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so, i'll start with this: a coupleyears ago, an event planner called me because i was goingto do a speaking event. and she called, and she said, "i'm really struggling with howto write about you on the little flyer." and i thought,"well, what's the struggle?" and she said, "well, i saw you speak, and i'm going to call youa researcher, i think, but i'm afraid if i call youa researcher, no one will come, because they'll thinkyou're boring and irrelevant."
(laughter) and i was like, "okay." and she said, "but the thingi liked about your talk is you're a storyteller. so i think what i'll dois just call you a storyteller." and of course, the academic,insecure part of me was like, "you're goingto call me a what?" and she said, "i'm goingto call you a storyteller." and i was like, "why not 'magic pixie'?"
i was like, "let me thinkabout this for a second." i tried to call deep on my courage. and i thought, you know,i am a storyteller. i'm a qualitative researcher. i collect stories; that's what i do. and maybe storiesare just data with a soul. and maybe i'm just a storyteller. and so i said, "you know what? why don't you just sayi'm a researcher-storyteller."
and she went, "ha ha.there's no such thing." so i'm a researcher-storyteller,and i'm going to talk to you today -- we're talking aboutexpanding perception -- and so i want to talk to youand tell some stories about a piece of my researchthat fundamentally expanded my perception and really actually changedthe way that i live and love and work and parent. and this is where my story starts. when i was a young researcher,doctoral student,
my first year, i hada research professor who said to us, "here's the thing, if you cannotmeasure it, it does not exist." and i thought he was justsweet-talking me. i was like, "really?"and he was like, "absolutely." and so you have to understand that i have a bachelor'sand a master's in social work, and i was getting my ph.d. in social work,so my entire academic career was surrounded by people who kind ofbelieved in the "life's messy, love it." and i'm more of the, "life's messy,clean it up, organize it
and put it into a bento box." and so to think that i had found my way,to found a career that takes me -- really, one of the big sayingsin social work is, "lean into the discomfort of the work." and i'm like, knock discomfortupside the head and move it over and get all a's. that was my mantra. so i was very excited about this. and so i thought, you know what,this is the career for me,
because i am interestedin some messy topics. but i want to be ableto make them not messy. i want to understand them. i want to hack into these thingsthat i know are important and lay the code out for everyone to see. so where i started was with connection. because, by the timeyou're a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connectionis why we're here. it's what gives purposeand meaning to our lives.
this is what it's all about. it doesn't matter whetheryou talk to people who work in social justice,mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection,the ability to feel connected, is -- neurobiologicallythat's how we're wired -- it's why we're here. so i thought, you know what,i'm going to start with connection. well, you know that situation where you get an evaluationfrom your boss,
and she tells you 37 thingsthat you do really awesome, and one "opportunity for growth?" and all you can think aboutis that opportunity for growth, right? well, apparently this is the waymy work went as well, because, when you ask people about love,they tell you about heartbreak. when you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciatingexperiences of being excluded. and when you ask people about connection, the stories they told mewere about disconnection.
so very quickly -- really about six weeksinto this research -- i ran into this unnamed thingthat absolutely unraveled connection in a way that i didn't understandor had never seen. and so i pulled back out of the research and thought, i needto figure out what this is. and it turned out to be shame. and shame is really easily understoodas the fear of disconnection: is there something about me that,if other people know it or see it, that i won't be worthy of connection?
the things i can tell you about it: it's universal; we all have it. the only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for humanempathy or connection. no one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it,the more you have it. what underpinned this shame,this "i'm not good enough," -- which, we all know that feeling: "i'm not blank enough.i'm not thin enough,
rich enough, beautiful enough,smart enough, promoted enough." the thing that underpinned thiswas excruciating vulnerability. this idea of, in orderfor connection to happen, we have to allow ourselvesto be seen, really seen. and you know how i feelabout vulnerability. i hate vulnerability. and so i thought, this is my chanceto beat it back with my measuring stick. i'm going in, i'm goingto figure this stuff out, i'm going to spend a year,i'm going to totally deconstruct shame, i'm going to understandhow vulnerability works,
and i'm going to outsmart it. so i was ready, and i was really excited. as you know,it's not going to turn out well. you know this. so, i could tell you a lot about shame, but i'd have to borroweveryone else's time. but here's what i can tell youthat it boils down to -- and this may be one of the most importantthings that i've ever learned in the decade of doing this research.
