Recently, I was introduced to a video by a very wise friend. It was one of those moments where you are given it at exactly the time you need it most, when you are most receptive to it and when the explanation for everything that has been troubling you seems to fall satisfyingly into place and you suddenly understand the world with amazing clarity. To call it a spiritual awakening would be to minimise the intellectual and emotional impact of the moment. I suddenly understood the route to being an authentic artist with a certainty borne of a solid theoretical foundation, data and a perfectly lucid, yet simple explanation. And with that comes a magical paradox. This is the video, by Dr Brené Brown, somebody who has spent a decade studying shame, vulnerability, empathy and connectedness:
The video is about what it means to live your life wholeheartedly. In so doing, we achieve what we all crave instinctively: connection. Connection to others is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. When we fear the loss of connection to others, we feel shame. Shame and fear are related intimately.
It turns out, from the research, that the people best equipped and able to live their lives wholeheartedly are those that share a common belief: that they are worthy of connection. Despite their foibles, weaknesses and faults, they believe strongly that they are still deserving of love, praise, inclusion, of being embraced by others and of experiencing joy and success. This applies in spades for an artist. Unless you feel you are worthy of having your art accepted, praised, your work validated by others and your worth as an artist recognised, you are really going to struggle to achieve any of those things. The key is the sincerely held belief. Worthiness turns out to be the strong sense of loving and belonging and of believing you are worthy of loving and belonging.
But how do you form those connections in the first place? If you believe you are worthy of connection, then how do you make those connections? Here is what the research revealed: connection requires you to experience excruciating vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable, it’s painful and it makes us feel fear, but it is also the source of and route to joy, creativity, belonging and love.
We have to embrace our vulnerability, not deny it. But how?
The video says that the key to it all is “living wholeheartedly”, but what does living wholeheartedly really mean? How does it apply to being an artist?
There are a few elements to living wholeheartedly. The first is to live with courage. Courage, not bravery. They’re different. Courage is derived from the Latin word for “heart” and I suppose a more literal translation might have been “heartage”. “Living with courage” means telling your own story, of who you are, from your heart. It’s all tied up with being open, authentic, honest and not holding back any aspects of who you are, for fear of criticism or opprobrium. It’s not a popularity contest; it’s about stating what you are all about, what you hold dear, what your passions are, what motivates you and what your world view happens to be, for better or for worse. Without fear.
The second aspect of living wholeheartedly is to live with compassion. That is to say, it is important to be kind to ourselves and to others. Nobody is perfect, but then who said that any of us should be? Is it even realistic to expect perfection? Living with compassion means you empathise with the plight of others, you care about them deeply and genuinely and you are sensitive to what others are going through. Just as importantly, though, you are equally forgiving, accommodating and easy on yourself. You don’t have to be better than you are. You’re good enough. We all are.
The third aspect of living wholeheartedly involves connection, which is a result of your authenticity. Others will see a kindred spirit in you, if you portray yourself with authenticity, dropping the vanities and the subtle subterfuges and disguises that many hide behind. If your image actually is a representation of the real you, others are going to respond positively to that. As an artist, authenticity is what makes your art stand out from the crowd. It doesn’t mean it is better, but it is wholehearted. Being who you are, not who you think you should be, means that you aren’t wasting a tremendous amount of energy in maintaining a facade. You are who you are and that frees you to get on with the work of expressing that fact, through your artistic output.
So if you do those three things and live wholeheartedly, it enables you to embrace your own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others. It lets you live and let live knowing that you are open and putting yourself and your artistic expressions out there, for all to see. What makes you vulnerable is what makes your beautiful. Embracing your vulnerability means you are quick to love others first. You are tolerant. You understand and forgive when your friends are lashing out at you without explanation. You take risks with human relationships, knowing that there is no guarantee of reciprocation. You are tender. You understand that vulnerability is not optional, it’s necessary.
Easy to say, but hard to do, given the years of conditioning and reinforcement that we all endure during our lifetimes, which inculcate us with powerful messages to the contrary. Our entire economic and educational system is geared up to deny vulnerability, or to drive it out.
Most of us have had the experience of being on the verge of experiencing unalloyed bliss, only to have a thought flit through our heads of some imagined catastrophe that will spoil it all. It’s by no means a universal human experience, but many of us feel that, at the deepest level, we have no entitlement to bliss. We think fatalistically. It has been described as “foreboding joy”. This fatalism is a symptom that we, as a society, are losing our tolerance for vulnerability. Vulnerability is equated with weakness. Being imperfect is taken to mean that we are inadequate. We feel that we have “delusions of adequacy”, rather than “delusions of grandeur”. It’s why we struggle to accept compliments about our art. We feel that we’re about to be set up for a disappointment or ridicule.
