Thursday, April 26, 2012

Vulnerability, Difference, and Belonging

by Miki Kashtan

Any of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while or know me otherwise have heard me talk countless times about how vitally important the path of vulnerability has been for me. I’ve been walking this path for sixteen years now, about as long as I’ve been using and sharing Nonviolent Communication in the world. The vulnerability path has been the occasion for profound liberation for me and I can say without exaggeration that it is the foundation on which I continue to do all of my learning about being human, about leadership, about power, about interdependence, and even about social change.

So it has been a great treat for me to discover a fellow traveler. Some time ago, I watched Brené Brown’s first TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, and was astonished and delighted by the content. This past Sunday I watched her recent talk, Listening to Shame. I was spellbound. First, I found the content captivating, because it is so aligned with my own experience and what I teach. My most favorite quote is that “vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage,” which fits entirely with my own efforts to re-frame vulnerability from an expression of weakness to a source of strength. I was also completely taken, again, by her personality and presentation style, which I found engaging, warm, and entertaining, even as she spoke of sensitive and painful subjects.

This would likely have turned into a lovely and satisfying experience I would never think to tell anyone about, except that I also focused on trying to learn what it was that she is doing that results in attracting millions to what I experience as fundamentally the same message I put out and get only a few hundred people at best. This question, in one form or another, has been a secret pain of mine for some years. In part because I consistently get astonishing feedback from some people, I continue to believe that I have some unique gifts to offer, and continue to suffer, from time to time, about my inability to reach more people.

Writing about all this is its own form of vulnerability, every step of the way. Naming, publicly, that I believe I have gifts conjured up the fear of ridicule. As Brené Brown says, one key piece of shame so many of us carry is “Who do you think you are?” Owning that I have a big desire to reach many more people also feels vulnerable. Why would I want to? Most of us, the extremely vast majority of us, aren’t known by anyone except our small circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Why would I care? Telling everyone that I think about this, that I compare and wonder, carries its own complexity. It bespeaks non-acceptance of where I am. I fear people will expect me to be more grateful for the immense privilege that my life has been anyway, even if my sphere of influence is smaller than I would like.

With all of this, what prompted me to write about this anyway is that I think I got a partial answer to my question about the source of Brené Brown’s effectiveness and my lack thereof. As I was listening to her, I saw the immense effect that my deep and core issues about feeling so different and alone in the world have had on my efficacy as a speaker and teacher. When she speaks, the subtext I pick up is “Of course you will understand what I say, because we’re all alike.” She continually gestures to and invites identification, continuity, familiarity. I see how it can be so inviting and comfortable to follow her as a result. She can be a bridge into a new way of being. I can see someone watching her and being inspired to emulate her, because it will seem like a real possibility.

When I speak, on the other hand, the subtext I usually convey is “Of course you won’t understand, won’t get it, and certainly won’t take any action on this, because we are so different from each other.” I set myself apart. I know this from within. People can then be impressed, they can respect and admire me, and still won’t see it as a concrete inspiration that will lead them to try out what I speak about. They are often also intimidated, perhaps because they feel the separation I live in. I can so easily see, now, how much my tendency to focus on differences and to separate from others compromises my power and effectiveness.

I’ve yet to know what to do to make change. This orientation toward the world is so fundamental to my sense of self that someone referred to it recently as the DNA of my soul. I can barely even imagine wanting to create this change. I only know I want to understand more.

I have learned a few things already. I know I am very far from being the only one who feels so different. I was told that in 12-step programs there is reference to “terminal uniqueness” as a common human experience. I look around me and I am befuddled how all these people who appear so “normal” to me could also experience themselves as so different from others. Perhaps because so many people have learned to hide and hold back who they are makes their uniqueness less visible to me. I almost chuckle as I notice my reluctance to accept the commonality of feeling different. Perhaps if more people embraced the path of vulnerability with all its risks I would see more of the astonishing variability I know is there, and it would be easier to grasp why people feel themselves to be different. Oops, here I go again, setting myself apart even as I try to find commonality, and wishing for more people to be like me…

This insight is also related to one of the reasons why being different may appear so attractive to me. In a roundabout way, it’s my insurance policy that I will remain true to myself. Anyone who has been trained well to be “nice” knows how extraordinarily challenging it can be to reclaim full authenticity when that path may signify loss of majority approval. No small task for a social animal like us. Since I am different, so the logic goes, and people won’t receive me, understand me, or like me anyway, I have nothing to lose by being authentic.

