I discovered the work of Brene´ Brown this summer, and it changed the entire trajectory of my work, perhaps of my entire life. I could spend hours sharing what I’ve learned by reading her books, but I’ll spare you the novel. I’m guessing many of you already know about her, and those who don’t- well, I suggest you go read Daring Greatly ASAP (after you finish this blog post of course).
Brene´ Brown is a shame researcher and storyteller, and her teachings on shame, vulnerability, and truth have opened my eyes to my own struggles, and to those of the women around me. As I mentioned in my last blog post, these struggles have me taking on a new photographic journey, based on how women can be encouraged and connected by sharing such struggles and such stories.
Today I want to share with you a list of key words that I believe shape many women our age. These are also the key words that now define the vision of my photography and my own journey. I would call them challenge words, not because you’ve never heard them before or don’t know their definition, but because they may be difficult to honestly consider or discuss.
Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” (from Daring Greatly) There are a dozen “shame categories” when it comes to women. Among them are: appearance and body image, mothering or parenting, money or work, aging, family, sex, and mental/physical health. Who among us has not considered her body and felt shame for one reason or another? Who has not looked at herself as a mother and felt disconnected and unworthy? Brown teaches that shame is natural and a part of who we are, but that we must learn to become shame resilient, and see shame for the monster emotion that it is.
It’s important for me to pull beauty from Brene's list and put it on this one, because while it’s a simple term we all know, it’s perhaps one we all tie to shame. I know I do. We are all aging, but there’s something about approaching our 40s and 50s that has us seeing our beauty in a new way, or struggling to see it at all. Hair gets a bit more coarse and gray. Our faces show a few more wrinkles. Skin droops and weight is harder to lose. We’re tired and it shows. And we are not the same kind of beautiful we were just a few years ago. We are not the beautiful that our culture says is most important. This beauty shame is a difficult road because it threatens to disconnect us from others, when in fact it can do just the opposite. Through vulnerability and empathy, we can connect in the most beautiful, powerful, and lasting ways.
I love Brene´ Brown’s words on vulnerability: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” Truth. That’s not easy when it comes to our shame. But truth must be present. Being courageous enough to open up, to allow ourselves to be exposed, to share who we are, our stories of shame and struggle- that is the key which unlocks the real beauty, the real connection, the real healing. Being brave enough to be vulnerable- with ourselves, and with each other- takes shame and exposes it for the monster that it is. Vulnerability takes shame and turns it into empathy and connection.
Alright, here is where the English teacher in me comes out, because it’s important to note that empathy is quite different than sympathy. Sympathy says, “oh I’m so sorry you are struggling through that… that’s horrible and would NEVER happen to me. Yikes. Glad I'm not you”. Empathy says “I understand. I’ve been there too. Maybe not the way you have, but I get it. I know your struggle.” Empathy says, “Me too.”. Sympathy threatens to further shame and disconnect us, while empathy connects us in a beautiful and powerful way. Empathy exposes the lie that you are all alone. Empathy is so beautiful.
This might be a weird word to add to this list, and it’s definitely not one that Breneˆ Brown uses in her studies, but it’s my passion and my craft, so it’s important for me to explain how I see portraiture tying in with the rest of this process. The way I see it, shame breeds disconnect, while vulnerability breeds empathy and connection. Portraiture is my way of telling a woman’s story, so that she might allow her vulnerability to connect her to other women, to her family, to others struggling, and to reveal her truth- that she is beautiful far beyond her own comprehension, that she is brave, and that her story is important to her own healing, but also to so many others. Portraiture is a road many older women avoid. But what if it's one of the keys to connection, encouragement, and healing?
Why not create a new word for this list? I was having a conversation about all of this with a good friend of mine, as I myself was learning to be vulnerable and share my story of struggle. We kept referring to the words vulnerable and beautiful, noticing how one connects so strongly with the other. After a few go arounds with both words, we just started putting them together. Vulnerabeautiful. The notion that we are most beautiful when we are courageously and honestly being who we really are, telling our stories, and allowing ourselves to be open to others. Vulnerability is beautiful.
This list is the basis of my own story, and of my new photographic journey. I’ve decided I might have to be uncomfortable, and brave, and truthful, to allow my story to connect me with others- through this blog, and through my photography. I will not quit on my photography, nor will I quit on my own beautiful story, or the beautiful stories of those around me. This is my story. I am a portrait photographer, a teacher, a coach. I love to connect, encourage, and empower women like me through their own stories, their own courageous vulnerability, to reveal their own Vulnerabeauty.
If these ideas speak to you, here are a few resources for you to learn more, and perhaps come on this journey with me.
First, here are some links to a few of Breneˆ Brown’s best-selling books. (note- I am not an affiliate for Brown, just a huge fan)
The Gifts of Imperfection
Second, here are the links to her two TED talks. I found it most powerful to watch Brown in her own vulnerability. It was brave, and it was what made me actually see my own connection to her research and her story.
The Power of Vulnerability
Listening to Shame
Finally, I am currently finishing a FREE mini workbook called The Self-Compassion Startup, which offers a guide to using writing, sharing, and portraiture to find your own story, and to move closer to self-love and compassion. It's coming this month, but you can SIGN UP HERE to make sure you don't miss it.
To be sure, more is coming. This journey is not an easy one to walk at all. Vulnerability is scary, but it is necessary. And so I’m walking it. And I would love your company.