my one year turned into six years: thousands of stories, hundredsof long interviews, focus groups. at one point, people weresending me journal pages and sending me their stories -- thousands of pieces of data in six years. and i kind of got a handle on it. i kind of understood, this iswhat shame is, this is how it works. i wrote a book, i published a theory,but something was not okay -- and what it was is that, if i roughlytook the people i interviewed
and divided them into people who reallyhave a sense of worthiness -- that's what this comes down to,a sense of worthiness -- they have a strong senseof love and belonging -- and folks who struggle for it, and folks who are always wonderingif they're good enough. there was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong senseof love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. and that was, the people who havea strong sense of love and belonging
believe they're worthyof love and belonging. that's it. they believe they're worthy. and to me, the hard part of the one thingthat keeps us out of connection is our fear that we're notworthy of connection, was something that,personally and professionally, i felt like i needed to understand better. so what i did is i tookall of the interviews where i saw worthiness,where i saw people living that way,
and just looked at those. what do these people have in common? i have a slight office supply addiction,but that's another talk. so i had a manila folder,and i had a sharpie, and i was like, what am i goingto call this research? and the first words that cameto my mind were "whole-hearted." these are whole-hearted people,living from this deep sense of worthiness. so i wrote at the topof the manila folder, and i started looking at the data.
in fact, i did it first in a four-day,very intensive data analysis, where i went back, pulled the interviews,the stories, pulled the incidents. what's the theme? what's the pattern? my husband left town with the kids because i always go into thisjackson pollock crazy thing, where i'm just writingand in my researcher mode. and so here's what i found. what they had in commonwas a sense of courage. and i want to separate courageand bravery for you for a minute.
courage, the originaldefinition of courage, when it first cameinto the english language -- it's from the latin word "cor,"meaning "heart" -- and the original definition was to tellthe story of who you are with your whole heart. and so these folks had, very simply,the courage to be imperfect. they had the compassion to be kindto themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassionwith other people
if we can't treat ourselves kindly. and the last was they had connection,and -- this was the hard part -- as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let goof who they thought they should be in order to be who they were,which you have to absolutely do that for connection. the other thing that they hadin common was this: they fully embraced vulnerability. they believed that what made themvulnerable made them beautiful.
they didn't talk about vulnerabilitybeing comfortable, nor did they really talkabout it being excruciating -- as i had heard it earlierin the shame interviewing. they just talked about it being necessary. they talked about the willingnessto say, "i love you" first ... the willingness to do somethingwhere there are no guarantees ... the willingness to breathethrough waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. they're willing to investin a relationship
that may or may not work out. they thought this was fundamental. i personally thought it was betrayal. i could not believe i had pledgedallegiance to research, where our job -- you know, the definition of researchis to control and predict, to study phenomena for the explicitreason to control and predict. and now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answerthat the way to live is with vulnerability and to stop controlling and predicting.
this led to a little breakdown -- -- which actually looked more like this. and it did. i call it a breakdown; my therapistcalls it a spiritual awakening. a spiritual awakeningsounds better than breakdown, but i assure you, it was a breakdown. and i had to put my data awayand go find a therapist. let me tell you something:you know who you are when you call your friends and say,"i think i need to see somebody.
do you have any recommendations?" because about fiveof my friends were like, "wooo, i wouldn't wantto be your therapist." i was like, "what does that mean?" and they're like,"i'm just saying, you know. don't bring your measuring stick." i was like, "okay." so i found a therapist. my first meeting with her, diana --
i brought in my list of the waythe whole-hearted live, and i sat down. and she said, "how are you?" and i said, "i'm great. i'm okay." she said, "what's going on?" and this is a therapistwho sees therapists, because we have to go to those,because their b.s. meters are good. and so i said, "here's the thing,i'm struggling." and she said, "what's the struggle?" and i said, "well, i havea vulnerability issue.
