chart of fears, from this earlier post
The way I’ve found real safety, even while being held captive in jail and in homeless shelters (run almost like a jail) and mental institutions (again pretty much like a jail) has been a combination of realizing that safety is really all about freedom, and finding clarity of my own purpose in life. And by freedom I mean freedom to be oneself. To react to life’s complications in a way that is honest and true to what one’s deepest self is – one’s highest ideals of what one wants to contribute to the world, one’s purpose in life.
If I am trapped physically by a violent individual or group – the shelter system, “legal” system, or “health care” system or any other forceful agent – I might not be especially free in a physical sense, which certainly sucks, and is something a healthy society will avoid at all costs, but on a deeper, more meaningful sense I am very much free to make at least some choices about what I do and say such that they help me make progress on my life’s goals… Real safety comes from finding the most effective way of expressing your true self – what you want and what you have to offer – in every situation you come across in your path.
This is what ee cummings was saying when he wrote about how hard it is to be “nobody-but-yourself” in a world where everyone (the media, advertisers, peers, others trying to influence and/or control us, and even that small self-critical voice inside us) is trying to make us “everybody-else”.
Whenever we’re on the verge of bliss, we picture something horrible happening… I blame this in part on the media… This is a symptom of an issue that is both universal and profoundly dangerous, and that is: We are losing our tolerance for vulnerability, which we see as synonymous with weakness, and which is at the core of our fear and anxiety and shame and other difficult emotions, but which also is at the core of joy, love, belonging, creativity, and faith.
When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding, disappointment, disconnection, perfectionism, [political, religious, and ideological] extremism, and most of all self-numbing, [mechanisms by which] we try to protect ourselves. What is driving this intolerance for vulnerability?… [I think it’s] scarcity. We live in a culture that tells us that there is never enough [time, money, security etc. and] that we cannot ever be good enough. [We are inundated with hugely exaggerated messages of ubiquitous danger.]…
We numb vulnerability. We are the most addicted, the most medicated, obese and in debt cohort in human history. And we stay busy, so that the [feared] truth of our life can’t catch up. What are the consequences of numbing ourselves to vulnerability? You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb the dark emotions — vulnerability, fear, shame of not being good enough — we by default numb joy.
After this intriguing diagnosis, alas, Brené falls victim to the tendency of most ‘experts’ (and self-help book writers) to prescribe a cure for the malaise they’ve just identified.
How do we embrace vulnerability? Practice gratitude… Honor what’s ordinary about our lives… Play… [Appreciate] nature… We want more guarantees. We we want to believe that we we’re not going to get hurt and that bad things aren’t going to happen and they are. But if we don’t allow ourselves to [fully] experience joy and love we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when those hard things happen.
“Practice gratitude” is a nice phrase, and maybe whatever it means it works for her, but it’s not at all clear how this is supposed to help us “embrace vulnerability”. The advice, in any case, violates the corollary to Pollard’s Law: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, first be sure you understand why it is the way it is. To tell us essentially the way to overcome our fears is “don’t be afraid” is not useful, or actionable, and the struggle in vain to try to follow this advice is likely to lead to even more feelings of “we can never be good enough”, and more retreat to numbness.
I am a fearful person, and I have become as a result of trying to cope with these fears and anxieties somewhat emotionally flattened, if not numbed. But I have come to accept myself: We cannot be other than who we really are. I aspire to liberate myself from civilization culture, and hence become less fearful and more present, more “nobody-but-myself”. But I acknowledge that this will take lifelong practice and may well be a fruitless pursuit.
As a result, a far more interesting approach, I think, would be to ask ourselves these questions, and come up with our own answers, coping practices, and self-acceptances:
- Who is “nobody-but-myself”? If I lived in a culture
althat didn’t try to make me “everybody-else”, what would I be like? What’s holding me back?
- What am I afraid of, and why? How do I cope with these fears (avoid, vent, condition/desensitize, learn, accept, detach/let go)? Why aren’t these coping mechanisms fully effective for me?
The ultimate question stemming from these is What can I do with this self-knowledge? And the answer may be: nothing. It may be enough just to understand ourselves a little better, to know why we are the way we are.