Another symptom of the loss of tolerance for vulnerability is choosing disappointment as a lifestyle. You’ve heard people saying things like, “I don’t want to join your stupid <whatever it is>”. Why? Because, deep down, they are afraid that nobody will ask them to join. We sidestep becoming excited about something good, because we aren’t sure it’s actually going to happen. We don’t want the shame, humiliation and disappointment to be obvious, in the event that it doesn’t happen.
Low grade disconnection is another symptom of vulnerability avoidance. Better to keep yourself to yourself than to risk being found vulnerable by others, right? Well, actually, wrong.
Intolerance of vulnerability can manifest as a manic striving to be “perfect”. In this sense, perfectionism is not the striving for excellence, to work to become accomplished or striving for improvement. That’s all healthy and positive. Perfectionism, in this sense, means the refusal to accept anything less than perfect in ourselves or others. This is using perfection as a shield. It can evolve into extremism, where nothing is perfect enough, save your own concocted view of an unreachable perfection. This is how we become critical, judgemental, intolerant, prejudiced and turn into control freaks. Art critics so often fall into this category. You can see this ethos writ large in every large corporation on the planet. Those arbitrarily deemed to be perfect remain; the imperfect are to be jettisoned. I’ve worked in companies that sack the employees that score in the lowest ten percent of their performance review, annually. What is that, if it is not pure intolerance of vulnerability? Faith minus vulnerability equals extremism.
As artists, those that try to perfect their work in a manic, fearful attempt to prevent criticism and ridicule are on a hiding to nothing. Your art is supposed to be imperfect. It’s an expression and an acknowledgement of your vulnerability.
What price do we pay, as individuals and as a society, for propagating a culture that requires invulnerability? In our struggle with our vulnerability, we try to numb it. We do this through addiction, over-eating, depression, alcohol abuse, indebtedness, manic consumption, medication and busy-ness (workaholism, presenteeism, frenzy). We do these things to avoid confronting our own vulnerability. It’s all avoidance and displacement activity. The truth is, you cannot numb emotions selectively. You either numb none, or you numb them all, with these crude tactics. In numbing our senses and our emotions, we lose the ability to experience joy, gratitude, the sublime, happiness and bliss, as well as numbing the pain and discomfort. Recovering addicts are as likely to suffer a relapse in response to intense feelings of happiness as they are due to disappointment. Once we numb our emotions, we begin to feel miserable and start searching for meaning, because we have closed ourselves off from those things that give us relief from misery and our lives meaning. Thus, the downward spiral begins. We live in a world in which we are vulnerable, but if we deny it, we dull it, which makes us feel worse, so we dull it some more. It’s an anaesthetic arms race we can’t win.
How many artists have you heard of that have been utterly self-destructed by drugs and excess? We think they have it all and marvel at their inability to see how good they have it. And yet, they try so hard to deny their vulnerability, they numb themselves to death. Lindsay Lohan springs to mind immediately, at this point.
Another common tactic to avoid confronting our vulnerability is that we try to make the uncertain into certainties. We do this because we are afraid. We respond to our own vulnerability with harshness to others, employing heartless bigotry, sexism, prejudice, intolerance, judgementalism, jingoism, bullying, cruelty, forcing people to conform to our own views, exclusion, humiliation, gossiping, name-calling, cut-throat alliances, hostile confrontations, belittling, collusion, backstabbing and public ridicule as weapons. This fully explains gang culture, reality television, playground bullying, sexual harassment and a host of other societal consequences. Rather than face their own vulnerability, many participate in these destructive and hostile activities. We would rather destroy others than create ourselves.
Blame is a way to discharge pain and discomfort. Rather than accepting and dealing with our own feelings of vulnerability, it deflects attention from that uncomfortable fact if we point the finger elsewhere. We vainly try to perfect everything around us to attempt to protect ourselves from our own feelings of vulnerability. The most toxic consequence of this way of thinking is that we try to perfect our own children. This can be so damaging to them. What children require of their parents is to feel unconditional love, belonging and affection, in spite of their imperfections. Is that what we give them? In some cases, definitely not.
