around my age who grew up this way and consequently chose careers that were performance based.     I learned early on how rewarding it was to be able to make people laugh.       And I did laugh clown laugh posterthis by going for the laugh regardless of the price.    And make no mistake, there was always a price  in one way or another.    I grew up with this self imposed bounty  on my head.      In  the end, everyone applauded but me.     THINK:   Lon Chaney’s Tito in the 1928 silent flick, “Laugh Clown, Laugh”.      The resulting rush of emotion rush was too short lived.    You can’t give a starving Biafran child a few bread crumbs every other day and expect her to be sustained.

The one positive in all this is that   I have learned we evolve from the guilt/shame continuous loop, that plays in our heads. Think of an old flame.     At one time the loss of this person could make you wail like a banshee.    Years later, when you think of him or her,  IF you ever think of him or her, you feel no emotion at all.     You’re over it.   To me, that’s more of a definition of evolution than anything Darwin could present.   In this day an age, it’s all about the emotional  evolution.       I think we all have our personal thoughts on the on the subject that we humans once had  webbed toes, gills, scales and  communicated with the monosyllabic “Ugh”; that subject has grown tired and boring.      Besides, I’m fairly sure Charles Bronson was the missing link.  Call me crazy.    

The emotional spelunking is all we have left.

This is what Brown does, in essence.   She feels if you ask yourself  “How can I improve?” , that’s a form of perfectionism that  keeps  focus elsewhere.      It basically means you’re asking yourself or anyone listening and willing to opine,  “What will they think?”     It’s all part of that perfectionism bugaboo which in the long run, always hampers success and allows entré to a  whole slew of vices and mind screwing negatives.

Like vulnerability.

Ah…okay,   I think I’m getting this, especially when I realize that an earthquake is the planet’s way of letting off steam,   that a hole in a darkened cave  lets light in….and air.     That a castle without its impervious moat and drawbridge and vassals on the rooftops  at the ready with vats of boiling oil ready to spill on marauders who dare get close to the walls,   well…maybe that’s not the best analogy.   But those who breech the castle aren’t always the bad guys.    Sometimes, a battering ram is the only way to enter…

Or exit.

So then, the question beckons:  is imperfection the  only perfect thing we know for sure??

And this intriguing point forces me to think.   We don’t do enough editing or Photoshopping  of  our thoughts.   In fact, we should Air Brush the shit out of them, not for the sake of  rearranging or completely morphing  bad memories into something more palatable, but for the character  these life lessons can build.    Kennedyesque as this might sound,   we sometimes have to do what’s uncomfortable, because it’s the right thing to do.

CASE IN POINT:  

While in college, I was broke.   Couldn’t  even afford the the 15 cent packages of  ramen, the collegiate food staple.   I called my mother, crying, begging for money, embarrassed by  my underemployment and damned tired of the all consuming, relentless classes that were keeping me impoverished.   I was tired, burned out and feeling desperate on many levels.     I asked for cash and she told me no.   Flat out refused to give me a dime. I don’t remember her offering a reason why she refused to help.  She may have given one, but I was too hurt and overwhelmed by feelings of maternal betrayal to have heard a word.     She became the Queen Bitch in my eyes, cruel and heartless.

So, I begrudgingly realized that it was all up to me.  I  came to terms with the reality that I simply had to do survive on my own by doing more in some areas and not as much in others.    I had  to work more hours, study harder, party less, save more by any means legally necessary. For me, that meant collecting aluminum cans along the highway and stomaching the honks and cat calls from passersby.  I had to hock jewelry, I considered  surrogacy for barren couples, for a price,  thought about being  a guinea pig for outlandish medical experiments and getting involved in black market organ harvesting. I didn’t have to do anything unsavory…. I didn’t shrivel up and die.  I learned a great deal about my mother’s wisdom and a lot about myself.

Her response left me vulnerable and that  vulnerability forced to me to go to places I wouldn’t ordinarily go.      And there was absolutely nothing wrong with that, though it took me decades to realize what she did, had actually been a favor. I realized that a little  struggle often  builds character.  Hell, as the late Viktor Frankl who was held for years in a Nazi concentration camp and survived could attest, a lot of struggle can completely alter  perspective and often times, that  turns out to be a good thing—if we allow it to be.    It’s our choice, really.      If misery moves in, we have to decide how to treat it as the roommate from hell.

