I love TED Talks … they offer all of my favourite things in one easily digestible bite: new information, easy access, simplicity and out-there thinking. Plus there are pictures and the talks are well-edited. No waffling.
I stumbled across Brené Brown’s piece in one of TED’s ‘Best of’ emails. She had spoken at a local Houston TEDx event and her talk had proved so popular TED had added it to their main library. No mean feat.
What was even more impressive was the subject of her talk: “The Power of Vulnerability”.
I’m not big on Vulnerability. A childhood spent starting at a new school in a new town every 18 months or so, taught me that vulnerability is not a good trait in a playground. A lesson that hardwired itself to my emotional DNA. Vulnerability in front of work colleagues also wasn’t an option – and the music biz was a tough playground. If you wanted to get ahead – you had to be as strong as the boys. If you needed to cry – you had better do it when no one was watching.
So it was ironic that the first time I saw open vulnerability in another adult was on a company conference in Rimini in the summer of 1987. It was late afternoon when the phone rang in my room. Everyone had been drinking around the pool and it wasn’t unusual for one of the guys to try for a bit of ‘on-the-road’ action.
“Fnafff flafff pluff fluuppp ….”
“Who is that?”
“Fnuplff flunnffpp fluff!”
I was about to put the phone down when I realised I recognised the voice: “Wah, is that you?”
“Flunff”. It was camparigirl … and something was clearly wrong.
I rushed to her room and almost fell over when she opened the door. Her face was swollen beyond recognition, her lips puffed out and her eyelids had drawn back. She looked like Daisy Duck – beak and all. My first thought was that she had been beaten but she shook her head.
Then I got it: I had seen a lesser version of this before. My friend didn’t do drugs, she didn’t drink – she wasn’t allergic to anything we had eaten that day. This reaction was to love. More specifically to how vulnerable and exposed she was in her current relationship.
Her lover, G, was married. I was despatched from our shared flat on Saturday afternoons so he could come by for a tryst. How he thought I didn’t know about them, still beggars belief. My friend would rush around our humble abode – full of excitement. Making sure she looked pretty, prepping something for him to eat and drink. But each time he left: she would grow sad and introspective. She had told him how she felt – and he always made light of it.
It seemed something had happened that afternoon. I sat while she told me all. I couldn’t understand a word – but got the gist. This reaction was to her hope being dashed. To her love being emptied.
A shot from the stern hotel doc put my friend to sleep and I left her room. I was annoyed at G – a likeable enough man – but one that would never do for my friend. But I was more shocked at how stress and her emotions had affected her immune system. That, I swore … would never happen to me.
That affair ended and many more came to pass. Each was approached with the identical frankness, openness and full-depth commitment. I see the same thing in my nieces and nephew. A childlike willingness to state your position, pursue it and be rebuffed. Yet to bounce back, no shame attached. Brené believes it is never too late to learn how. As she tells it, her own journey wasn’t easy … she calls it a breakdown, her psychologist prefers – ‘spiritual awakening’.
Brown says of people she interviewed during her research: “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental. “
I know this is what I saw that afternoon in Rimini. Although I was firm with her at the time, I was secretly impressed that camparigirl had allowed herself to be that vulnerable. I learned that day what the six million people who have watched Brené’s talk are learning now: something my friend already knew. Opening yourself to so much potential hurt required a huge leap of faith but it also brought with it possibility of great reward: Love.
Camparigirl, it seems, was way ahead of her time.