The power of vulnerability
0:11 So, I'll start with this: a coupleyears ago, an event planner called me because I was going to do a speakingevent. And she called, and she said, "I'm really struggling with how towrite about you on the little flyer." And I thought, "Well, what'sthe struggle?" And she said, "Well, I saw you speak, and I'm going tocall you a researcher, I think, but I'm afraid if I call you a researcher, noone will come, because they'll think you're boring and irrelevant."(Laughter) And I was like, "Okay." And she said, "But the thingI liked about your talk is you're a storyteller. So I think what I'll do isjust call you a storyteller." And of course, the academic, insecure partof me was like, "You're going to call me a what?" And she said,"I'm going to call you a storyteller." And I was like, "Why notmagic pixie?" (Laughter) I was like, "Let me think about this for asecond." I tried to call deep on my courage. And I thought, you know, I ama storyteller. I'm a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that's what Ido. And maybe stories are just data with a soul. And maybe I'm just astoryteller. And so I said, "You know what? Why don't you just say I'm aresearcher-storyteller." And she went, "Haha. There's no suchthing." (Laughter) So I'm a researcher-storyteller, and I'm going to talkto you today -- we're talking about expanding perception -- and so I want totalk to you and tell some stories about a piece of my research thatfundamentally expanded my perception and really actually changed the way that Ilive and love and work and parent.
1:46 And this is where my story starts.When I was a young researcher, doctoral student, my first year I had a researchprofessor who said to us, "Here's the thing, if you cannot measure it, itdoes not exist." And I thought he was just sweet-talking me. I was like,"Really?" and he was like, "Absolutely." And so you have tounderstand that I have a bachelor's in social work, a master's in social work,and I was getting my Ph.D. in social work, so my entire academic career wassurrounded by people who kind of believed in the "life's messy, loveit." And I'm more of the, "life's messy, clean it up, organize it andput it into a bento box." (Laughter) And so to think that I had found myway, to found a career that takes me -- really, one of the big sayings insocial work is, "Lean into the discomfort of the work." And I'm like,knock discomfort upside the head and move it over and get all A's. That was mymantra. So I was very excited about this. And so I thought, you know what, thisis the career for me, because I am interested in some messy topics. But I wantto be able to make them not messy. I want to understand them. I want to hackinto these things I know are important and lay the code out for everyone tosee.
3:08 So where I started was withconnection. Because, by the time you're a social worker for 10 years, what yourealize is that connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose andmeaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter whether youtalk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse andneglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is --neurobiologically that's how we're wired -- it's why we're here. So I thought,you know what, I'm going to start with connection. Well, you know thatsituation where you get an evaluation from your boss, and she tells you 37things you do really awesome, and one thing -- an "opportunity forgrowth?" (Laughter) And all you can think about is that opportunity forgrowth, right? Well, apparently this is the way my work went as well, because,when you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you askpeople about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences ofbeing excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they toldme were about disconnection.
4:18 So very quickly -- really about sixweeks into this research -- I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutelyunraveled connection in a way that I didn't understand or had never seen. Andso I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out whatthis is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understoodas the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other peopleknow it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? The things I can tellyou about it: it's universal; we all have it. The only people who don'texperience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wantsto talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it. Whatunderpinned this shame, this "I'm not good enough," -- which we allknow that feeling: "I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, richenough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." The thing thatunderpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order forconnection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.
5:31 And you know how I feel aboutvulnerability. I hate vulnerability. And so I thought, this is my chance tobeat it back with my measuring stick. I'm going in, I'm going to figure thisstuff out, I'm going to spend a year, I'm going to totally deconstruct shame,I'm going to understand how vulnerability works, and I'm going to outsmart it.So I was ready, and I was really excited. As you know, it's not going to turnout well. (Laughter) You know this. So, I could tell you a lot about shame, butI'd have to borrow everyone else's time. But here's what I can tell you that itboils down to -- and this may be one of the most important things that I'veever learned in the decade of doing this research. My one year turned into sixyears: thousands of stories, hundreds of long interviews, focus groups. At onepoint, people were sending me journal pages and sending me their stories --thousands of pieces of data in six years. And I kind of got a handle on it.
6:34 I kind of understood, this is whatshame is, this is how it works. I wrote a book, I published a theory, butsomething was not okay -- and what it was is that, if I roughly took the peopleI interviewed and divided them into people who really have a sense ofworthiness -- that's what this comes down to, a sense of worthiness -- theyhave a strong sense of love and belonging -- and folks who struggle for it, andfolks who are always wondering if they're good enough. There was only onevariable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love andbelonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the peoplewho have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of loveand belonging. That's it. They believe they're worthy. And to me, the hard partof the one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we're notworthy of connection, was something that, personally and professionally, I feltlike I needed to understand better. So what I did is I took all of theinterviews where I saw worthiness, where I saw people living that way, and justlooked at those.
