Brene (rhymes with Renee) Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability has been viewed 18 million times (it’s below this post if you want to watch it). But if you’ve never heard of her, don’t feel too bad…I was probably somewhere in the 17 millions in terms of discovering her. I’ll admit that when listening to her, I had one of those ugly internal moments of I-already-knew-that-it’s-so-obvious-duh moments…also known as jealousy.
Her message is pretty straightforward: Being vulnerable makes you strong, not weak; and vulnerability is very healing. The reason I felt such jealousy is that I’ve believed this message for a long time. It has essentially been at the core of my teaching philosophy since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation about this exact topic – teachers of English being willing to be vulnerable so students will feel free to explore core issues as they read and write. Basically, I was (and am) jealous that no one invited me to give this Ted Talk, thus launching my multi-million dollar career as a speaker/coach/knowitall who gets paid to simply think what he thinks, and to tell others. I mean, that’s what I’ve always wanted to do! Heck, that’s exactly what a teacher does for a living!
But this post isn’t about how jealous I am of Brene Brown for stealing my calling and making it her own. It’s about the need for those of us who have mental illnesses to speak openly about them. For the first 24 years of my life, all I knew about my brain was that I felt anxious all the time. I shared it with some people, but honestly, it takes quite a while before you begin to realize that other people don’t have the same internal responses to things as you do. I knew I felt anxious as hell, but I didn’t know it meant anything unusual.
After being diagnosed with OCD (my first of many diagnoses), I was embarrassed to share it with anyone, believing that their unspoken reaction would be something like this: “Get over yourself! Everyone has things they obsess about. All that mental illness stuff is trumped up, and you just need to pray a bit more or maybe start exercising. Geez, dude, get a grip!”
I fought through ten years of this battle with nothing but shame that I was seeing a psychiatrist and taking an anti-depressant. It took a trip to the mental hospital and abject despair before I became willing to talk about this battle. When I did so, it was in the form of writing a memoir. As someone who can’t bear the baffling looks on people’s faces when I share something intimate with them, I took the I-have-to-tell-you-this-but-I-can’t-be-there-to-wonder-what-the-look-on-your-face-means way out, I wrote down what I needed to say and then sat in terror, waiting for the rejection and judgment to make its way to me.
To this day, I remain somewhat shocked that the only people who have been entirely critical are a few Amazon reviewers who I don’t know (quick side note: If you ever write a book, do NOT read people’s reviews of it. If you’re like me, you will even wonder why the positive ones weren’t more positive, and you’ll daydream about tracking down the bad reviewers to leave flaming bags of dog poop on their front steps.). Every single person I know who’s read my book and had anything to say has said things like: “Wow, you’re brave!” or “Thank you for helping me understand mental illness a bit better” or “Thank you for putting into words what I feel but can’t express.” Perhaps the greatest compliment I received was from one of my sisters. It’s a running joke in our family that the most complex book she’s ever read was Goodnight Moon when her children were young. Even that one left her wondering why someone would talk to the moon; after all, it doesn’t have ears. We tried explaining it to her, but books just aren’t her thing (love ya, Denise!). So the compliment was that she read the whole thing in one day. That feat tripled her reading intake for the decade.
So, as it turns out, spilling my guts for anyone to read turned out to be incredibly liberating and reassuring. People not only still accepted me, they even praised me for being bold. The same thing has happened in my experience as a teacher. I’ve become more and more willing to share my struggles, when appropriate, with my students. A couple of years ago when I was talking with them about OCD, one of them blurted out, “Ok, I have it too. I’ve never told anyone that…” We were all taken aback and I think someone asked him why he had somewhat randomly blurted it out. He said it was because I was being so open and honest about it that he was inspired to do the same.
This post is certainly not intended to tell you how awesome I am at being vulnerable. I still suck at face to face, raw honesty because of that whole what-are-they-thinking thing. My point is this: If you have a mental illness, find a way to be vulnerable with someone (or some group) about it. You won’t believe how freeing it is, I promise! And if you don’t have one, find a way to let your friends know that you’re someone they can talk to honestly. Usually, this involves your vulnerability about one of your struggles.
If people need more of anything in this confusing, sometimes-maddening life, they need to know that it’s okay to be exactly who they are. Sadly, the places where people ought to be able to be the most “real” are often the places where the most pretending and mask-wearing occur: churches, families, etc. Groups like AA or the random assortment of people who were with me in the mental hospital turn out to be the groups where one can be most raw and honest, most vulnerable.
I’ll end with this: If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution worth pursuing, consider setting some tangible goals about being vulnerable with others. Try to be specific about with whom you will share X, Y, or Z, and follow through before the New Year motivation wears off (for me, this is around January 4th). You’ll be glad you did, and Brene Brown and I will be proud of you.
PS. I’ll be blunt and shameless: I’m in the midst of a mental-health-induced career shift…for the first time in my adult life, I don’t have the creative outlet for my excessive mental energy of teaching. Writing this blog has provided a nice outlet for me to share what’s in my head as I used to through teaching. I want this blog/mental health advocacy/speaking to somehow become part of my new career path. 2 favors to consider: 1. Follow the blog by email rather than Facebook or Twitter (below or on the home page). This just helps more random people from Nova Scotia find it on search engines. 2. Share it with someone else who might be glad to know it exists. If you fail to do either of these, I promise not to leave flaming bags of dog poop on your front step. No promises about the garage though.
See Brene Brown’s Ted Talk below…