To Be Seen or Not To Be Seen: The Question of Connection

Take a moment and reflect on the following question: If you could control how other people perceived you, what would you want them to think of you? What would you NOT want them to think? Now that you’ve discovered the antidote to self-consciousness how will you spend your new fortune?!

Seriously though, we all wish for the ability to conceal the parts of ourselves or our experiences that we dislike. Like that extra sensitivity or tendency to talk too much when we’re nervous. Or that massive mistake we made six months ago that confirmed our suspicion that we’re total screw-ups. On the flip side of this, we have an underlying desire to be perceived in certain ways: cool, effortlessly perfect, having it all together, without one drip of anxiety.

Sound familiar? It should if you aren’t a robot. Even all those people we admire who seem effortlessly perfect and appear to have it all together share these painful feelings. I recognize that you may be skeptical about this, so I’ll cite the work of a researcher, storyteller, and social worker named Brené Brown. Brown’s work casts a fresh light on the universal human experience of shame — the feeling that we are unworthy of love and connection with others. Brown explains that shame drives our desire to manage perceptions – to conceal our sensitivity, silence our natural chatter, and vow to take that mistake we made to the grave. It compels us to put a lot of energy into acting as though we’re super competent, we don’t struggle, and we can’t be hurt.

Shame is tricky because we really can’t avoid it as long as we desire meaningful connection with others. Humans are instinctively driven to seek belongingness, even though we live in modern times and sometimes find excellent companionship in Netflix. We often soothe our feelings of shame through avoidance and trying to manage perceptions, but research shows that what we really need is vulnerability. Yep, that thing.

So, what is vulnerability? In basic terms it means allowing ourselves to be seen, especially when there are no guarantees. Going to a new student organization meeting, even though you won’t know anyone there, just because you want to make more friends. Reaching out to someone who is struggling, even though you aren’t sure what they’ll say. Acknowledging to your romantic partner that you aren’t actually mad, you’re feeling hurt.

At this moment in my life, vulnerability is writing this post. It’s being willing to share what I’ve learned with you, even though there’s a voice in the back of my head says that says, “Who am I to be writing this?” Brown refers to these messages as “shame gremlins.” I like this term because it transforms painful fears of inadequacy into creatures that I imagine would resemble the little green characters on that Nasonex commercial.

In her TED talk titled The Power of Vulnerability Brown states, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” I know, this is a tall order, so it’s important to be thoughtful about practicing vulnerability.

If you have someone you trust, practicing vulnerability could mean sharing a bit more of your authentic self in this relationship: strengths, weaknesses, quirks, etc. For some folks, there isn’t a single relationship in which this feels like a good idea. That’s fine – you aren’t alone in this. Perhaps vulnerability will involve taking steps to build new, healthy connections in which you can develop deeper friendships over time. Patience is key here. But it’s worth it, because the relationships that are built on a foundation of truly seeing, accepting, and appreciating one another add loads of joy to our lives. And to me, that seems far more worthwhile than being perfect.

This post skimmed a lot of concepts: shame, vulnerability, authenticity, and connection. There is much more to explore here so, please check out the following resources to keep learning:

Written by Brené Brown
o I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)
o The Gifts of Imperfection
o Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead
o Rising Strong

TED talks

Claire Hauser, M.S.
Doctoral Intern