Why are we the most addicted, medicated, overweight, and indebted society in history? Brene Brown, researcher, author and speaker on vulnerability, worthiness and joy, provides us with a brilliant analysis of why so many of us are resistant to intense joy. After collecting data for over a decade, she concludes most of us go to great lengths to avoid vulnerability, a state that triggers doubts about our worthiness and leads many of us to hold joy as foreboding, to numb out, maintain disappointment and low-grade disconnection as a lifestyle, and engage in extremism and perfectionism all because we fear we might not be worthy of love and connection.
We want joy, but because many of us secretly believe it’s easier to live a life of disappointment rather than feel disappointed, we avoid the possibility of being hurt, thereby ensuring a mediocre and consistently painful but predictable, existence. We settle for chronic suffering (loss of our highest dreams, sacred relationships and more) that we control rather than risk short-term legitimate pain from circumstances out of our control. Sadly, without vulnerability, courage to be imperfect and authentic openness, we can’t experience the very joy we crave. Instead, a vicious cycle ensues.
Even more fascinating is how much intense joy often frightens us. I remember a time my company worked in a St. Louis City high school teaching stu- dents skills to help more of them graduate. We taught appreciative inquiry, a communication tool using interviews to bring up past, present, and future images and feelings of success, strength and joy. Students interviewed adults who had successfully graduated high school asking, “Tell me a story of a time you wanted to give up on something or quit school but didn’t. What happened? What did you do? How did you feel? Who inspired you?” They also asked questions related to, “What do you most value about your education?” and “If you could give me three wishes and paint my most successful, brightest future possible, describe this to me.” The idea was to bring to life through in-depth probing, experiences that reminded adults and students of the courage and beauty within them and in the ordinary.
The event at the high school opened up connection in a huge way and all present engaged in open- heartedness, authenticity, compassion, and empathy, in large volume, in a very concentrated period of time. And, that very evening, after the school basket- ball game, many of these same students participated in their first-ever, large-scale fight. I knew without understanding the connection fully, that the fight was a result of the intense and deeply vulnerable experience students participated in earlier, and the fear that surfaced for which we did not anticipate, nor prepare.
This outcome is consistent with Brown’s addiction data,
“an intensely positive experience is just as likely to trigger a relapse as an intensely negative experience.”
Because all addiction is designed to avoid vulnerability, the fight was a way for students to regain invulnerability (a primary cause we assert for why so many drop out of school!). The connection in their interviews forced each student to get in touch with scarcity beliefs and pain. Brown says it best, “If vulnerability is a sharp edge, there may be nothing sharper than joy. To let one’s self soften into loving someone; to care about something passionately.
“We must choose the courage to be imperfect and clear away anything that keeps us from remembering we are always worthy of love and connection, ”that’s vulnerable!” In our culture, it’s more acceptable to get social needs met through less tender means; fighting, gossiping, apathy, all examples of low-grade disconnection.
So what’s the way out? How can we grow in our ability to open to joy without freaking out and running back to unproductive comfort zones? The answers are simple but not always easy. First, we must choose the courage to be imperfect and clear away anything that keeps us from remembering we are always worthy of love and connection.
Brown recommends we practice gratitude daily as a way of combating the overwhelming amount of scarcity messages and images we see and hear, thereby consciously choosing abundance. Most importantly, we must remember we are enough; we do enough, and we are beautiful as we are. Then, seeing our ordinary life as extraordinary brings us great joy!
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We help organizations instill into every person a common language and toolset for how to participate in a responsibility-based workplace. Visit our website at www.lifeworksystems.com, and click the link at the bottom to complete a culture assessment and schedule your first consult to review a report on your feedback, all at no cost.
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As published nationally in Women’s Journals, February 2011