and i know that vulnerabilityis the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it's alsothe birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. and i think i have a problem,and i need some help." and i said, "but here's the thing:no family stuff, no childhood shit." "i just need some strategies." (applause) thank you.
so she goes like this. and then i said, "it's bad, right?" and she said, "it's neither good nor bad." "it just is what it is." and i said, "oh my god,this is going to suck." and it did, and it didn't. and it took about a year. and you know how there are people that, when they realize that vulnerabilityand tenderness are important,
that they surrender and walk into it. a: that's not me, and b: i don't even hang outwith people like that. for me, it was a yearlong street fight. it was a slugfest. vulnerability pushed, i pushed back. i lost the fight, but probably won my life back. and so then i went back into the research
and spent the next couple of years really trying to understandwhat they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making,and what we are doing with vulnerability. why do we struggle with it so much? am i alone in strugglingwith vulnerability? no. so this is what i learned. we numb vulnerability -- when we're waiting for the call.
it was funny, i sent something outon twitter and on facebook that says, "how would youdefine vulnerability? what makes you feel vulnerable?" and within an hour and a half,i had 150 responses. because i wanted to know what's out there. having to ask my husband for helpbecause i'm sick, and we're newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out;
waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. this is the world we live in. we live in a vulnerable world. and one of the ways we dealwith it is we numb vulnerability. and i think there's evidence -- and it's not the only reasonthis evidence exists, but i think it's a huge cause -- we are the most in-debt ...
obese ... addicted and medicatedadult cohort in u.s. history. the problem is -- and i learned thisfrom the research -- that you cannot selectively numb emotion. you can't say, here's the bad stuff. here's vulnerability,here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. i don't want to feel these. i'm going to have a couple of beersand a banana nut muffin.
and i know that's knowing laughter. i hack into your lives for a living. god. you can't numb those hard feelings without numbingthe other affects, our emotions. you cannot selectively numb. so when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude,
we numb happiness. and then, we are miserable, and we are lookingfor purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beersand a banana nut muffin. and it becomes this dangerous cycle. one of the things that i thinkwe need to think about is why and how we numb. and it doesn't just have to be addiction.
the other thing we do is we makeeverything that's uncertain certain. religion has gone from a beliefin faith and mystery to certainty. "i'm right, you're wrong. shut up." just certain. the more afraid we are,the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. this is what politics looks like today. there's no discourse anymore. there's no conversation.
there's just blame. you know how blameis described in the research? a way to discharge pain and discomfort. we perfect. if there's anyone who wants their lifeto look like this, it would be me, but it doesn't work. because what we do is we take fatfrom our butts and put it in our cheeks. which just, i hope in 100 years,people will look back and go, "wow." and we perfect,most dangerously, our children.
let me tell you what we thinkabout children. they're hardwired for strugglewhen they get here. and when you hold those perfectlittle babies in your hand, our job is not to say,"look at her, she's perfect. my job is just to keep her perfect -- make sure she makes the tennis teamby fifth grade and yale by seventh." that's not our job. our job is to look and say, "you know what? you're imperfect,and you're wired for struggle,
but you are worthy of love and belonging." that's our job. show me a generationof kids raised like that, and we'll end the problems,i think, that we see today. we pretend that what we dodoesn't have an effect on people. we do that in our personal lives. we do that corporate -- whether it's a bailout, an oil spill ... a recall.
we pretend like what we're doing doesn't have a huge impacton other people. i would say to companies,this is not our first rodeo, people. we just need you to be authenticand real and say ... "we're sorry. we'll fix it." but there's another way,and i'll leave you with this. this is what i have found: to let ourselves be seen,deeply seen, vulnerably seen ... to love with our whole hearts,even though there's no guarantee --
and that's really hard, and i can tell you as a parent,that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joyin those moments of terror, when we're wondering,"can i love you this much? can i believe in this this passionately? can i be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead ofcatastrophizing what might happen, to say, "i'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerablemeans i'm alive."
and the last, which i thinkis probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. because when we work from a place,i believe, that says, "i'm enough" ... then we stop screamingand start listening, we're kinder and gentlerto the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves. that's all i have. thank you.