I still find myself in vulnerable states from time to time,  but that’s only because fear drives it into my life and parks in a red zone with time expired on the meter.     I have a better understanding of the cause and affect of  what vulnerability is...and isn’t....and that’s forcing me to rethink the entire process of rethinking.   I now get it.  Vulnerability is risk…and risk is worth it.    Closed doors, open windows.   Failure often breeds success.      A break up leads to an even more profound relationship.   Maybe we don’t realize any of this  at first, I mean, it’s hard to feel anything beyond the immediate   rage, pain and disappointment , but eventually clarity comes.

It’s like the ironic symbolism involved in removing a blindfold over our eyes after days of being forced to wear one in a room that’s very well lit.     The contrasting brightness  makes you wince, turn your head,  put your hands go up to your the eyes to replace the darkness that you once pleaded to escape, but going back to what’s familiar and dark sure beats the ocular pain and struggle involved in the the readjustment process.  Ma Nature made the eye resilient.    Its very make-up allows us to get used to either the bright sunlight or faded light, after  a while.      And the best thing about being blindfolded–if there is an upside?  If we’re ever kept from the light again,  if we learn from the experience, at least we’ll know what to expect and how to make necessary adjustments if the darkness is prolonged or  when brightness returns.”

And somehow, the light always does.

 

 

REFERENCES:    http://brenebrown.com/

The Glory of Misery

I have strange childhood memories.    

We were on the membership roster of a swimming pool that was open the day school let out for the summer and closed a few days before it started back up in the fall.   It was private,  which in the South Central Texas parlance of the time (it was the early 1960′s) meant whites only.

The founding fathers of this aquatic club decided that for safety’s sake and insurance liability, children under a certain age had to be accompanied by a parent.   If and when they passed a swimming test administered by a certified lifeguard (usually a High School coach needing extra cash during the summer or some acne riddled jock who needed to work but the area’s only other employment option for teenage boys–hauling hay–simply wasn’t an option.

For you urbanites, that mean physically moving large bails of hay from either one side of the farm or ranch to the other side…or….taking it to market.   Either way it was grueling work.   Hot, exhausting and thankless, but it kept the jocks in shape and well-tempered for the dreadful pre-season two-a days (football practice) that invariably came with playing  high school football.    Being a lifeguard and sitting in a chair under an oversize beach umbrella, smelling of Coppertone to high heaven and occasionally blowing  a punitive whistle at  young hellions like little Kenny Whozits for dunking little Cindy Whatzits near the deep end, was a glorious alternative.

I can remember taking a break from swimming and sitting in this covered alcove where the parents would sit.  It was composed of moms mostly.  Some came to the pool to sit and watch their kids; others turned it into a social hour and smoked, drank Tab and gossiped.  Others would come for a little quiet reading.    Back then, the books that fashionable literates brought with them to the pool  were “I’m OK; You’re OK” and “Jonathon Livingston Seagull”.   There might have been an occasional “Love Story” or “Gone With The Wind” in the line-up, but I remember the two a fore mentioned titles the most.

One of the books had what my grandfather would have called “one of damned them hippie peace signs” in the letter “O” of the OK in the title.    Decades later, I Googled the book to find out what was offering so many moms a literary reprieve from mothering.

Interesting.

As best I can tell, “I’m OK; You’re OK” was really,one of the very the first widely accepted books about a subject that now seems so ridiculously cliché and panel guest-like on the  Dick Cavett Show:  getting in touch with your inner child.  

I don’t mean to be condescending.  It’s just that the term is–or rather was– so hackneyed.   To be fair, I have NO DOUBT  at all that what we learn as children, be it good or bad, has a definite impact on adulthood–as long as it doesn’t become a panacea for every issue once we put away the dolls and Tonka trucks  and sprout pubes.   We can blame some things ( in some case, many things) on what we experienced as kids, but to make  a bad childhood a blanket excuse for every adult problem is conveniently irresponsible.

I’m not saying this is what author, Dr. Thomas Harris implied in his pages.   In all honesty, I’ve only skimmed the book.  I’m merely talking about the nonsense left by the others who took  the transactional therapy ball and ran with it,  all the way to the bank.

As for the other book?  Well, as a kid I had no idea why any adult would want to read about the antics of a seagull.  I’d spent time on the Texas Gulf Coast.  I knew what these birds were all about.  Seagulls were nothing more than airborne shit dispensers.     I also noticed that it was written by someone named Bach.   That stood out to me.  At the time, I was taking piano lessons and learning to play a few minuets that perhaps a distant relative might have composed.

