There are two very well-known TED Talks given by Dr. Brené Brown, who has spent much of her career researching shame and vulnerability. She is a great speaker, and I highly recommend listening to what she has to say.
Dr. Brown talks about our need as humans to be connected to one another. That’s really what it’s all about. In order for these connections to happen, we have to first believe that we are worthy of belonging, of being loved. We have to embrace our imperfections and let go of shame. Dr. Brown eloquently expands on this topic here. When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, he had very low self-esteem, which is not uncommon in those with OCD. How difficult it must be for those with low self-esteem to embrace their flaws and believe they are deserving of love!
Also, if our quest to be connected is going to be successful, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; be able to put ourselves out there. In other words, we have to embrace living with uncertainty.
People with OCD face many of the challenges we all do. It is the severity of the struggle that differs. Who among us could not relate to the fear of feeling vulnerable?
Dr. Brown explains that, as a society, we tend to do everything we can to avoid feeling vulnerable. She says, “We numb vulnerability … we are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.” We mask our vulnerability and see it as a shameful weakness.
Really, though, being vulnerable is not about being weak. It is exactly the opposite. It is about having courage: the courage to fail, the courage to forge ahead into the realm of uncertainty. It is about taking a risk and exposing yourself to whatever might be. While being vulnerable can be difficult for all of us, it can evoke paralyzing fear in those with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But if we can learn to embrace our vulnerability, then we will be able to live wholeheartedly. What this means to Dr. Brown is not numbing our vulnerability, but feeling what we feel. Whether it is despair, fear, or hopefully joy and gratitude, there will be no more secrecy or pretending.
For those with OCD, this path to wholeheartedness likely involves embracing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the front-line psychological approach for treating OCD as recommended by the American Psychological Association.
To me, this therapy is the epitome of vulnerableness (yes, it’s a word). In a nutshell, ERP involves exposing yourself to your obsessions, and then refraining from engaging in compulsions (this is the ritual prevention), which supposedly keep you safe. It is not an easy therapy for those with OCD, as it requires them to face the very things they fear the most.
ERP therapy takes courage and resolve, but by engaging in it, those with OCD are working toward what they deserve: a life of authenticity filled with whatever connections they desire. Because as Dr. Brown says, that’s what it’s all about.