Dear Dr. Brené Brown,
As a Latino, as a man, I have been conditioned not to talk about my problems (or my shame), and not to be vulnerable.
Dr. Brown, you write in your book, Daring Greatly, that we need to own our story, so I thought I would write you this open letter and share with you how your work has been helping me cope with my shame.
Recently, I was diagnosed with depression. The shame that has been building for several months reached a new high -- my diagnosis was just another statistic to add to my list. As if being Latino, gay, disabled, and poor wasn't already enough, I would add mental health issues to my life's roster of marginalized identities. The shame I felt in that moment was two-fold: what I thought of myself and the mental illness and the thought of what others would think of me when they found out.
Over the summer, I was living in California for an apprenticeship. For the first time in my young adult life, I was moving far away from my support system. I grew up in New Jersey; I am an East Coaster through and through, but my experience from east to west would impact my life in a way I could not imagine.
It was during my time in California that I was able to really dig deep within myself to address the trauma in my life that was allowing me to rise to new heights and then reach such lows -- the trauma that in many ways continues to be unexpressed. I found myself drowning in shame as I continued my journey of self-awareness and discovery.
While in California, I was reunited with an ex-boyfriend; my time with him in his hometown would be one of the most rewarding yet heartbreaking experiences of my young adult life. It was the experiences I had with him that made me realize I was in a lot of trouble, the night after we had an intimate encounter, I found myself sitting on my balcony looking out at Lake Merritt and drinking wine, at that point shame was just a whisper.
Dr. Brené Brown, I first came across your work when you were on Oprah's Super Soul Sunday on OWN and I found myself immediately in awe of your work. Watching clip after clip on YouTube, then later discovering your TED talks -- you began a conversation around shame and vulnerability for me in a way that no one else has.
In Daring Greatly you write, "We're afraid that our truth isn't enough -- that what we have to offer isn't enough without the bells and whistles, without editing, and impressing." I found myself on the edge with myself -- my "persona" went into survival mode and it spared no one from its wrath.
My mask had cracked, and rather than leaning into the discomfort, I was in the lion's den of life trying to crawl my way out of the discomfort, out of my own darkness. I was afraid those around me wouldn't be able to bare my truth; I was hurting, but from the outside looking into my life, my successes were clouding many from seeing that hurt.
When I love so fiercely that rather than feeling gratitude and joy I could only prepare for loss -- I controlled things. I managed situations and micro-managed the people around me. I performed until there was no energy left to feel. I made what was uncertain certain, no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and my fear could never catch up. I looked brave on the outside and felt scared on the inside. (Daring Greatly)
In the month of October I spoke at Harvard, New York University, and other local New Jersey colleges and universities. While I was encouraging folks to embrace themselves and their potential, little did they know that I was struggling to take my own advice behind closed doors.
As an activist, dancer, and writer I am no stranger to vulnerability; my art requires me to expose myself in order to create the work that I do. What I was failing to recognize was that even in being transparent for my artwork, I was holding back. I was stifling myself because I couldn't open up about the shame I had been feeling. That what I thought was an act of vulnerability was really just an act of deflection -- I still was not ready to lean into the discomfort, I was not ready to embrace my imperfections.
I attempted to maintain the persona; I kept throwing myself into my work because that's the one area of my life that I have a lot of control over. My work has never let me down, has never rejected me, and my work has never betrayed me. Staying busy was how I avoided dealing with my shame; this is how I would define my shame:
For me shame is:
• Being diagnosed with depression
• Getting laid off from the day job and worrying about paying bills
• Opening up to someone just to have them reject you
• Being fatherless and searching for fatherly love in the arms of strangers
• Sexualizing myself because I think that's all I'm good for
• Drinking wine in order to numb the pain
• Cutting ties with the people that meant the most to me
• Walking around consumed with rage
• Screaming at anyone and anything
• Hurting others because I was hurting
• Looking at my body and feeling less than
• Making a noose out of a scarf to tie around my neck because I did not think I was worthy of living
I am coping with my shame and your work is helping me through this difficult period of my life, Dr. Brown. So the next time you have to deal with a vulnerability hangover, the next time you doubt yourself, or the next time the "gremlins" give you hell, remember that your work is saving lives because in part, your book Daring Greatly, is saving mine. This is how I am managing to cope with my shame:
For me coping with shame means:
• Learning to lean into the discomfort
• Learning to love fiercely without thinking of all the ways rejection can hurt me
• Learning to go with the flow in life
• Learning to embrace the fact that I am enough
• Learning to accept my diagnosis for what it is; a chemical imbalance
• Learning that there's power in vulnerability
• Learning to forgive those who have contributed to my shame
• Learning to forgive myself
• Learning how to give up my vices (alcohol)
• Learning how to manage my anger in a non-destructive way
• Learning to love myself fully and unapologetically
• Learning to accept that I only have one life to live and I can't give up on it
• Learning to set boundaries for myself and make self-care a priority
• Learning to speak about my shame to reclaim authority over my life
Writing this letter was my attempt to dare greatly, to lean into the discomfort, to share publicly for the first time my struggle with depression, and to thank you Dr. Brown for the work you are doing.
It is time that we silence the voices in our heads that tell us we are not good enough, and it is time we start shouting the phrase: "I am enough."
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
To learn more about the work Dr. Brené Brown (@brenebrown) does, please check out her website at www.brenebrown.com and to learn more about the work I do, you can visit www.marktravisrivera.com (@markingthepath).
Follow Mark Travis Rivera on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarkingThePath