To regular readers of my blog, it will not be a secret that I am a fan of TED talks. The topic of my favorite talk, however, may surprise some. Vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not a word that is commonly associated with those of us on the spectrum. When those of us on the spectrum are discussed the most common words you tend to hear are words that imply a lack of vulnerability. Words like “enigma” and “mystery.”
If the word vulnerable IS used in conjunction to autism, it’s most often paired with the word “to,” as in “vulnerable to autism,” or “vulnerable to bullies.” None of which implies the typical ways most people talk about vulnerability. The way Dr. Brené Brown discusses it in her talk, The Power of Vulnerability—as a quality that enhances life, allows one to live “whole hearted.”
Yet, my experience on the spectrum is undergirded by vulnerability in this sense. It’s a part of some of my greatest successes. Why? Because it’s a component of connection.
Dr. Brown says that, “…in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen.” For those who live life as different from the norm, just about anything we do involves a choice to be vulnerable. To brave judgment and rejection. To overcome shame in a world that deifies the “normal” and teaches us that anything varying from that is “wrong” or “weird” and must somehow be fixed.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to teach children who are different that vulnerability is a bad thing, in ways that we don’t even think about. When I think of this, what comes to mind is something that again, may surprise. The movie The Sixth Sense.
If you think about it, this is a movie that’s all about shame and vulnerability. About fearing rejection, trying to hide what you are, and being branded “weird" or a “freak.” And the movie’s much-heralded plot twist depends entirely on one character’s choice to be vulnerable. To accept his unique skills and abilities in order to help others.
About midway through the movie, there’s a scene that’s always resonated with me. In it, Bruce Willis’ character Malcolm Crowe, a child psychiatrist, plays a guessing game with his patient, played by Haley Joel Osment. He speculates that he’s a good kid, who’s quiet and doesn’t get in much trouble. But his patient, Cole Sear, denies it. “We were supposed to draw a picture. Anything we wanted.” He says. “I drew a man. He got hurt in the neck by another man with a screwdriver.”
Disturbed, Crowe questions if he saw that on TV. His patient doesn’t answer, but continues his story, “Everyone got upset. They had a meeting. Mama started crying. I don't draw like that anymore.” When questioned what he now draws, he answers: “I draw ... people smiling, dogs running, rainbows. They don't have meetings about rainbows.”
This is so representative of the insidious way we teach inauthenticity to our children, it made me cry. Myself, I was the subject of many such meetings, and I’ve drawn plenty of rainbows. Like the character, the resultant shutdown left me in pain for far too long, and it was only on accepting myself for who I am that I began to come into my own.
Another message from the movie is also one I’ve learned from a number of people in my own life: One person’s courage to be vulnerable can have powerful effects for many others. Vulnerability often has wider repercussions we don’t even think to expect.
When I think of that, I think of a young woman I met during my parent’s divorce. A social worker. As I’ve written before, my experiences in the system were not pleasant ones. They left me fearful and afraid to talk about my feelings. But with this woman, it was different. What made it different? Vulnerability.
I remember the day that I met her. I was nervous and afraid, and it took considerable reassurance on my father’s part to get me to go into the office. As I walked beside her, I examined her surreptitiously, my eye particularly drawn to the lovely color of the jacket she wore. I admired it, but also wondered at its fit—it seemed a bit too long for her. The sleeves covered up her hands almost completely.
It was only when she ushered me to the seat beside her desk that I’d understand why. As she got out my case file and shuffled through the papers, I quickly saw that her hands were shaped very differently than mine. While I had five small fingers on each hand, she had only two large ones. I had been trained that to comment on something like this would be extremely rude, so I sat there silent. But she must have noticed my curiosity.
“Would you like to ask about my hands?” She asked. “It’s OK, you can ask. I won’t be mad. Ask anything you like.” I was very nervous, but I took her at her word. I don’t remember precisely what I asked, but it was the kind of typical stuff a child might wonder: “Does it hurt?” “How did it happen?”
She responded openly and with good humor. No, it didn’t hurt. She didn’t know why it happened, she was born that way. But what I remember most vividly was talking to her about difference. “Did they tease you?” I wanted to know.
She said that yes, some kids had teased her. And yes, it had hurt. “But,” She said, “It’s OK now. This is how I am, and I like who I am very much.” I felt something shift inside me at this … because while I had not yet felt the full brunt of bullying, I had been teased considerably. “Shrimp,” “Baby,” “Weird”— and many variations in between. What I was, what I liked, how I looked—much if it seemed to disturb other people. I had no idea why.
But through her example, I learned that it was OK to like myself anyway. That my self-esteem didn’t have to rest on the approval of others. It was an example she modeled even as an adult. Although she didn’t talk about it, ostracism hadn’t really gone away at the dawn of adulthood. It was something I saw firsthand.
I remember one day, hearing an adult comment on her. They called her a “poor pitiful creature” who must be “desperate for a boyfriend.” I remember reacting to this with anger and resentment. But also with … well, confusion. They were just hands, what was the big deal? What would that have to do with her getting a boyfriend?
Of course, I’ve since learned a lot about this. The prejudices that people hold often don’t make sense. But they exist. And they hurt. However, as I learned from her, other peoples’ prejudices do not have to become your reality.
Dr. Brown said that, according to her research: “There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it. And that was those who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
And, sometimes, one person’s willingness to accept themselves can change another’s life profoundly. It did mine.
Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability (Captioned version on Ted.com)