The pantsuit was canary yellow with appliqué patches on the chest and upper arms; it looked like a garage mechanic's jumper. The year was 1974. My mom purchased the outfit at Sears in anticipation of my first day of school. I loved that pantsuit -- everything about it -- the patches, the zipper, the collar, its bold hue, and the fact that it was decidedly not a skirt or a dress. Although displayed in the girls' department, it had a certain boyish flair that appealed to the tomboy in me. Like a driver holding back a purring machine, I was excited, elated, eager. I couldn't wait to get to school; I was ready to share my sheer awesomeness with my classmates.
I remember few details from that day except being teased so mercilessly that I vowed I'd never wear it again to school. I desperately wanted my mom to take me home or bring me different clothes. I'm not certain what actually transpired. What I do remembeR -- in fact, what I still feel in the pit of my stomach, now almost 40 years later -- is shame.
What exactly did I have to feel ashamed of? Certainly it's not comfortable or pleasant to be mocked for one's snazzy, albeit unconventional, poorly-received outfit. But my bright yellow pantsuit -- not unlike a neon light flashing its truth -- tapped into something I wrestled with already at the age of 6: That despair that comes from realizing that you are out of sync. There's a code, a rhythm of life, and you don't know it. I was
I've been unraveling that shame for decades.
Turns out, I am not alone. Dr. Brené Brown -- a research professor at University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work and TED talk phenom -- has spent her career studying shame, vulnerability, and courage. When she filmed her initial TED talk on vulnerability, she felt so exposed afterwards that she didn't leave her house for days. Her embarrassment over her own personal reaction to her research was crushing; she felt ill when she considered that hundreds of people had witnessed her raw honesty and authenticity. In the midst of her self-described "break down" (although her therapist insists it was "a spiritual awakening"), she couldn't conceive that her research would resonate so deeply with others that her talk, The Power of Vulnerability, would soon be watched by millions. It is mesmerizing to watch this funny, whip-smart Texan -- who is so very uncomfortable with her own vulnerability -- stand up on stage and wrestle with it.
In thousands of interviews and stories collected over six years, Brown noticed an unexpected and discomfiting paradox: Our shame is rooted in the very same thing that will release us from it -- vulnerability. Brown defines shame as a fear of disconnection. We ask ourselves, "Is there something about me that if others knew it, it would cause them to reject me?" This fear of rejection is the very thing that keeps people from having true connection. And it is those who fully embrace vulnerability -- who believe their imperfections actually make them beautiful and worthy -- who live best with courage and compassion. Brown asserts that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love; it is absolutely fundamental to use it to overcome our shame.
The vulnerability Brown discusses in her books and in her talks, although something we often recoil from in our own lives, is what we unconsciously look for in others. We identify it not as weakness but as courage and an underlying confidence. It goes beyond the hackneyed, "He's man enough to cry." It's about having the self-assurance to show your humanity -- complete with untidy inadequacies and shortcomings. We are drawn to those who are wholehearted, and we see this vulnerability as strength, not weakness.
That's why I found President George W. Bush's comments after the September 11 horror so very disappointing. When the nation's heart had been torn open, and while we fought to staunch the flow, the president reassured us that "America is open for business." Yes, he had enormous economic pressures on him, and he certainly felt an obligation to claim he would keep us safe from further harm. But his unwillingness to be vulnerable made me feel less safe. His posturing looked childlike. He didn't have the strength or confidence to acknowledge his own despair and to trust that we, as a grieving nation, could take it.
I recently spoke to a young machinist at a manufacturing plant in Maine who sheepishly admitted that he had never finished high school, that he had only just completed his GED. The look on his face said so much: shame, embarrassment, hope that I'd understand, and a desire to be respected anyway. His bravery in exposing himself was startling and, yes, surprisingly charming. Witnessing him face his shame -- and then hold it out for inspection, moved me to consider my own vulnerability.
For years I thought no one would ever find me attractive. It was like I existed as that 6-year-old in the yellow pantsuit -- always out of step. Not good enough. Now in my mid-40s I am returning to something I knew back before my shame and disappointment took hold. We should be audacious, daring and vulnerable. Sharing one's whole self, bright yellow pantsuit and all -- draws others to you.