In Hamlet, cranky Polonius gives his son Laertes, who is about to venture out into the world, this advice: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” (As it happens, it is ironic advice, as Polonius himself is duplicitous and rarely shows the self-awareness he wants his son to embrace.) Deep down, what Shakespeare is getting at is that you need not to be afraid to know yourself and accept yourself, flaws and all.
I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions, but this past New Year’s I had what I call a New Year’s revelation. Taking time out to disconnect and detox, I realized what happens when you fight feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and are not being your true self. When you shut those feelings off, you are disconnected from that which brings meaning to your life.
Brené Brown, a professor in the field of social work, has examined the issue of vulnerability and shame in human relationships. She sums it up perfectly in her latest book, Daring Greatly. She calls it “minding the gap.” The gap is the disconnection between values that are important to you and how you are living your actual life, day to day.
Minding the gap is a daring strategy. We have to pay attention to the space between where we’re actually standing and where we want to be. We don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with actions.
It’s clear from her research that a pathway to happiness is to accept yourself as you are, what I call living your authentic self. But many of us reject those feelings of vulnerability. We feel we are not good enough just being our ordinary selves.
Many women feel pressure to have the perfect body, well-behaved kids and an enriching group of friends, as well as the ability to cook like Nigella Lawson and have a stellar career. And for men, the research shows avoiding vulnerability, staying in control and being tough is seen as a key standard of masculinity.
A study by sociologist Deborah S. David and behavioral psychologist Robert Brannon describes the four cornerstones of American masculinity as “no sissy stuff;” “be a big wheel” (strive for achievement); “be a sturdy oak” (avoid vulnerability, be tough); and “give ’em hell.” Where on earth does accepting your vulnerability and living an authentic life fit among that? And why is it that so many of us stop living an authentic life?
It’s a slippery slope. Straying from the path of being your authentic self doesn’t happen in one day or even one week. It’s little by little that behaviors become habits.
Last year, at work and at home, I had been feeling increasingly disconnected and anxious. Stepping out of my comfort zone, which I usually relish, had filled me with fear. And invitations like speaking at my old university brought on an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability and being out of my depth.
It’s not easy to admit. Even writing about feeling vulnerable makes me feel anxious about what others might think. While we want to see vulnerability in others, we don’t feel comfortable showing it to ourselves. And I didn’t know why. But now I do. I realized I had not been living my authentic self. While writing and reporting on public health, like so many other people, I was too busy to exercise regularly and drank too much champagne and wine. And I had put work commitments above my family, friends and even myself.
I realize that I need to and want to let go of those practices which are no longer serving me. Drinking too much, neglecting my inner self, putting work first. Your list might resemble this or you may have come to rely on other crutches which are masking those feelings of vulnerability.
The research certainly backs up that many of us are choosing to numb our authentic selves with too much work, too much alcohol and food. What we are left with is too little time to make real connections with others that will see your spirits soar. Each day, ask yourself: are your choices enriching your life and spirit? And what are the practices, interactions with others and habits that really raise you up? That’s a goal worth striving for in 2016.