When we numb ourself to worry, vulnerability, and stress we also numb ourselves to positive emotions like joy, self-reliance, and optimism.

Puppies: cute, joyful, playful, and totally vulnerable

You know when you’re paying attention to something and you keep thinking to yourself, “That’s exactly what I think… thanks for giving me a new way to express it”?

That happened to me several times last night at the TEDxKC at the world-class Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in balmy KC. The talk featured (in order): Francis ScholleDr. Michael Wesch, Mike McCamon, and Dr. Brené Brown. They all had great insights to share on:

  • The intuitive intelligence movement (I’ll deal with this on my workforce site),
  • Moving from knowledgeable to knowledge-able (a MUST for anyone interested in education),
  • The global problem of human waste (the volume of the BP oil spill is matched in untreated human waste every two day… visit the great nonprofit for more),
  • and Vulnerability,


Francis’s talk resonated with my career-development/21st Century Worklife mind, Dr. Wesch with my ‘role of technology’ mind, and Dr. Brown’s with my spiritual side; thus, it is with Dr. Brown’s thoughts that I am going to interact here.

Numb to Vulnerability

Dr. Brown states that she has spent the last ten years “studying authenticity, shame, and belonging”. Her blog is called ‘Ordinary Courage‘ and it is worth a visit. I know, I’m giving you a lot to visit but it is all good.

Her talk–entitled, ‘The Price of Invulnerability’–resonated with several of my thoughts in the last few months: losing control, deficiency thinking, relationships, and trying to remain present.

The synopsis for her talk states (with emphasis added by me):

In our anxious world, we often protect ourselves by closing off parts of our lives that leave us feeling most vulnerable. Yet invulnerability has a price. When we knowingly or unknowingly numb ourselves to what we sense threatens us, we sacrifice an essential tool for navigating uncertain times – joy. This talk will explore how and why fear and collective scarcity has profoundly dangerous consequences on how we live, love, parent, work and engage in relationships – and how simple acts can restore our sense of purpose and meaning.

‘The Sharp Edge of Joy’

For the sake of not prefacing everything with, “Dr. Brown says…” and then misquoting her (I am writing this solely from memory), I will caveat this entire musing by saying that these thoughts are all filtered versions of her perspective. That which you like can be attributed to her; that which you don’t like can be attributed to me.

We are taught to fear. We are taught to worry.

Vulnerability will overwhelm and cripple us if we don’t have a reserve of positive energy to deal with it. We can anesthetize the vulnerability with the usual culprits–drugs, alcohol, food, busy-ness, extremist/polarized thinking, striving for ‘perfection’, and begrudging our ‘ordinary life’–instead of choosing to fill our tank with the counteracting power of optimism, authentic living, and wholeness. Dr. Brown’s perspective on wholeness harkens to my definition of completeness: the acceptance of the shadow side and the embracing of imperfection.

The source of this fuel is in gratitude and being present. Rather than distract ourselves with all that we haven’t done, what we need to worry about, all the to-dos to do, all very real the threats to the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, and our ‘boring, un-extraordinary’ lives, why not take some time to appreciate children, pets, nature, the angle of sunlight, and the good smells in the air?

This is not to say that we live in a blissful state of sun-gazing and fresh-cut-grass smelling. Instead it is changing the conversation in our heads from ‘Timmy is driving me insane right now and I need to get him in the car to get to the post office by 5:00’ to ‘He is such a bundle of energy right now and his curiosity is inspiring. Maybe we should spend some time in the yard playing and if we make it to the post office in time, great. If not, I can go tomorrow morning.’

This is all the usual spiritual mumbo jumbo: change the script, breath, take a moment to appreciate all the gifts in your life… yet it is worth repeating again and again.

If our wholeness and gratitude tanks are running low, we numb ourselves to vulnerability and stress… but we also numb ourselves to joy. The point that resonated most with me during Dr. Brown’s talk was the fact that we cannot selectively numb emotions; When we numb ourself to worry, vulnerability, and stress we also numb ourselves to positive emotions like joy, self-reliance, and optimism.

I remember her saying that the edge of fear and worry is sharp but the edge of joy can be sharper.

Shouldn’t I be Happier?

The implications of joy causing us sorrow and stress are profound. If we are emotionally vulnerable, any extreme emotion is going to drive us to seek safety. Joy and abundance suddenly freak us out and we are caught in a vicious cycle of seeking something to make ourselves feel better only to end up feeling worse. I know I’ve been there. Have you?

We have an expression for abundance-and-joy-causing-anxiety-and-discontent: ‘Too good to be true’.

And if we find something that is as good as it seems, we’re ‘lucky’ and ‘fortunate’ and ‘blessed’. Can’t we just choose be in that state of gratitude and not presume that we just won this week’s Cosmic Happiness Lotto?

In the end, I was reminded of a quote from The Lord of the Rings that rings even truer now than it did before hearing Dr. Brown talk.

“It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.” Bilbo Baggins

Indeed, it can be quite joyful if you let it.


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