Courage in Vulnerability

Written by Shannon Fisher

January 25, 2014

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking for the first time at the Dare Conference. I'm excited to share a condensed version of my talk on being vulnerable as a digital worker for a first post as a new member of The Republic.

October 10, 2012

I am awakening to how profoundly unhealthy I am. I’ve always been aware of the chatter in my head, but over the years it became white noise, the way a nervous system dulls chronic pain to help the body cope. These days the chatter plays at full volume and I hear every venomous word, thick with self-loathing. Never a kind thought for myself. The chatter is cruel and unforgiving.

I don’t give myself a break when it comes to parenting; the hard parts are my fault and the good parts are luck. I beat myself up indefinitely for social blunders and bad decisions. I don’t receive the love my husband gives. I touch it, observe it, study it, and walk away like it’s a museum artifact that doesn’t belong to me. I’m convinced the kind things he says, so full of love and goodness, hope and support, are him trying to convince himself he chose well fifteen years ago. He has to say those things; he’s my husband.

And for the rest of you with kind words, the chatter says, “You don’t know me, and if you did you wouldn’t say any of it.”

That’s the happy start of an essay I shared on my blog almost a year ago. I left out the grim bits.

Shortly after that post, a friend told my husband he thinks my blog is too much. Inappropriate. This friend runs a company and would be an ideal client for the business I started in January of this year after leaving my nine-year teaching career to pursue different dreams. I had to ask myself if our friend is right—am I too much? And does he represent those not speaking up?

I’m plagued by dark thoughts and screwball thought patterns that would be exhausting to mask. I have no interest in hiding who I am. Being human is messy and sharing my journey towards health makes me feel less alone. Lugging my crazy into the daylight zaps it of ugliness that grows and strangles in the loneliness of the dark. I write to shine light into those dark spaces. I write and I don’t hold back.

I talked to a friend about losing clients because of my openness. She said, “Shannon, you’ll have the most success being you. You’ll be that awesome web content person who flies the mental health flag high and is an oversharer and crazy and awesome! Someone else can be the non-depressed one. Maybe you’ll get your first clients in the mental health business—maybe they’ll pick you specifically because you speak out about mental health. And maybe you won’t do websites for conservative right wing nuts. Sounds good to me.”

“That would be cool,” I said, “getting hired because I’m me.”

Sometimes I do share too much, but mostly I share enough to loosen the grip of shame. And maybe in the process I sacrifice the approval of potential clients. But choosing to show up and be seen is worth the healing and connectedness I’ve gained. Seth Godin says, “There’s a huge difference between the shallow pleasure of instant applause and the long-lasting impact of true connection.”

How many of you have struggled with mental health issues? How many of you have been able to talk about it?

I’ve always been good at being vulnerable. And I don’t say that in a braggy way, because for me it’s like breathing. You’re good at making kids laugh or giving hugs or doting on your sick partner. I’m good at vulnerable. It’s part of the whole Shannon package. Sharing is how I stay connected.

There is a genuine disconnect for me when people want privacy. I realize that sounds crazy, but I have to work hard to understand that impulse. I don’t see sharing as risk; I see it as trust. A chance to give and receive fearlessly. My first thought isn’t that I’ll hurt or get hurt with my openness. I believe humanity is in my cheering section and yours. And if they aren’t, our stories will invite them in. Our imperfections connect us. Our imperfections make us accessible.

Brené Brown says, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

I started taking antidepressants 18 years ago and I’ve been as open about that as I am about my toothpaste brand. People are weird about mental illness, and once I tuned into that, talking about it became the most badass thing I could do. According to Seth Godin “It takes confidence and guts to intentionally create tension.” And here I thought I was just being obnoxious.

Ask my husband about the time we played badminton and he told me I was doing it wrong. Social norms priming me to feel ashamed of things not in my control fuels my urge to buy ad space on google. I refuse to be strangled by depression shame or any of the shames I wrestle—parenting shame, fashion shame, body shame, breathing shame.

When I mention my antidepressants, there’s always a quiet, “me too.” And because I know that whisper is about stigma, I’m careful to be gentle and encouraging, but sometimes I want to grab the person and yell, “STOP WHISPERING BECAUSE YOU’RE FEEDING THE BEAST.” If you’re ashamed, you’re telling me I need to be ashamed. That we all need to be ashamed.

We need to start talking about mental health casually and without grimace, and teach others to do the same. Eventually people will stop shifting in their seats at the mention of Prozac. If you suffer from mental illness, the only way it will become okay to talk about—is to talk about it.

I have a friend in his early 50s who was diagnosed with Bipolar two years ago. It bulldozed his life until he discovered strategies and the right medication. It never occurred to him to hide his diagnosis, and his candour often brings awkward silences and fidgeting. He and I have turned our openness about mental health into a science experiment—an observation of humanity.

We’ve been conditioned to feel uncomfortable about mental illness, so I get it. But depression, along with cancer, diabetes, asthma, arthritis and autism all happen without our permission. Why are some more socially acceptable than others?