7:51 What do these people have incommon? I have a slight office supply addiction, but that's another talk. So Ihad a manila folder, and I had a Sharpie, and I was like, what am I going tocall this research? And the first words that came to my mind werewhole-hearted. These are whole-hearted people, living from this deep sense ofworthiness. So I wrote at the top of the manila folder, and I started lookingat the data. In fact, I did it first in a four-day very intensive dataanalysis, where I went back, pulled these interviews, pulled the stories,pulled the incidents. What's the theme? What's the pattern? My husband lefttown with the kids because I always go into this Jackson Pollock crazy thing,where I'm just like writing and in my researcher mode. And so here's what Ifound. What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to separatecourage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the original definition ofcourage, when it first came into the English language -- it's from the Latinword cor, meaning heart -- and the original definition was to tell the story ofwho you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, thecourage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves firstand then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassion withother people if we can't treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they hadconnection, and -- this was the hard part -- as a result of authenticity, theywere willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be whothey were, which you have to absolutely do that for connection.
9:39 The other thing that they had incommon was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that whatmade them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerabilitybeing comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as Ihad heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it beingnecessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you"first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, thewillingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after yourmammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not workout. They thought this was fundamental.
10:43 I personally thought it wasbetrayal. I could not believe I had pledged allegiance to research, where ourjob -- you know, the definition of research is to control and predict, to studyphenomena, for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my missionto control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is withvulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting. This led to a littlebreakdown -- (Laughter) -- which actually looked more like this. (Laughter) Andit did. I call it a breakdown; my therapist calls it a spiritual awakening. Aspiritual awakening sounds better than breakdown, but I assure you it was abreakdown. And I had to put my data away and go find a therapist. Let me tellyou something: you know who you are when you call your friends and say, "Ithink I need to see somebody. Do you have any recommendations?" Becauseabout five of my friends were like, "Wooo. I wouldn't want to be yourtherapist." (Laughter) I was like, "What does that mean?" Andthey're like, "I'm just saying, you know. Don't bring your measuringstick." I was like, "Okay."
12:02 So I found a therapist. My firstmeeting with her, Diana -- I brought in my list of the way the whole-heartedlive, and I sat down. And she said, "How are you?" And I said,"I'm great. I'm okay." She said, "What's going on?" Andthis is a therapist who sees therapists, because we have to go to those,because their B.S. meters are good. (Laughter) And so I said, "Here's thething, I'm struggling." And she said, "What's the struggle?" AndI said, "Well, I have a vulnerability issue. And I know that vulnerabilityis the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appearsthat it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. AndI think I have a problem, and I need some help." And I said, "Buthere's the thing: no family stuff, no childhood shit." (Laughter) "Ijust need some strategies." (Laughter) (Applause) Thank you. So she goeslike this. (Laughter) And then I said, "It's bad, right?" And shesaid, "It's neither good nor bad." (Laughter) "It just is whatit is." And I said, "Oh my God, this is going to suck."
13:41 And it did, and it didn't. And ittook about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realizethat vulnerability and tenderness are important, that they surrender and walkinto it. A: that's not me, and B: I don't even hang out with people like that.(Laughter) For me, it was a yearlong street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulnerabilitypushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but probably won my life back.
14:14 And so then I went back into theresearch and spent the next couple of years really trying to understand whatthey, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what are we doingwith vulnerability. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone instruggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numbvulnerability -- when we're waiting for the call. It was funny, I sentsomething out on Twitter and on Facebook that says, "How would you definevulnerability? What makes you feel vulnerable?" And within an hour and ahalf, I had 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what's out there. Having toask my husband for help because I'm sick, and we're newly married; initiatingsex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; askingsomeone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying offpeople -- this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And oneof the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability.
15:23 And I think there's evidence --and it's not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it's a hugecause -- we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort inU.S. history. The problem is -- and I learned this from the research -- thatyou cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff.Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here'sdisappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beersand a banana nut muffin. (Laughter) I don't want to feel these. And I knowthat's knowing laughter. I hack into your lives for a living. God. (Laughter)You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, ouremotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, wenumb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we arelooking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have acouple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
16:47 One of the things that I think weneed to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn't just have to beaddiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that's uncertaincertain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'mright, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain. The more afraid we are,the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics lookslike today. There's no discourse anymore. There's no conversation. There's justblame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge painand discomfort. We perfect. If there's anyone who wants their life to look likethis, it would be me, but it doesn't work. Because what we do is we take fatfrom our butts and put it in our cheeks. (Laughter) Which just, I hope in 100years, people will look back and go, "Wow."
17:52 And we perfect, most dangerously,our children. Let me tell you what we think about children. They're hardwiredfor struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babiesin your hand, our job is not to say, "Look at her, she's perfect. My jobis just to keep her perfect -- make sure she makes the tennis team by fifthgrade and Yale by seventh grade." That's not our job. Our job is to lookand say, "You know what? You're imperfect, and you're wired for struggle,but you are worthy of love and belonging." That's our job. Show me ageneration of kids raised like that, and we'll end the problems I think that wesee today. We pretend that what we do doesn't have an effect on people. We dothat in our personal lives. We do that corporate -- whether it's a bailout, anoil spill, a recall -- we pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a hugeimpact on other people. I would say to companies, this is not our first rodeo,people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, "We're sorry.We'll fix it."
19:01 But there's another way, and I'llleave you with this. This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen,deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even thoughthere's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent,that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in thosemoments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can Ibelieve in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" justto be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say,"I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'malive." And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is tobelieve that we're enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, thatsays, "I'm enough," then we stop screaming and start listening, we'rekinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler toourselves.
20:05 That's all I have. Thank you.