Vulnerability for Creatives

This past weekend, I had myself a wee breakdown.

It was an insecurity extravaganza, and it happened—heaven help us—while I was on the phone with my mom on Saturday night. It came up from nowhere (not really, but it felt that way at the time), and whacked me over the head like one of Wile E. Coyote’s anvils. And then, several hours later, when Mom emailed to say she wished she could make it better, I spent two hours trying to explain it all to her.

Now, over the last year or two I’ve become a big fan of Brené Brown. I heard of her when her TEDx video went viral; if you missed her then, you may have heard her name since she was on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday this past month. She’s a social work professor who studies shame, and her work is eye-opening. I’ve read her first two books and I took an online class with her, which is the only reason I figured out what was going on.

Shame Bites

It turned out I had a bunch of shame triggers hitting me all at once, and it took me down in almost no time. I’m not going to go into detail, but there were at least three or four triggers involved. As you might guess from the name, these are things that bring up your doubts, your insecurities, and worse, the voices that insist to you that not only is there something wrong with you, you’re fatally flawed and don’t deserve to live. It’s a really good time, believe me.

I wouldn’t have said anything else to my mom the other night if she hadn’t broken the ice with one simple, emailed sentence. Going out on that limb would have required a level of mind-boggling vulnerability that I wasn’t capable of. But with the ice broken, I went for it. It probably helped that it was late at night and I was too tired to be totally self-conscious about it. I sent that email at 12:30 am and hoped for the best. Slept like a baby, in fact.

And then the next morning, I remembered what I’d sent, and to whom. The vulnerability hangover (Brown’s term) hit me, and all I could think was, “OMG! What did I do?!?!?!????” I felt like I’d received a mild electric shock for at least an hour and if I hadn’t had plans to visit a friend, I probably would have curled up under my comforter until my body forced me to become upright.

The good news is that things went pretty much exactly as Brené Brown describes in her work on shame and vulnerability. I got a nice email back from my mom where she did her level best to relate to what I was saying and offer some examples from her own life. Some stopped me in my tracks because I hadn’t thought about her perspective before. She also promised that she would not talk about what I’d told her and certainly wouldn’t forward my email (I’d asked her not to at least twice, so that was a relief!) The whole thing made me cry. And there is not a single doubt in my mind that I am closer to my mom now than I was before that phone call on Saturday night.

So what does all this have to do with creativity?

Simple. When we create, we’re like the kid who doesn’t want to admit to Mommy and Daddy that she feels rotten about herself because the Shame Monster has come to visit. We get all self-conscious about what we “should” create. What’s acceptable in the eyes of those whose approval we value?

Do we really dare to include that thing that we think would be cool but we fear will seem weird to everyone else? Why are we even doing this in the first place, when everyone will think we’re just weird? And worst of all, what will everyone think when they see/hear/read/watch this project of ours and see part of us that we’ve never shared before? Will Great-Aunt Sadie recognize herself in the character who screams at everyone she sees? Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!!!

Now, it’s true that some people don’t realize how vulnerable we make ourselves when we share our creative selves. Non-artists sometimes don’t make that connection. A lot of people do, though, and the thing is…when people recognize that we’ve done something brave, they make room for us. They respect us for having the guts to do it, even if we don’t do it perfectly. They take in the things we’ve created more carefully. And even if it turns out that they don’t like it (or like us!), if they can tell that we’ve made a sincere offering, they’ll still respect us.

Be a stereotypical haughty artist about it, and they’ll skewer you for the crimes of pretension and ego. But sincerity and decency break down walls every time.

When audiences respect and appreciate the strength it took to put our work out into the world, they connect with us. That connection brings joy to both artist and audience alike.

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