Vulnerability, Difference, and Belonging

Any of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while or know me otherwise have heard me talk countless times about how vitally important the path of vulnerability has been for me. I’ve been walking this path for sixteen years now, about as long as I’ve been using and sharing Nonviolent Communication in the world. The vulnerability path has been the occasion for profound liberation for me and I can say without exaggeration that it is the foundation on which I continue to do all of my learning about being human, about leadership, about power, about interdependence, and even about social change.

So it has been a great treat for me to discover a fellow traveler. Some time ago, I watched Brené Brown’s first TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, and was astonished and delighted by the content. This past Sunday I watched her recent talk, Listening to Shame. I was spellbound. First, I found the content captivating, because it is so aligned with my own experience and what I teach. My most favorite quote is that “vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage,” which fits entirely with my own efforts to re-frame vulnerability from an expression of weakness to a source of strength. I was also completely taken, again, by her personality and presentation style, which I found engaging, warm, and entertaining, even as she spoke of sensitive and painful subjects.

This would likely have turned into a lovely and satisfying experience I would never think to tell anyone about, except that I also focused on trying to learn what it was that she is doing that results in attracting millions to what I experience as fundamentally the same message I put out and get only a few hundred people at best. This question, in one form or another, has been a secret pain of mine for some years. In part because I consistently get astonishing feedback from some people, I continue to believe that I have some unique gifts to offer, and continue to suffer, from time to time, about my inability to reach more people.

Writing about all this is its own form of vulnerability, every step of the way. Naming, publicly, that I believe I have gifts conjured up the fear of ridicule. As Brené Brown says, one key piece of shame so many of us carry is “Who do you think you are?” Owning that I have a big desire to reach many more people also feels vulnerable. Why would I want to? Most of us, the extremely vast majority of us, aren’t known by anyone except our small circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Why would I care? Telling everyone that I think about this, that I compare and wonder, carries its own complexity. It bespeaks non-acceptance of where I am. I fear people will expect me to be more grateful for the immense privilege that my life has been anyway, even if my sphere of influence is smaller than I would like.

With all of this, what prompted me to write about this anyway is that I think I got a partial answer to my question about the source of Brené Brown’s effectiveness and my lack thereof. As I was listening to her, I saw the immense effect that my deep and core issues about feeling so different and alone in the world have had on my efficacy as a speaker and teacher. When she speaks, the subtext I pick up is “Of course you will understand what I say, because we’re all alike.” She continually gestures to and invites identification, continuity, familiarity. I see how it can be so inviting and comfortable to follow her as a result. She can be a bridge into a new way of being. I can see someone watching her and being inspired to emulate her, because it will seem like a real possibility.

When I speak, on the other hand, the subtext I usually convey is “Of course you won’t understand, won’t get it, and certainly won’t take any action on this, because we are so different from each other.” I set myself apart. I know this from within. People can then be impressed, they can respect and admire me, and still won’t see it as a concrete inspiration that will lead them to try out what I speak about. They are often also intimidated, perhaps because they feel the separation I live in. I can so easily see, now, how much my tendency to focus on differences and to separate from others compromises my power and effectiveness.

I’ve yet to know what to do to make change. This orientation toward the world is so fundamental to my sense of self that someone referred to it recently as the DNA of my soul. I can barely even imagine wanting to create this change. I only know I want to understand more.

I have learned a few things already. I know I am very far from being the only one who feels so different. I was told that in 12-step programs there is reference to “terminal uniqueness” as a common human experience. I look around me and I am befuddled how all these people who appear so “normal” to me could also experience themselves as so different from others. Perhaps because so many people have learned to hide and hold back who they are makes their uniqueness less visible to me. I almost chuckle as I notice my reluctance to accept the commonality of feeling different. Perhaps if more people embraced the path of vulnerability with all its risks I would see more of the astonishing variability I know is there, and it would be easier to grasp why people feel themselves to be different. Oops, here I go again, setting myself apart even as I try to find commonality, and wishing for more people to be like me…

This insight is also related to one of the reasons why being different may appear so attractive to me. In a roundabout way, it’s my insurance policy that I will remain true to myself. Anyone who has been trained well to be “nice” knows how extraordinarily challenging it can be to reclaim full authenticity when that path may signify loss of majority approval. No small task for a social animal like us. Since I am different, so the logic goes, and people won’t receive me, understand me, or like me anyway, I have nothing to lose by being authentic.

What I am trying to learn is how to integrate a fresh insight that is entirely radical for my system to contemplate. Simply put, being different need not be the occasion for separation. I can be different and still be connected. I don’t have to compromise, hold back, censor, or change myself in order to belong. No matter how different I am from anyone I may encounter, we have more in common than not. If nothing else, we all share the same set of basic human needs.

Just how different could we be, then? And so I am putting at the forefront of my awareness and intention a practice I had (conveniently?) forgotten about. Whenever I notice that I am dwelling on how different I am from someone, I enumerate to myself silently three non-obvious ways in which we are similar. Ironically, I find it extremely easy, even satisfying, to do that once I get over the forgetting. I do feel more connected when I remember. Might my brain re-wire itself into noticing and leaning on similarity instead of difference when I interact with people, especially when I teach? I did re-wire my brain through a year of gratitude practice. What awaits me here?

All of this has been quite intense to digest. Perhaps writing this and the feedback I might receive here and elsewhere (including my yearlong teleclass based on this blog) will provide enzymes to speed up the digestion. Then, perhaps, this insight will indeed turn into a new opening, a way to break through decades of suffering. And if I am really lucky, this may indeed change how I teach, so I can be more inviting, humble, and accessible. May it be so.

