This week in Sunday Life I get deliberately vulnerable

Illo by Erik Marinovich

I love the number three. It’s a thing (as they say on Twitter, preceded by a “hashtag”). When things come in threes – three knock-backs, three mentions of the same person in a week – I’ve learned to take note. And something always comes of it. There’s nothing particularly woo-woo about this predilection. I’m a wary, hesitant person – it takes three strikes, generally, for me to notice and trust something, and then to act.

This week University of Houston scientist Brene Brown told me she’s a three kind of a kid, too. Of course, I got around to watching Brown on TED.com only after three people mentioned her to me. Her talk on vulnerability has since become one of the most popular TED presentations ever. And so I contacted her to see if I could interview her for this column on Skype. And whattayaknow, she replied immediately to say she was due in Sydney the very day I was also going to be in town.

Woo-woo? Or just weird? Whatever. We met.

Can I just say, I was more excited about meeting Brown than anyone I’ve encountered in my weekly journey for this column. Three hands down. Brown’s spent eight years studying thousands of people to determine how best to live a wholehearted life.

It drills down to this: being vulnerable.

Her work found vulnerability was what all wholehearted people had in common, and that it led to authenticity and connection with others, and also creativity and joy.

To get truly happy is to strip our defenses.

But Brown goes further. She actually lives through the pain of this truth personally. AKA, she has a breakdown. Halfway through her research she realized her life was not wholehearted, that her control-freakish, white-knuckled grip on reality prevented her from being truly vulnerable. So she spent a year getting real and raw and stripped back. Before emerging with her groundbreaking conclusions. It wasn’t pretty, she tells me.

As a fellow control freak I had to know how she did it.  In the final, messy wash-up, how did she let go? On Thursday she shared her techniques with me. “It takes work and practice,” she says. She argues becoming truly authentic and compassionate and connected doesn’t happen magically.

“You have to get deliberate.”

I love this. Deliberate. As in, not flaccidly expecting it to just happen, but, making it happen with focused techniques. Applied with fired-up focus.

This means actively letting go of certainty. Do you stall on decisions by asking everyone else around you their opinion? Hey, me too. And, hey, Brown, too. She deliberately notes when this happens. “It’s a red flag.” It means she’s gripping at certainty. When this happens she stops and deliberately sits in the “not knowing” a bit longer. A gut instinct will then always emerge.

Her green flag is discomfort. When she feels antsy she turns a ring on one of her fingers and reminds herself ,“This is supposed to be uncomfortable…it means something is growing.” Sitting in discomfort also builds strength – a reservoir of resilience – for the truly tough times.

Saying I love you first, doing something with no guarantees, investing in a relationship that might not work, waiting calmly and maturely for your mammogram results….it flexes the wholehearted muscle.

I tried this during the week – being uncomfortable, not running from it, not blocking it with distractions or another handful of corn chips or pithy justifications. My weakness is an inability to be wrong. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m wrong often. But I’ve become really seductive at explaining it away before I can be seen in my wrongness. I got pulled up on something (too personal to mention here, sorry) this week.  It made me squirm a thousand squirms. Admitting guilt also meant letting a bunch of people down and looking a fool for doing so – a double shame-whack. I wanted desperately to bombard the confrontation with bombastic and diversionary reasoning. But I didn’t. I sat in the irkness and eventually said, “I got that so wrong. I’m very sorry.”

Then a lovely thing happened. The other person softened and simply said, “That’s OK. I can see you’re sorry.”

And that’s the point.

Being vulnerable is about going to the exposed, outer limbs of the tree. And being seen.

And then allowing the other person the honour of catching you when you tumble into the uncertainty. Otherwise you’re just hiding in the foliage.

Check out Brene Brown’s blog Ordinary Courage here. As I mentioned in a previous post, interviewing Brene was a column-writing highlight. Her book The Gift of Imperfection shifted me.

How do you get deliberate…do you have a mantra for getting solid and fired up and definite with your intent and your actions?

Have your say, leave a comment.