Vulnerability is the Key to Happiness
The world we live in is a harsh and complicated place. It's safe to say that nearly everyone you meet is currently facing or has at some point in their life faced real hardship. It doesn't matter what form that takes, and there’s no way to rank another's struggle on a universal scale. The weight of all suffering is determined by the perspective of the individual experiencing it. While living in poverty, hunger, or fear for your or your family's safety may be a more existential threat to survival, its severity does not diminish by comparison the pain of a person who, for example, may be in a verbally abusive relationship and happens to be financially well-off.
Even if we could rank emotional and spiritual pain, what would be the purpose? From a clear place, perhaps we can resolve to see relatability in all people through this lens, and in doing so feel compassion for our flawed and struggling kin regardless of location, background, ideals or lifestyle.
For those of us living in certain Western cultures, we don't exactly have a healthy handle on this kind of pain. Worse, we add to our own automatically upon noticing it because we hide it. We're ashamed of it. We're ashamed of how we feel, of our authentic experiences in the world, and shame is directly, causally correlated with emotional and spiritual pain.
Of course hiding something doesn't erase it. It's there, and because we're scared to be honest with ourselves and others, we live in a society of walls and façades. How many times have you answered honestly when someone’s asked, “How are you?” How many times when you ask that question do you do it out of a genuine interest in a person’s wellbeing rather than expecting a generic “Good, thanks” in response to your greeting formality? Do you feel comfortable showing your true emotions in public? How about crying?
When you take a selfie to post on social media, how many do you take? How long do you spend editing the one you choose to share before allowing it to represent you?
Out of all the people in your life, how many do you feel safe confiding in when you're feeling your absolute worst? Not when you're frustrated or angry or feel slighted, but when you feel sad, down or depressed? Do you comfortably share with them as often as you feel it might help to talk, or do you limit yourself? Do you worry that you could over-extend your welcome or go into debt on your emotional line of credit with them?
Have you ever had a portion of yourself that you recognized as real and persistent but were too scared to express? An interest, a style, an identity? Do you notice a flame ignite within you when it manages to momentarily rise to the surface that you quickly extinguish before anyone notices?
Try something for yourself: bring this thing to your mind. Whether it's an emotion, a desire, a fantasy, whatever lives within you that you struggle to accept or even actively beat back. You know what it is. Let it exist as an idea for a moment. Now ask yourself,
If the opinions, reactions and judgments of others weren't a factor; if this thing was commonly accepted or even just invisible to everyone else in the world, how would I feel about it? Would I still suppress it? Or would I let it be, and maybe even appreciate it? How much power does my projection of other people's disapproval have over the way in which I live my life?
Those questions, when I asked them of myself and forced myself to reflect on the truth that came from answering them, changed my life in almost every way possible. In a matter of months I did the following:
Deconstructed and reevaluated my entire value system. I questioned everything, from capitalism to gender identity to the impacts of our technological advancement as a species.
Resigned from my job of 8 years as an executive business leader and the next-in-line CEO of my family's 200-employee company.
Came out to my friends and family as transgender and began transitioning my body and visible identity from male to female.
Left for a half-planned 5-week solo backpacking trip through Southeast Asia.
Launched this blog, which at its core is basically a gaping window into my soul that lives in the public domain.
I'll also state for the record that exactly zero of these things were in any of my comfort zones. I had never traveled alone or even been to Asia and I didn't know a soul on the entire continent. Backpacking through a foreign world seemed like a thing that only hippies without crafty anxiety did. Business, and specifically working at my former company, was the only career path I had ever known or could ever previously see as a viable path to achieve my goals. I had buried the reality that I was trans so deeply that the coming out process has been more like death and rebirth than a transition. Lastly, very much in line with having hidden my female self away so thoroughly for 28 years, I was far from used to exposing myself in a completely unfiltered way like I do through Samplings.
Later it became clear that my experience coming into consciousness and accepting my vulnerability were connected, and my journey could be summed up into three phases.
Phase 1 of my personal revolution was asking those deep questions, answering them truthfully, and waking up to my truth for the first time. It amounted to me being vulnerable to myself.
No more lying.
Once I realized that what I had come to accept as "normal" in society across so many different categories—from Western society's dominant ranking of material wealth on its value scale, to the closely-linked concept of the suffocatingly narrow "path" to "success" in life, to my own suppression of my beautiful uniqueness—was absolutely not okay with me, I had to do something. I had become conscious to the fact that I had been living my life to appeal to the comforts of others, which meant walling major parts of myself off that I felt could make me vulnerable. I was nothing short of miserable as a result.