What I am trying to learn is how to integrate a fresh insight that is entirely radical for my system to contemplate. Simply put, being different need not be the occasion for separation. I can be different and still be connected. I don’t have to compromise, hold back, censor, or change myself in order to belong. No matter how different I am from anyone I may encounter, we have more in common than not. If nothing else, we all share the same set of basic human needs. Just how different could we be, then? And so I am putting at the forefront of my awareness and intention a practice I had (conveniently?) forgotten about. Whenever I notice that I am dwelling on how different I am from someone, I enumerate to myself silently three non-obvious ways in which we are similar. Ironically, I find it extremely easy, even satisfying, to do that once I get over the forgetting. I do feel more connected when I remember. Might my brain re-wire itself into noticing and leaning on similarity instead of difference when I interact with people, especially when I teach? I did re-wire my brain through a year of gratitude practice. What awaits me here?

All of this has been quite intense to digest. Perhaps writing this and the feedback I might receive here and elsewhere (including my yearlong teleclass based on this blog) will provide enzymes to speed up the digestion. Then, perhaps, this insight will indeed turn into a new opening, a way to break through decades of suffering. And if I am really lucky, this may indeed change how I teach, so I can be more inviting, humble, and accessible. May it be so.


  1. I love your idea of enumerating 3 way I'm similar to someone, rather than different, and I'm hoping I can remember to do that at the time! Funny how our brains just conveniently forget such ideas! I'm in AA, and as you mention, I love the phrase "terminal uniqueness". We often remind newcomers to looks for the similarities, not the differences.

    Thank you also for "Since I am different, so the logic goes, and people won’t receive me, understand me, or like me anyway, I have nothing to lose by being authentic." ... I think that is very true for me, too.

    Thank you for your insights, and your willingness to share them - it contributes to my growth, and also my sense of connection.

    with love,

  2. Feeling very moved by your sharing this and thrilled at the prospect of you increasing your sense of connection with others. I'm beaming you moral support as you explore this new path.


    Helen A.

  3. Wow, Miki, you have nailed here an aspect of what I have experienced in relation to you. As warm and friendly and approachable as I have experienced you, as engaged and present,I also got a sense of ummmm setting-boundaries-to-support-holding-back (as opposed to setting boundaries for sustainability, which I hold as different, and which I also experienced you as doing). I *did* sense there was never any possibility you and I could have "something in common," at the same time as I experienced you as open, engaged and interested. I came to a relationship with you thinking, "Oh my gosh, Miki and I have much in common we that maybe we could connect on!" and sensed a holding back.

    I realize this is all very evaluative. I still don't know how to write clearly about my subjective experience when i haven't tracked "facts" and only have a "sense" in me. So anyway... just know i'm talking about my feel here, not the "real Miki" necessarily.

    Sooo... *checking inside*
    *taking a breath*

    Mmmmm When I read what you write, I'm gratified, I feel relieved and less like there's something wrong with me (taking a moment to laugh gently at myself, to recognize that part of me that tells itself it is inadequate, laying a gentle hand there... taking a breath again)... because you point to something that relates to what I have sensed or experienced. I'm so grateful for the ease that comes in reading your words.

    Thank you.

    Thank you.

    *taking that in*

    Yes... thank you.

    And what comes next is: I'm so curious to know where your inquiry will lead! And I'm smiling :-)

    Hoping you can feel this smile in you, too.

    Shulamit (in case you're wondering which one, we know each other from CTC and Open-Hearted Therapy)

  4. Dear Miki,

    I love this post, I'm sad though b/c I wrote a 1 page reply and the browser deleted it and now I don't have the energy to rewrite what I wrote before...

    So instead, I will keep it to an essence that only bears some of its original scent. I was attempting to share my excitement at the thought that even though I consider you a master, I am enjoying looking at where you are right now as the beginning of your journey, and that what has happened so far has been a kind of preliminary training for that.

    I wanted to share that for me, acknowledging difference is often a way I honor the beauty in something without judging it as beautiful. Often when I see differences in myself or in others, I mobilize it as a form of celebration. I take the word "is" out - I "am" different feels less true than "I notice difference in this moment." When I say I "am" different it feels like protection, when I say I "notice" difference it feels like celebration.

    I think this dynamic is what Freud was talking about in his own way when he noticed that differences could be mobilized as protection in: "the vanity of small differences." In my own case, I know I mobilize this in contradistinction from an enemy image of others as self-disconnected. I'm sharing this because for me, the self-concept is structured on what I believe others are (enemy images). My point is that this image can also be a belief about our culture or history, not just concrete others.

    I also wanted to share that I saw Brene's video a while back, and completely forgot about it. I thought it may be useful to some that had never heard of vulnerability before, but I wasn't fed by anything she was saying, nor particularly inspired because I didn't resonate as much with her journey. Perhaps she opens the door for people, but once in there, I need a teacher and mentor like you to show me what walking through that door really means. They are separate functions.

    However, I want to overcome the dichotomy of: "small effect but many people" and "large effect but few people" - because I see you attempting to transcend this and offer huge transformation to many people.