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19 thoughts on “Vulnerability, Difference, and Belonging

  1. julie lawrence

    I love your idea of enumerating 3 way I'm similar to someone, rather than different, and I'm hoping I can remember to do that at the time! Funny how our brains just conveniently forget such ideas! I'm in AA, and as you mention, I love the phrase "terminal uniqueness". We often remind newcomers to looks for the similarities, not the differences.

    Thank you also for

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Feeling very moved by your sharing this and thrilled at the prospect of you increasing your sense of connection with others. I'm beaming you moral support as you explore this new path.

    Love,

    Helen A.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    Wow, Miki, you have nailed here an aspect of what I have experienced in relation to you. As warm and friendly and approachable as I have experienced you, as engaged and present,I also got a sense of ummmm setting-boundaries-to-support-holding-back (as opposed to setting boundaries for sustainability, which I hold as different, and which I also experienced you as doing). I *did* sense there was

    Reply
  4. Thomas Meli

    Dear Miki,

    I love this post, I'm sad though b/c I wrote a 1 page reply and the browser deleted it and now I don't have the energy to rewrite what I wrote before…

    So instead, I will keep it to an essence that only bears some of its original scent. I was attempting to share my excitement at the thought that even though I consider you a master, I am enjoying looking

    Reply
  5. Robertaindia

    Dear Miki,
    Your deep looking into your inner life and the clarity with which you express what you are seeing deeply touches, inspires and excites me and brings me into deep resonance and connection with you.

    What you wrote reminds me about a teaching I have heard from Thich Nhat Hanh many many times- he talks about liberating ourselves from the "three complexes"- the

    Reply
  6. sarah

    Love this post and love your response, Tom. I am reflecting on how the people I am deeply attracted to in my life are all unique/unusual/eccentric in some or many ways. How easy and joyful it is for me to celebrate that "difference" in others and yet in myself I notice how I have kept my authentic, unique self private and protected–not for approval's sake, but to stay connected

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Power and vulnerability, alike and different…ly alike, hope and caution–thank you, Miki, for shepherding/accompanying so many of us on this journey through suffering to more authenticity, wholeness and compassion for self and other. Embracing and letting go….with love, Louisa

    Reply
  8. Estrella

    Wow, Miki, this is so insightful for me. I can so identify with this struggle. What I love about your sharing vulnerably is that it is an antidote for my terminal uniqueness. Right now appreciating the intention to remain true to myself and also loving that more and more I'm realizing that common humanity means me too, loving the relief, humility, groundedness, acceptance, and compassion

    Reply
  9. Rebecca Stahl

    Interestingly, perhaps ironically, I notice this in myself and other people as well. I think many of us are inclined to want to be similar, and yet we feel so different from one another. Of course we are both! We all know this, but we focus on one or the other. Trying to feel both in interactions with people will help keep both sides of the brain working, I think. That might help us connect on

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

    Thanks for your ongoing blog Miki. I so enjoy your general truthfulness.

    It sounds like you feel you’ve got something important and stimulating from seeing Brené Brown as having something that you lack, in which case no doubt you have. But personally I think the reason she is “attracting millions” is simply that she had the good fortune to get a slot on TED and has a knack for

    Reply
    1. Dave Belden

      Jo, About your last comment on font size. I'm working with Miki and one of our goals is to improve this blog platform. Some people find this font size fine and some don't and I'm wondering if you could let me know a couple of sites that do work well for you; also wondering if Miki's blog on the two other places she crossposts to are easier to read. This post also appeared at http:

  11. Anonymous

    Celebrating the unfolding and openness.
    Inspired by your jumping off an 'inward' precipice.
    Grateful for your sharing.
    Enjoying differences as the infinite names and forms (and particular skills and gifts)
    Enjoying connection with all by experiencing/inviting/looking for the 'one' 'same' power/light/energy/life and consciousness that flows in and

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    dear Miki-two "appearances" occur to me even as i take in the written and visual forms of this article. one is that Brene Brown looks happy, and turned on by her process, and you look concerned and not happy. She looks like a beautiful blond chandelier, and you are earnest, but not yet exploding with light.not a criticism….simply, from my pov,a recognition.
    that being said,i have

    Reply
  13. Lori D

    Dear Miki,

    Reading this gave me such an ache in my heart. You have so much courage and wisdom! I am realizing that is perhaps a shared lack of sameness that I sense in you that helps me to hear you in a way that is profound. The ache is not only empathy for your pain, but also a very deep appreciation for your sharing.

    Reply
  14. Ian Mayes

    Miki,

    Perhaps if Brene Brown is doing something successfully than you are, this might be an area for you to learn from her. You might want to consider attending one of her events, or contacting her personally. Instead of you always being the teacher/mentor of others, this might be a place for you to be the student and her to be the teacher/mentor for you.

    Reply
  15. sarah

    Wow, this post has pulled a lot of comments. And I have another because several days later I am still thinking about this. As you know I am studying developmental theory and am fascinated by the what I am learning about the role attachment plays in development. It has everything to do with being authentic, being unique and individual, and the relationship between individuation, connection and

    Reply
  16. Joanne

    Such a gift.

    Years ago, during a massage of my tight chest area, a very insightful therapist was moved to give me a message: There is great power in vulnerability. My journey into this truth continues. Some of my recent insights are, perhaps, similar. I noticed that my intention to love you, to show my love, through sharing with you – "teaching" you – didn't work.

    Reply
  17. Rick Heller

    In terms of getting over the sense of separation, I do find that loving-kindness (metta) meditation helps me. But it only works so far. It does make me more outgoing and more willing to introduce myself to a stranger rather than allow an opportunity for connection to pass by.

    In a few cases, I and this "stranger" have clicked, and this has led to a deeper interaction. But in

    Reply

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