I wanted to go around shaking everybody to wake them up as if they were wirelessly jacked into The Matrix. After all, if I could be so easily and fully fooled, others might be unaware that they were doing the same thing! But shouting my revelation from the hilltops probably wouldn't have had the desired effect in that moment, so what was I to do?
At the very least I had to adjust my own life now that I saw the harsh truth of what had been motivating so many of my actions and dictating so many of my goals. That's when I changed everything and started coming out.
Phase 2 was rooted in outwardly visible action, and therefore it amounted to me being vulnerable to the people in my life.
No more hiding.
By the time I got to Cambodia roughly 6 months into my discovery I had subconsciously uncovered the connection between vulnerability and happiness. Consciously at the time I processed the inverse: the connection between shame/hiding and misery.
Now that I was finally allowing my multifaceted authentic self to run the show I was hooked on the thing that had allowed me to come to the surface. In no way was I seeing things even fractionally as clearly as I do now, but even then I knew there was one more thing I had to do to eliminate shame from my life forever:
Phase 3 was to create a vehicle for me to put all my cards on the table. It amounted to allowing myself to be vulnerable to the world.
No more fear.
And so I created Samplings. I started building it on my iPad in a café next to a swamp in the city of Siem Reap because I couldn't wait another minute. As dramatic as it may sound, in that moment I felt like I had lived my whole life up to then missing a cornerstone in my perception of reality: that vulnerability is the key to happiness.
I know, I know. To say that any one thing is the key to happiness is a hell of a statement. While in a very simple sense I do believe that to be a fair summary, let's step back and unpack it a bit. For one, based both on my own profound experience and pure spiritual intuition, I am strongly of the opinion that vulnerability is the key to authenticity, and that authenticity is the key to an impassioned life and therefore, fulfillment. Arriving at the end of that logical chain I have a hard time separating that from happiness. We can add a few more steps to reinforce the bridge:
Vulnerability leads to authenticity
Authenticity leads to acceptance and self-love
Acceptance and self-love lead to outward love and inspiration
Love and inspiration lead to passion
Passion creates determination and fulfillment
Love, passion and fulfillment create happiness
Yup, I did it. Formula for happiness. Right there 👆 (“The audacity!” you say). Sorry not sorry!
Of course there are variables that can interfere with the model like physical or mental illness, trauma or loss, or the absence of and inability to acquire base necessities. Any model when applied to the chaos of the real world will stumble in certain situations. It also doesn't list out every characteristic a person stands to build through vulnerability, like resilience, confidence, creativity, foresight, and empathy. I didn't apply the unique strengths you already have that stand to boost the model's effectiveness in your own life, either.
Being authentic and vulnerable may be the key, but make no mistake, it's not easy. Just because I'm confidently vulnerable doesn't mean I'm impervious. I have down days, I feel insecure, I get anxious and sometimes I still feel outright fear. But I can tell you with total certainty having lived so deeply in the closet that I thought it was the whole house, and even as I come off of two full days of feeling emotionally raw and cognitively immobilized, that existing in constant retreat from fear is a sentence. It's a surefire way to miss out on life and the full-color beauty of the world.
Because fear in and of itself isn't a bad thing. In fact if you watch it carefully it can be a compass, pointing you toward exactly what you need to do for yourself and your growth. If you're not afraid to face it, fear can become a tool. So when I say “No more fear” in association with being as open as possible, I mean no more power for fear.
It's only our reaction to fear that can ruin us. If we run and hide in the face of fear we give it substance—a body. Fear relies on us to catalyze it into reality, and that catalyst is called shame.
I won’t go so far as to say that being vulnerable by itself is the answer to everything. That’s stupidly simplistic and it’s just not true. But I can say that the most recent era of my life has been by far the least predictable, the least secure, and the scariest. It’s by far the most vulnerable I’ve ever been. And with all that considered I am hands down at my happiest.
This light and relatable Ted Talk on The Power of Vulnerability dives into shame and our conditioning to try to numb ourselves to unpleasant feelings and experiences. It moves on quickly to its core message: that if we want to experience the beauty of our existence, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It also has 34.6 million views. I wonder why?