In a nutshell, the  book is about growth.   Jonathan is a gull who’s passionate about flying.

Okay.

He goes to great lengths to learn the math of the talent nature gave him but apparently, his fellow birds don’t appreciate his zeal for the craft.   He’s deemed an outcast and heads out on his own, only to two other gulls who teach him a bunch of existential stuff and flight basically, becomes this homily for change and personal growth without the guilt.    Wow, a self-help book with anthropomorphic whimsy.

Man, you gotta love the 60′s.

Bach’s follow-up to the avian  tome, is Illusions: Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.  It’s also about change and learning and the teachers in our lives who help us accomplish this feat.   In this book,  Bach writes a great line:

Trouble is inevitable; misery is optional

I’ll take it one step further.  Misery  is a state of suffering to be sure, but it’s also a very attractive one.  No, not in the way like a pleasing personality  or a great sense of humor is.  It’s  attractive in a negative way. It draws attention.    I mean, think about it,  when we’re miserable, two things happen.  We’re abandoned because misery requires an emotional investment with which to contend…

OR….

The sympathetic people in our realm with go all Florence Nightingale and  feel sorry for us; take care of us.  They’ll bombard us with welfare calls, texts and emails.    We’re treated with kindness because no one wants to add insult to injury.  And this emotional gravy train runs along quite smoothly—-for a while anyway.    Some sad sacks will milk this for all its worth, buy eventually, that has to change.   He/she will have no choice . Misery might love company, but if a miserable person  makes the company miserable, the sources of all that attention, will go away and stay away.   Like the plague.  Dealing with/coping with a miserable person on a continuing basis takes an investment few people are willing to make.   Hell, even the guy  or gal in abject misery eventually has a tough time stomaching himself.

While growing up with had a devoted Cocker Spaniel mix named Frisky.   Wonderful dog who in late 1972, developed renal failure.  While my sisters and I were at school, my father decided that was the best time to “put Frisky out of her misery”.   She was buried in a far corner of the yard.     I can still get misty eyed at the thought at that sweet four-legged soul despite the fact that she’s been gone almost 42 years.

I had a cousin who had a genetic ailment. She died recently after years of dealing with so much pain.   She was a sweetheart of a girl, but she suffered terrifically.   Many have said that her death puts her in a better place; she too is  ‘out of her misery”.

I’m in complete agreement.   Especially where physical maladies are concerned.  Towards the end, my dog…..my cousin had no life.  Spiritually speaking, a beating heart  and respirating lungs don’t  constitute living.    Life is in the details; details  that go beyond oxygenated blood flow and brain waves.

By their deaths, are these loved ones  in a better place?   I don’t know.   Medical science and logic make every effort to assure me it means  they;re definitely not in pain.   That’s comfort for the living.

But there are aspects of mental/emotional suffering that I feel can be a positive experience.    Heartache is a game changer.     It can, if you let it, be a portal to some rock solid changes.  It can make you more self-aware;  it can break down barriers that have kept negative things internalized.    It can make us more empathetic;  hone our emotional  survival skills and can be one helluva wisdom inducer.   Reformed miserables (please re-read with a French accent) are some of the wisest people I know.

The results derives from bouts with human suffering, especially from heartache, is a lot like disaster science.   For example, we learn invaluable information about airplane safety after plane crashes.   Granted, it’s often at human expense, but well, that’s the circle of life.    We live, we die and somewhere in between that very stark beginning and end, we learn a few things along the way.   Life really is this metaphorical little red school-house.   We’re born (we get up in the morning).   We go to school (we start to grow). We matriculate 12 grades (we learn).  We graduate  (we die)

Some go on to advanced studies.    (Heaven)

Some opt for marriage (Hell)

Come on…I kid, I kid.  No emails or unsavory comments, please.   It was a joke.

Seriously,  my heart aches for all whose hearts ache, but trust me when I tell you that this too shall pass.   Bach, Lakewood megachurch  Pastor Joel Osteen and all the others who’ve made thematic variations  on the “troubles are inevitable/choosing misery or not” bandwagon, are quite right.  The power to decide is yours.

All yours.

But it’s just so goddamn ironic that more often than not, it takes being miserable and ultimately, surviving it to understand that it IS an option.

Live and learn, I guess.