Stephen Fry talked about stigma on his blog: “’How can someone so well-off, well-known and successful have depression?’ people ask. Alastair Campbell suggested changing the word ‘depression’ to ‘cancer’ or ‘diabetes’ in order to reveal how, in its own way, sick a question, it is. Ill-natured, ill-informed, ill-willed or just plain ill, it’s hard to say.”

Many of us are pretending we’re great because it’s the socially appropriate thing to do. But because we’re not great—at least not always—the pretending is crushing us. We’re pretending and we feel alone, because a quick scroll through Facebook has us believing everyone else is happily parenting, getting published, finding love, and content at work. Everyone else has a beautiful life and we can’t stop feeling like we’re drowning 25 out of 30 days in a month.

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel. — Steve Furtick

But the truth is, beautiful lives aren’t made up of only happy and good. Beautiful lives are also not-great, and it needs to be okay to be not-great. Not-great should be just as normal, acceptable and Facebooked as great.

I don’t necessarily mean the kind of not-great that comes with a diagnosis. Sometimes we’re just plain it’s-raining-again not-great, and sometimes we’re seventh-week-throes-of-depression not-great. Brown says, “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage,” so why are we afraid to be authentic outside hushed circles of trusted friends?

A reader left this comment on my blog:

“I really think we need to talk more about mental health and understand that the tough stuff people wrestle with go hand in hand with a lot of the best things we love about them. Those of us who struggle with ADD, depression, or anxiety would probably manage a lot better without the weight of stigma to wrangle as well.”

Socially appropriate is exhausting. Seth Godin says “Correct is fine, but it is better to be interesting.” Shannon Fisher says, “Socially appropriate is fine, but it is better to be interesting.” So here I am: Sometimes depressed and awesome at what I do. Sometimes depressed and the person you want to hire. Sometimes depressed and about to strategically knock your content socks off.

If I lose clients because my adventures in depression make them uncomfortable, I’m willing to embrace that. Because the alternative is not sharing my truth. The alternative is fretfully carrying my human experiences in my own personal darkness. Secrecy doesn’t erase my struggles; it feeds the shame of their existence.

Brown talks about shame being deadly as it quietly marinates over a lifetime. “The bottom line with shame,” she says, “is the less you talk about it, the more you got it."

The antidote, Brown believes, is empathy. “When we talk about our shame with someone who expresses empathy, the painful feelings can’t survive. Shame depends on us buying into the belief that we are alone. Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy."

My support network drips empathy and I used to think it’s because I’m lucky. My therapist pointed out that people aren’t in our lives because of luck—we attract what we are. Awareness of my own weaknesses filled me with compassion for yours. We receive empathy when we are vulnerable. The human connection we need to fight shame is nearly impossible without exposing ourselves. And with the gift of empathy comes healing .

I understand that omission of less-favourable information can make people feel better about my ability to perform professionally. I have no plans to wear a sandwich board declaring myself Duchess of Depression, but I’m not okay with becoming silent in the spaces I occupy.

If what I’m sharing adds value and am I comfortable sharing it, then any consequences that follow are worth it. I have experienced the bulk of these consequences to be the best kind, like community, intimacy, healing, and the dismantling of shame.

Vulnerability is who I am and it’s what I choose. I choose it for me, for you and for the me toos.

I used to say I should come with a warning label, “Severe emotional damage may cause tears and require frequent reassurance. Deeply desires awareness and growth. Will overshare.”

The label would have suited me at the time. Vulnerability wasn’t strength of character so much as a compulsion, fuelled by fear and panic, like someone frenzied and drowning. Brown says, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgment.”

A close friend and I broke up a couple years ago. My version was that my vulnerability was too much. That version is diluted with my wounded pride, and I won’t deny it’s tainted. But that breakup felt like a rejection of my whole person, and I began to question the parts of me that make me, me.

Months later, I saw Brown’s TEDTalk on The Power of Vulnerability and while she spoke, I wept. Her talk propelled me into a place of healing and self-acceptance. I was given research-based permission to be me: you guys, science says I should be vulnerable. Science says vulnerability is a gift I give to myself and to my people.

So, I continue to be vulnerable. Maybe uncomfortably and socially inappropriately so. But not only is my vulnerability not a burden—it’s a gift. I’m a gift! I’ve always been a gift. The people not ready or right for me have and will continue to filter themselves from my life. I’m not for everyone, and that’s okay!

I used to be ashamed of my gremlins and my compulsion to parade them openly. Brown’s talk torched my shame. I’m going to meet Brené Brown. I don’t know how or when, but it will happen. And when it does, I’m going to hug the shit out of that lady!

She showed me that my open spirit could be rerooted in health. She showed me I could move through fear to choose vulnerability as a way to connected, authentic relationships. She showed me I could replace my compulsion with courage and engage from a place of worthiness.

How do you thank someone for that? You hug the shit out of her when you finally meet. You live differently. You stand a little taller. And you love yourself a lot more.