    I wanted then, to celebrate and honor the journeying I see in you right now. Stretching into being more public and overcoming any notion of self-protecting separateness.

    So even though I see you as a master, there is part of me that sees where you are right now as at the beginning of another journey. I hope you enjoy my leaving you with an image of a butterfy, that while beautiful enough, goes back into a cocoon to emerge as some never before seen thing. Perhaps those wings are for more than flight. I am confident the intuition I see guiding you through this process will reveal in due time what that is.


  5. Dear Miki,
    Your deep looking into your inner life and the clarity with which you express what you are seeing deeply touches, inspires and excites me and brings me into deep resonance and connection with you.

    What you wrote reminds me about a teaching I have heard from Thich Nhat Hanh many many times- he talks about liberating ourselves from the "three complexes"- the complex of superiority, of inferiority AND of SAMENESS> All three complexes, as he calls them, create separation and suffering. The path out is to continue looking deeply , as you shared in your post, at how the thinking of comparing and different-ness cause us suffering- to see it over and over; to recognize it; and to keep looking-he suggests lots of meditation, of just sitting and dropping down out of the comparing separating mind, which I find very very very helpful--because in the meditation, the deep looking at the illusion of the thinking- we discover a different level of truth- of interdependence, of connection. of non separation and the illusion of separation- NVC is so helpful to me in this path because it has helped me-and continues to guide me-to recognize these deeper needs of mine and how they are shared energies of all life...this greatly supports me accessing the consciousness of non separation........and helps me recognize and then hold with compassion my own self judgments and fear, shame, all coming from the mind of separation.....
    I am leaving Israel May 28 after 5 months! and going straight to Plum Village to sit at the foot of Thich Nhat Hanh and receive his teaching and really does give me the opportunity to nurture the consciousness of no separation........

    i hope this is helpful!
    lots of love,Roberta

  6. Love this post and love your response, Tom. I am reflecting on how the people I am deeply attracted to in my life are all unique/unusual/eccentric in some or many ways. How easy and joyful it is for me to celebrate that "difference" in others and yet in myself I notice how I have kept my authentic, unique self private and protected--not for approval's sake, but to stay connected somehow and not to alienate others. I see what a compromise this is for me and that its time to shift. Perhaps I am even denying others the pleasure of knowing and celebrating my eccentricity the way I so enjoy it in others. While you want to connect with others and belong even in your difference (which I experience as a beauty that brings me joy) I am wanting to celebrate and even express my own uniqueness without losing sight of my desire to stay connected. Both seem to me like a beautiful and worthwhile challenge of bridging a gap.

  7. Power and vulnerability, alike and alike, hope and caution--thank you, Miki, for shepherding/accompanying so many of us on this journey through suffering to more authenticity, wholeness and compassion for self and other. Embracing and letting go....with love, Louisa

  8. Wow, Miki, this is so insightful for me. I can so identify with this struggle. What I love about your sharing vulnerably is that it is an antidote for my terminal uniqueness. Right now appreciating the intention to remain true to myself and also loving that more and more I'm realizing that common humanity means me too, loving the relief, humility, groundedness, acceptance, and compassion that gives me. Thank you for the reminder and the opportunity to connect your your humanity as well as my own today!

  9. Interestingly, perhaps ironically, I notice this in myself and other people as well. I think many of us are inclined to want to be similar, and yet we feel so different from one another. Of course we are both! We all know this, but we focus on one or the other. Trying to feel both in interactions with people will help keep both sides of the brain working, I think. That might help us connect on the deepest of levels. Thank you for these insights. I completely understand where you are coming from, and I am curious to see how your experience progresses.

  10. Thanks for your ongoing blog Miki. I so enjoy your general truthfulness.

    It sounds like you feel you’ve got something important and stimulating from seeing Brené Brown as having something that you lack, in which case no doubt you have. But personally I think the reason she is “attracting millions” is simply that she had the good fortune to get a slot on TED and has a knack for comedy, of the type that plays well in a TED talk. And I have yet to witness you deliver a subtext of “Of course you won’t understand, won’t get it, and certainly won’t take any action on this, because we are so different from each other.”

    I’m a big fan of Dr. Harriet Goldhor Lerner’s interpretation of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Put simply the core message of Bowen Family Systems Theory is that practically all psychological dysfunction stems from separation anxiety. Dr. Lerner elaborates on the idea that facing up to separation anxiety is a prerequisite for connecting with others. If anyone reading this would like to know more, her books “The Dance of Anger” and “The Dance of Intimacy” make easy, enjoyable reading. Both are billed as Womens’ Books and all the case histories she cites are of women but men can get a lot out of them too or at least from the intimacy one. She’s a feminist, not a man-hater and clearly loves her husband and sons.

