Authenticity’s Risk

Last night I listened to Dr. Brene Brown speak about vulnerability and feeling connected. Of course I immediately began putting it into a disability context.

Dr. Brown’s overall message is that feeling connected to other people gives our lives meaning and purpose. In order to establish connections, we must allow ourselves to be fully seen by others – be vulnerable. Shame, a sense that if we were truly seen something about us would make us unworthy of love and belonging, often impedes upon this process. Simply put, we don’t think we are good enough, so we do not let others see our weaknesses increasing our sense of disconnection. Thus, the ability to be vulnerable based on knowing you are “good enough” hence worthy of connection is essential to feeling connected.

I have written extensively about not having a sense of connection and struggling to find it. While being disabled in general and the way I write this blog in particular imply I am comfortable with vulnerability, I have started wondering if I do in fact have a vulnerability issue.

Consider what it means to be disabled. The things “wrong” with us carry a very heavy social stigma which means being vulnerable has a greater sense of risk. You often must parade your weaknesses before others in order to get what you need. Then there is the vulnerability inherent in having a condition that makes you dependent upon others. In fact, I would argue there is emotional vulnerability – the focus of Dr. Brown’s research – and physical vulnerability. Their complex interaction changes the vulnerability/authenticity/connection relationship.

For example, a wheelchair user needs help eating constituting a physical vulnerability. Enlightening your personal assistant about what you think of their cooking could result in them immediately quitting. As anyone who uses personal assistants can tell you, finding a new one is a hard, prolonged process. Being authentic becomes more than a risk of being ridiculed with physical well-being on the line pitting it against a desire to feel connected.

If connection is indeed, as Dr. Brown argues, what makes life worth living, then the conflict becomes a no win situation. Authenticity makes joy possible. Authenticity risks physical welfare. While physical stability allows for the pursuit of connection and thus happiness, it is only gained through lack of authenticity that is anathema to connectedness. The only “solution” is to walk a tightrope trying to balance it all without ever truly getting one hundred percent of anything.

While other marginalized groups typically do not have a physical vulnerability component (except maybe women and rape), they do share a risk of vulnerability based on the social stigma of their group membership. We are burdened by increased risk because our actions are viewed through the filter of stereotypes. A woman speaking out is vulnerable to criticism of being a “bitch.” An Asian man into all things geeky risks being dismissed with a shrug and “figures” if he expresses his passion. Marginalized group membership comes with a increased vulnerability. Remaining authentic in the face of it takes a little extra wherewithal.

Societal expectations about disability and other marginalized groups further complicate the situation. Visible signs of disability status often are stigmata we try to conceal with dark glasses, clothing style choices, cosmetics, and other things. This grants social affirmation because it fulfills the expectation that we try and look “normal.” An normalized appearance supposedly makes it easier to get a job, create friendships, find romantic love… Since it also is decidedly not authentic, it may place a ceiling on how much connectedness is achievable.

If authenticity threatens social acceptance and risks physical well-being, how can you be vulnerable to achieve social connection and thus happiness? Great question for another entry.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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