We like to pretend that our behaviour and actions have no effect on other people, but it isn’t true. Our actions can profoundly affect others, especially our children. That’s why it is so important to be authentic and real. We need to let ourselves be seen and be accountable for being who we are. We need to love with our whole hearts, even if there is no guarantee of being loved in return.
Another terrible consequence of the futile quest for invulnerability is that we have created a culture of scarcity. This serves the economic system and maintains those in positions of power and wealth, because creating scarcity is a way of laying claim to invulnerability. But even the wealthiest and most powerful billionaire is vulnerable too. It’s unavoidable and undeniable, regardless of the monetary system they impose.
The culture of scarcity extends further than that. We are told, several times a day, that we are not good enough, not safe enough, not certain enough, not perfect enough and most insidiously, that we are not extraordinary enough. An ordinary life is not a meaningless life. Are we tempted to engage in a quest for the extraordinary only because we don’t think or believe was are not enough? Setting yourself an unreachably high standard of outstanding-ness is just a symptom of the intolerance of vulnerability. We don’t have to have seen the seven continents of the world, have a hit record, or organise our own public exhibition of our art. In the process of trying to be extraordinary, do we sometimes lose sight of the very ordinary, but joyful things in our lives? Do we drive ourselves to distraction and destruction in the process? Are we the authors of our own unnecessary and artificial disappointments, relative only to the unrealistic standard of extraordinariness we set for ourselves?
Being an artist means being an aesthete. The very word carries with it the idea of having heightened, sharpened senses. It implies leaving yourself open to experience happiness, sadness, pain and joy. The opposite is anaesthesia. If what makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful, I wonder if artists, architects and product designers, these days, are almost afraid to create things of beauty. Everything has to be purely functional, ironic, post modern or focussed on shock and disgust. Modern art tends toward the intellectually clever, rather than the inspiring and gorgeous. Even leisure painters suffer from the fear of vulnerability, because their frequent quest for realistic depiction, as opposed to expressionist, passionate, abstract painting, reflects a desire to control, to perfect and to avoid making anything imperfect. It’s why, I think, so little of that work is truly beautiful. It doesn’t move us. There is nothing to sense.
So what’s the cure? What’s the way out of living in a society that denies and denigrates vulnerability? How do you practice living wholeheartedly? The secret is to practice gratitude and joy. Make it a habit. Treat others and yourself with empathy. When you feel doubt, fear, discomfort and uncertainty, be grateful for the fact that you are feeling the vulnerability, because it means you are alive. Honour the ordinary. Stop to play, to hug your kids, to be a part of their lives, to love, to be a part of your community. Appreciate the fact that these things are available to you. If we miss out on the opportunities to fill our reservoirs with joy and love at every opportunity, then we will definitely not be able to handle the bad things that can come into our lives, when they come to try us.
Realise that you are enough. You’re good enough. Plenty good enough. Stop screaming and start listening. Own your own beauty. We are neither born authentic, nor inauthentic. It’s not a genetically inherited property; it’s a choice we make. We can choose to be authentic or not, along a spectrum of choices. Authenticity is the courage to be vulnerable. It’s the courage to be beautiful. It’s an incredibly powerful way to live and to express through your art. You are different and you are beautiful.
Care passionately. Be empathic. Empathy is about sharing your strengths and struggles. Sharing those intimate aspects of your inner self requires the courage to be vulnerable. Resist the fear of fitting in. Our culture and every powerful message we receive from the media, our teachers and our employers tells us to keep our secrets to ourselves and to internalise our struggles. Throw that stuff overboard. We need to be speaking our stories, from our hearts.
So much of the media tells us that we should be constantly happy and if we’re not, it’s our own fault and our own choice. An entire industry has grown up around the idea. I don’t think it’s as simplistic as all that. Life is not about being unconditionally happy at all times and of feeling the pressure to be so. It’s inappropriate to be perfectly happy when the objective truth about our lives and situations may make feeling “happiness” a bizarre and misplaced response to events. What you should do is allow yourself to feel and experience both the highs and the lows, to be there for others and to be open and out there in the world. It’s about trusting in relationships that may never reward your trust and may even betray it. It’s about being courageously vulnerable.
The implications of embracing your vulnerability and of living wholeheartedly go way beyond your art and life as an artist. It impacts your life as a parent, a child, a friend, in work and business and as a human being.
As the video said, be kinder and gentler to yourself and to others. It is the key.