Thursday, April 23, 2015

Seen

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do when we’re terrified about what people might see or think. 
-Brene’ Brown

When I was in grad school I shared something deeply private with one of my professors. It’s common for personal things to come up for counseling students as they study how to help others. I remember feeling so relieved when my experience wasn’t judged, but rather, it was validated and normalized. I’ll never forget as I was getting ready to leave my professor told me that I might feel really exposed and wish I hadn’t shared, and that was normal too. I’ve been reminded of that all week because over the weekend I shared part of my story in a public forum. While it was well received and it encouraged others, I left feeling completely naked, vulnerable, and wanting to hide. As I start to crawl out of the shell I retreated to, I consider the ambivalence around being seen.

Most of us have some aspect of our being that we’re afraid to share for fear of judgment. There are things that we fear if anyone else knew, then at best, they’d misunderstand and assume things about us, and at worst, they’d reject us. Since connection is such a vital human need and rejection is so painfully intolerable, we stay silent. We hide. We keep these parts of who we are far away from others and sometimes even from ourselves. We go through life and experience some measure of loving connection. But internally we wonder, if you really knew me, all of me, would you love me the same?

Here's the thing though. Intimacy has been defined as seeing others as they are. It requires removing any pretense or fa├žade. It demands discomfort. There are high risks and high rewards. You really never know how it'll all work out. Certainly, there's the potential for genuine connection with others and that feels euphoric. But guess what? You could also vulnerably share a private part of yourself and people want nothing to do with it. There really are no guarantees.
It would be easy at this point to end with an exhortation to be courageous and face your fears. I could say the world needs more vulnerability. I could emphasize the incredible payoff to radical genuineness. I do believe all of that. However, having just experienced the feeling of exposure, I want to normalize the fear, as my professor did for me. I want to assure you it's okay to occasionally go into self-protective mode. I can understand the need to withdraw a bit and seek emotional safety after a personal disclosure. It's kind of like tripping in front of people (or flubbing your words, having your stomach growl, or any other normal, yet awkward human experience). You feel flushed and embarrassed. You're self-conscious because others noticed. Maybe most people were gracious and didn't make it a big deal, but there was one person who shined the spotlight. Just remember that it happens to all of us. Have compassion on your humbled state. Perhaps you take a break and lay low for a bit to regroup. Retreat if that's what it takes to restore the balance. Just don't stay hidden forever. Get out there again. Show up and be seen.