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Vulnerability as a path to Authenticity

May 26, 2021 • ☕️ 7 min read

The older I get, the more authenticity matters to me.

I think my upbringing has a lot to do with it. As a first-generation immigrant, an almost desperate desire to fit in was present throughout my youth. Not knowing the unwritten rules of my adoptive country, I constantly stood out. And standing out when you’re young is difficult; little kids can be real pricks.

In the playground, anything that outed me as different was picked up and ridiculed — my accent, the weird food I brought on school trips, the strange way I wrote my s’s and z’s. Small moments that, taken individually, appeared harmless, yet as part of a larger pattern fed into my insecurities.

So young me made a decision to become a chameleon, to figure out how to fit in no matter the social context. I became good at this, and I was proud of my adaptability. What I didn’t realise is that I’d learnt to wear a mask so well that I forgot that it was all a performance.

I think it’s impossible to keep this facade up for a long time. Eventually, it became too painful to sacrifice my desires, my likes, and my passions for approval. In a sense, I always knew this; the feeling of betraying myself was unmistakable.

Even though I didn’t know it, I was negotiating — I would deny my identity and conform to what people wanted of me, and in return, they would accept me as a part of the group.

Buzzwords

By the time I reached my early twenties, I’d had enough. What good is it to belong to a group that doesn’t accept the real me? Why had I been selling my identity out all along?

Then a few years ago, I listened to a talk where the speaker mentioned authenticity as one of her highest values. This talk and this authenticity word, in particular, held a strange attraction for me. I knew I wanted more of it, but I had no idea how to go about doing that.

I had a similar problem with another word — vulnerability. I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk and was inexplicably drawn to it. But without knowing how vulnerability translated into my life, it remained just another buzzword.

I felt frustrated and stuck, but I’m grateful that I stayed with the frustration. When feeling this kind of dissonance, I’m often tempted to dismiss whatever’s causing it; telling myself it was a bullshit concept and forgetting about it would have been a lot easier.

Yet I’m glad I didn’t do that. I intuitively knew that the wisdom locked behind these words was what I needed for the next stage of my personal evolution, even if I couldn’t explain how I knew this.

Finally, the pieces fit together

Last year I took part in the Art of Accomplishment. Joe Hudson’s ability to communicate complex topics in ways that anyone can understand is what made AoA stand out. Joe understands that the most profound insights and breakthroughs happen on an emotional level. Yet, he also understands that the intellect can’t be ignored, and for this reason, he provided us with minimum viable frameworks.

These frameworks allowed me to suspend my normal thinking patterns and provided me with a high-level map for guidance. The maps were non-prescriptive, as all the best teachings are, and they were simple enough that I felt guided whilst still leaving plenty of room for my own wisdom to surface.

Here’s Joe’s take on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is saying things… or asking the question that might get you fired or might make your boss angry at you, but it’s your truth.

Vulnerability isn’t doing the scary thing because it’s scary, you do the scary thing because it’s your truth. You ask the question or you say the thing because it’s your truth.

In short, vulnerability is remaining true to ourselves when we’re scared of the consequences of expressing that truth.

Before hearing this, I had equated vulnerability with weakness. It wasn’t clear to me how vulnerability could be anything other than a cry for help. I’d been confused when I’d heard people saying that vulnerability could be anger, that it could be asking for what you want, that it could be holding someone accountable.

But with the framing of scary truth, I finally understood. Expressing anger or a desire are not vulnerable acts in and of themselves; they become vulnerable when they are our truth and when we speak that truth even though we’re not sure how it’ll be received.

It’s risk and emotional exposure, sharing ourselves as authentically as possible no matter the consequences.

Here’s Joe again:

The path of vulnerability is that you’re constantly showing up at that thing that’s a little scary and all of a sudden, it’s not scary anymore. Then you show up with the next thing and you show up with the next thing. Then it ends up leading you into authenticity because all those vulnerabilities are really just ways that you’re judging yourself and preventing yourself from being what you actually are.

Here was the last piece of the puzzle. Suddenly it made sense. Vulnerability was the path to the authenticity that I craved. I also immediately understood why it had been hard for me to understand what these words were pointing to. I’d been looking for an intellectual answer to the riddle, but the solution was and had always been hidden in plain sight if only I’d connected with my emotional reality.

Unfolding process

I’d had a breakthrough in my understanding. Yet experience tells me that this is only the beginning of a transformation. After the breakthrough comes integration, and this is where most of the work happens. Integration is not flashy; it occurs in the most mundane everyday moments — my willingness to lose face and apologise to a colleague when I’ve done something wrong, asking for help from a friend even when I’m judging myself as needy, owning my desire for a pay rise even if I’m scared that others will consider it greedy.

Life is full of opportunities for vulnerability. They show up every day and ask us whether we too are willing to show up, willing to face the fear and discomfort they stir up within us. And I’m glad that they keep coming because the majority of the time, I’m not willing to show up.

A recent example from work comes to mind. I was making a website for a client, working off some beautiful designs. I love working on projects like this because I care a lot about beauty and elegance, and it’s a joy to express that at work. The only downside to the design was its complexity; in web development, the two often go hand-in-hand, the more personality you want your website to have, the harder it’s going to be to code.

Some delightful yet tricky animations were delaying my progress. With a deadline coming up, I started to feel stressed and overwhelmed. The truth was that I didn’t have the skills to build the animations according to the design. I had two choices, either I would accept that I wouldn’t have a life outside work for the next few weeks, or I could share the truth of my situation with my client.

My whole body told me that the latter was not an option. If the truth surfaced that I wasn’t a web development wizard, able to conjure up UI magic at the flick of my wand, then for sure I would be out of a job (and on top of that, probably unhappy for the rest of my life). It doesn’t take much for my thoughts to go to some extreme places.

This time though, these thoughts triggered a memory of Joe’s teachings. Running through my head were images of the scary consequences preventing me from speaking my truth — a clear signal of an opportunity for vulnerability.

I got on Zoom with my client and told him that I wouldn’t be able code the website to spec before the deadline he was pushing for. I told him that I’d never done much work with animations and that attempting to brute force myself to a solution under time pressure was making me feel stressed. I told him that deadlines worked best when they energised rather overwhelmed me.

Before voicing each of these points, a battle raged within me. Parts of me doing everything possible to get me to back down and keep quiet, and other parts encouraging me to be brave. When speaking, my voice trembled and points trailed off. This is what vulnerability looks and feels like, it’s impossible to mistake it.

So there I was fully exposed, having come clean that I had no idea what I was doing. I looked at my client expecting the worst, only to be met with understanding and sympathy. He told me he was glad that I’d brought this up and that he trusted me to do the job even if it would take longer than we first thought. He also opened up about his fears his fears around how his money was being spent, and we spoke about the power imbalances between techies and non-techies. It was an open and honest conversation where all of a sudden we weren’t a client and freelancer, but two humans talking about life.

I’d admitted that I didn’t have all the answers and the world hadn’t ended. Not only had it not ended, now I was living in a world where I could be a fallible human at work rather than a perfect robot. That’s my favourite part of this teaching: when I was young I thought I had to conform to my surroundings, now I’m starting to see how my surrounding reality can conform to my truth.