So I’ve always thought that the best thing to do when I meet someone is to try to make a big splash, ya know, impress ‘em. So I start pretty quickly in the introduction on my resume, whether or not I’m given the fairly standard, “So what do you do?” opportunity. I try to get the phrases masters degree, yoga teacher, ten years in India, and therapist pretty quickly into the conversation. If I’m on a pretty good roll, I might even slip something in about my vintage motorcycle, honors for undergrad and grad school, my recent radio and magazine appearances (oooh, aaahhh…), and my current friend count on facebook. Okay, maybe not the bit about facebook, but you get the idea.
My hope is that my new friend will reflect how impressed they are with me by the look on their face, tell me how amazing I am, then we will ride off into the sunset together with our brand new BFF necklaces. Oddly enough, it does not achieve the desired effect. In fact, it usually has the opposite. I notice my new “friend” yawning, starting to feel a little standoffish, and either beginning to one up my nice-to-meet-ya-resume or to look at their watch.
Sound familiar? If it does, it’s because this oft played script comes from the universal desire to connect with others. In fact, Brene Brown says we are neurobiologically wired this way. It’s why we are here. So it’s not a bad thing that we try to impress the folks we meet, it’s just that it doesn’t get us what we really want- connection.
Shame is our fear of disconnection. We ask ourselves, “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection. Everyone has it and the less you talk about it the more you have it,” says Brown. We hide behind our resume of accomplishments instead, and according to her research, all it does is increase our amount of shame. (BTW, research is just empirical validation of the very things we already know internally to be true.)
What do we do about it? Start to cultivate the opposite, or what Abraham Maslow (he’s the hierarchy of needs guy from Psych 101) called belongingness. People who have a sense of worthiness have a strong sense of belonging and they believe that they are worthy of it. The opposite is true of people who really struggle for it. Easy enough right? Well no, the paradox is, to cultivate this sense of belonging, it requires us to do the opposite of our initial tendency to impress and instead- you ready for this- be vulnerable.
What? Vulnerability? Yikes! “Vulnerability is the core of shame, fear and unworthiness but it is also the birthplace of love and belongingness” (Brown again). So is she saying that when I meet someone, I have to start in on the very things I’m ashamed about aka the last things I want to be talking about? Yup. Does it take courage? Damn straight. I like her term even better- wholeheartedness. ”People who are wholehearted have the courage to be imperfect, compassion toward self first then others, and they have connection which they found through authenticity. They fully embrace vulnerability- they believe what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.”
Ever had that moment where you risked talking to someone (usually a close friend, rarely a new acquaintance) about something vulnerable, something that went wrong in life, something you feel like you failed at, then had that realization after sharing that you actually feel closer to that person? Try it sometime. Powerful stuff. Remember, this is not our tendency. Instead we want to numb our fears- the pain, the shame, the vulnerability- with substances, food, technology, you name it. But we cannot numb the fear without numbing the joy, happiness, and gratitude.
Or we lash out with blame. Brown’s research defines blame- “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” It is so much harder to sit with it and much easier to project it. Sitting in it and even being transparent about it- vulnerability- is the very thing that builds the connection that we desire more than anything.
Jeremi McManus, founder of SF Relationship Coaching & Psychotherapy, is a Relationship Coach and Psychotherapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own challenges in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field, so if you feel like you could use some perspective, he’d love to hear from you. Jeremi is a licensed MFT and delighted to call San Francisco home.