Happiness Habit #5: Vulnerability and Authenticity
Perhaps one of the most difficult happiness habits to practice is the skill of vulnerability. Why? Because we are more often than not afraid of sharing our inner worlds with others. We fear that if we tell the truth or share how we are honestly feeling, then (gasp!) someone may be upset with us, not like us, and there may temporarily be some emotional current between two people that needs to be dealt with. This fear drives us to set up walls and protect ourselves in order to maintain the relationship status quo, and not rock the boat.
However, the consequences of living like this are immense. We are hard-wired for connection and relationships. And when we deny speaking our truth, then we are disconnected from others in our lives and not cultivating genuine, authentic relationships. Then we feel lonely and isolated. It also sends a message to ourselves that our thoughts and feelings, needs and wants, are not valid. Before others can possibly invalidate our experience, we do it to ourselves. Our feelings cannot be acknowledged and needs can’t be met if we are not at bare minimum expressing them.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown suggests that:
“… we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.”
It takes courage and bravery to be vulnerable. You are saying, “This is me, this is how I feel and think…” “I’m letting you in…” let’s discuss. As an aside, when we take accountability for our own feelings, we are not blaming the other person. After all, our emotions are a result of the meaning and interpretation we give an event, not the event itself.
There is nervous energy that forms when you are getting ready to be vulnerable, but research shows it takes 8 seconds of discomfort to get through that and then you feel relief from the anxiety. Compare that with the amount of time and mental energy we can spend when we have something stirring around in us that we want to express, but don’t, and ruminate on our thoughts. That can be hours - or days even - before eventually it comes out in one form or another because that energy needs to go somewhere.
How do we practice vulnerability and authenticity?
1. Get in tune with your own emotions.
You know when you are feeling something so be curious about what that is. Spend some quiet time listening to your body and internal dialogue in your mind. Accept it for what it is and be non-judgmental. Feelings are not based on logic or reason and they are not good or bad. They just give us information about a situation. Don’t tell yourself you “shouldn’t” feel a certain way or “it is dumb to feel this way” - you are just invalidating your own experience by doing that and starting a shame spiral. I work with many adult clients who have to work on this skill and grow their emotion vocabulary to be able to identify their emotions and describe them adequately.
2. Establish your morals and values.
Know yourself. And if you don’t have any idea who you are because you have spent too many years living as a people-pleaser, spend time exploring and figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and what morals and values you want to live by. You have the freedom to set those for yourself and also the (realistic) standards you want to live by. When you do this, you will have a clearer idea of boundaries that need to be set in order to maintain a life of integrity and authenticity. It is also easier to show up as the same person regardless of the scene if you know yourself in this way.
3. Stand up for yourself – set boundaries.
When someone or a situation is going against our morals and values, compromising our boundaries, then we will experience intense physical sensations. We become uncomfortable. Our heart races, our palms sweat, we may clench our fists or our chest may tighten. Listen to this. This is your body’s way of saying “this is not ok.” Then ACT and SAY SOMETHING. In the moment is best, but if you can’t do that yet, then work on addressing it soon after the event, after you’ve calmed your anxious energy. We have to teach others how to treat us and the only way they know what the rules and parameters are is if we tell them.
4. End relationships that are unhealthy.
People can violate our boundaries and treat us unfairly. If that continues to happen, then it is on you to end the relationship (or the alternative is to perpetually resent that person and have a disingenuous relationship). If you’ve done your part to ask for change and they continue to suck energy from your life, then walk away. It is ok. There are many other people in the world to be friends and partners with. Often times relationships and friendships serve a purpose at a given time or situation in our life, and then beyond that, it has run its course. Spend your time and energy focusing on those relationships that are healthy, where there is an even give and take, and you get joy from those relationships. You can’t change other people, but you can choose who you spend your time with.
5. Be able to hear complaints and feedback.
This does not mean you have to agree with it. Part of being and staying vulnerable is having an openness to what people have to say in response to you. I’m not talking about anonymous critical attacks like people can do via the internet, I’m talking about the ability to receive feedback from those closest to you. As an assertive communicator, you have the right to agree, disagree, or partially agree with a complaint that is offered about you or your behavior. Working with others in how you show up in their lives is a critical component to fostering connection and more secure relationships. No, it is not easy to hear a complaint, but none of us are perfect and unless we have the truth about how our actions are affecting others, we can’t change them. It goes both ways.
Brené Brown is the guru on courage, vulnerability, authenticity, and overcoming shame. Her TED Talk on Vulnerability is one of the top three most viewed TED talks ever:
I highly recommend her books I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough and The Gifts of Imperfection as starting places for her work.
If you would like to grow your vulnerability and authenticity skills, improve your relationships, reduce isolation and depression, please reach out and set an appointment. We’d love to help you with this most important skill!