One of the most interesting parts of my job is that I get to listen to the highlight reel of a person’s life, the good stuff and the bad stuff. I walk into a room full of strangers and get to ask questions we rarely ask as part of normal day-to-day conversation. “How did your parents meet? What was life like when you two got married seventy years ago? What’s your secret?” I get to laugh and cry with people as they recount memories and share stories. It’s amazing what families remember most about their loved one after they die. In a matter of two hours, I get to know more about Shirley’s life than her own grandkids knew about her. I walk out of the meeting with Shirley’s family and already have a sense of connection, an emotional bond with these people who were strangers a mere day ago.
Small talk. I believe the reason we really suck at connecting with others is that we leave the conversation to a superficial level because it’s easier that way. We may spend years knowing someone and then feeling like we never truly knew who they were when they are gone. Oftentimes people would love to tell us their story, if only we asked the right questions, thoughtful questions. By only engaging our friends and family in small talk, we’re avoiding true connection.
It’s always interesting to find out what comprises a person’s life-changing moments. Perhaps it was something Pastor Scott said in his Sunday message or a revelation while reading a New York Times bestseller. Perhaps it was the time a person met the love of their life waitressing at a local diner or the time they went to summer camp and met their best friend Sam. Perhaps it was when their spouse died or the day their child was born.
One of my life-changing, ah-ha! moments came a little over four years ago when I was watching a brilliant TEDtalk about The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown. I realized that I was living in fear. Fear of loneliness. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of pain. Fear of not living up to my full potential. Fear of letting others down. Fear of criticism. Fear of change. Fear of not living the life I had envisioned for myself.
Brené’s research about relationships is incredibly fascinating. She experienced that “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they’ll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told were about disconnection.”
Connection is what makes us human, it’s the reason we’re here. It’s the ability to feel like someone *finally* understand us, someone is there for us. Brené’s research also uncovered the ‘mysterious thing’ that unravels connection and causes disconnection… It’s the feeling of shame, of fear.
I start to digest what I was hearing: real and beautiful connections are only formed when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we have the courage to open up to others first. Being our authentic selves is the way we create real and meaningful connections with others. Great news- the answers to loneliness have been solved!!! …but wait, who is my authentic self?! OH MY GOD… do I even know who I am?! My head was spinning. Brené gave the ultimate speech: face your fears and get to know yourself or be miserable for the rest of your life. It kick-started my quest for growth. It changed my life.
At this point, I had been dating my high school sweetheart for four and a half years. I had just finished my junior year of college. We lived an hour and a half apart, but barely made the time to see each other anymore. Between classes, homework, jobs, and our social lives, we started to neglect our relationship. It reached its expiration date, but we still kept it in the fridge anyway. We loved each other, but our relationship no longer made us happy. I felt lonely when we were apart and even lonelier when we were together.
BUT I WAS SO COMFORTABLE AROUND HIM. Breaking up? That involves CHANGE AND DISCOMFORT. It was a really hard decision… AND OH SO PAINFUL…
I ditched the preconceived notions I had for my life and set out to discover my own authentic self. I started the uncomfortable process of embracing vulnerability and facing my fears. Fears of loneliness. Fears of people not liking me.
“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.” – Brené Brown
We numb vulnerability, we numb emotions. We can’t choose to just feel the happy feels and ignore the sad feels. We have to experience the full range of emotions or we get no feels at all.
“They say there is no light without dark, no good without evil, no male without female, no right without wrong. That nothing can exist if it’s direct opposite does not also exist.” ― Laurell K. Hamilton
I had to work through fear, in order to feel it’s opposite: love. I started tackling my fears, one step at a time by putting myself in uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing situations in an effort to be a much better human. These included going places alone, travelling alone, meeting new people, and any general activity in which I left my comfort zone.
When you break your leg it gets set in a cast, protecting it from the outside world. It cannot perform the functions that a leg was created for. The muscles don’t even stay the same size, they actually get smaller and weaker if you don’t use them. Your muscles need to be exercised and fed protein over time to grow as well. Getting ‘jacked’ doesn’t happen to your muscles overnight, it takes time. Your heart, your love muscle, well… it does the same thing. When it is placed in a hard shell, it cannot perform the functions that our hearts were created for. The more you expose yourself to situations where you can love, you actually get better at being able to love. You need to feed it protein- little bits of care and kindness- and it will get stronger and be able to love others even more. It takes time.
After college, I got a ‘big girl job’ and moved to a small town where I knew no one. I have lived alone for three years already. At first it was an uncomfortably emotional transition. I needed to have a furry companion to ease the anxiety and loneliness of being in a big, empty, quiet house. This is when I picked out the kitty with the pretty blue eyes from the humane society. I adopted Morty into my life and into my heart. As I write this, his sleepy self is sprawled over my feet, keeping them warm. If he could talk, he’d tell you I’m a terrible roommate because I’m gone a lot. He probably sleeps on my feet in an effort to keep me here, grounded with him. Living alone has become more comfortable. In fact, there’s a special sort of freedom experienced by being alone.
I thought that I would feel lonely by going places alone, but in fact I felt more connected with others. I had a reason to strike up a meaningful conversation with the bartender or the person sitting alone next to me that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I developed friendships with strangers sitting next to me on a plane and standing in line with me at the airport. I have invited new people into my life and have experienced the world of dating as an adult. I have encountered new cultures and tried unfamiliar foods. My culinary abilities developed immensely. By expanding my mind to new opportunities, by trying new things, I discovered how to grow into the person I’ve always seen myself as being. My hopes and dreams were rediscovered. I was able to love more fully and I had never felt so alive!
How have you faced your deepest fears? What pushed you into facing those fears?