    On a completely different subject, I would find this much blog easier to read if the font was bigger and simpler (i.e. without serifs). I hope you have time to consider this possibility at some point.


    1. Jo, About your last comment on font size. I'm working with Miki and one of our goals is to improve this blog platform. Some people find this font size fine and some don't and I'm wondering if you could let me know a couple of sites that do work well for you; also wondering if Miki's blog on the two other places she crossposts to are easier to read. This post also appeared at and It would be helpful to us if you, or anyone else reading this, could email me at dave(at) and let me know. Warmly, Dave

  11. Celebrating the unfolding and openness.
    Inspired by your jumping off an 'inward' precipice.
    Grateful for your sharing.
    Enjoying differences as the infinite names and forms (and particular skills and gifts)
    Enjoying connection with all by experiencing/inviting/looking for the 'one' 'same' power/light/energy/life and consciousness that flows in and through all.


  12. dear Miki-two "appearances" occur to me even as i take in the written and visual forms of this article. one is that Brene Brown looks happy, and turned on by her process, and you look concerned and not happy. She looks like a beautiful blond chandelier, and you are earnest, but not yet exploding with light.not a criticism....simply, from my pov,a recognition.
    that being said,i have not seen your blog b4, and since nvc is a lightforce to be reckoned with,i intend to keep up with you. namaste--edp

  13. and this has bearing on the totality of this discussion:
    just paste it in.

  14. Dear Miki,

    Reading this gave me such an ache in my heart. You have so much courage and wisdom! I am realizing that is perhaps a shared lack of sameness that I sense in you that helps me to hear you in a way that is profound. The ache is not only empathy for your pain, but also a very deep appreciation for your sharing.

  15. Miki,

    Perhaps if Brene Brown is doing something successfully than you are, this might be an area for you to learn from her. You might want to consider attending one of her events, or contacting her personally. Instead of you always being the teacher/mentor of others, this might be a place for you to be the student and her to be the teacher/mentor for you.

  16. Wow, this post has pulled a lot of comments. And I have another because several days later I am still thinking about this. As you know I am studying developmental theory and am fascinated by the what I am learning about the role attachment plays in development. It has everything to do with being authentic, being unique and individual, and the relationship between individuation, connection and intimacy. What rings true for me (which is the only way I know what to accept and what not to accept) is the following understanding:

    Attachment, or connection, is experienced at varying levels. The first level (experienced at the earliest stage in life, i.e. the most immature) is connection through the physical senses and then a feeling of “sameness.” This is the imitation stage. Some of us never get beyond that. A deeper level is feeling connected by being significant to someone and being loved. At this deeper level there is room for individuation. The deepest level of all is the experience of feeling known, seen and understood. This experience is at once the ultimate expression of individuality and the ultimate experience of intimacy, or attachment. At this level there is abundant room to be authentically oneself. I find this so incredibly profound. What this says to me is that celebrating and enjoying our “differentness” and deeply knowing there is room for our authenticity is a natural outgrowth of deep connection instead of a recipe for separation. Of course the groundwork for that connection is ideally laid in childhood and if we never got that (so many of us didn’t) we have to figure out how to create it as adults if we want that experience of intimacy, authenticity and individuality. The bottom line for me is that connection comes first and then “differentness” emerges as a healthy and natural expression of life. It’s a mark of maturity to live in both at the same time. I would love to know if this makes sense to you.

  17. Such a gift.

    Years ago, during a massage of my tight chest area, a very insightful therapist was moved to give me a message: There is great power in vulnerability. My journey into this truth continues. Some of my recent insights are, perhaps, similar. I noticed that my intention to love you, to show my love, through sharing with you - "teaching" you - didn't work. Instead I have found that creating an open and accepting space where learning can occur, unattached to what type of learning occurs, is what a "teacher" does. I also noticed that my intention to love you, to show my love, through connection and asking you about how you were feeling and what was going on inside you didn't work. You would even at times become defensive, almost as if attacked. My deep and real need, clothed in fear, so demanding, requiring so much, simply did not work. I found that it was only through a very open allowing heart-felt connection to my need for love, and immersing myself in that love energy, that I could truly connect with you - truly hear you. And often how I hear you is not in what you say but in how you say it, or in what you do not say, or in how it "feels" to me.

    I am so inspired by your blog. Are we not all travelers on a shared journey? And is it not also true that we must each make the journey alone?

  18. In terms of getting over the sense of separation, I do find that loving-kindness (metta) meditation helps me. But it only works so far. It does make me more outgoing and more willing to introduce myself to a stranger rather than allow an opportunity for connection to pass by.

    In a few cases, I and this "stranger" have clicked, and this has led to a deeper interaction. But in other cases, there is no "click," the conversation is superficial, and no real connection occurs. So it's not magic, but in a few cases it has allowed me to connect to people whom I might otherwise pass by wordlessly.