Embrace Vulnerability and Reap Its Rewards

How openness can lead to self growth and meaningful connections with others.



Picture St. George’s Public school,  in London Ontario, 1979.   The stage was set for our Grade 7  Speeches to the class.  My teacher, Miss Finch, called my name.  I moved to the front of the room, turned to face my audience and opened my mouth to speak…Silence. Nothing came out. I blanked out completely. I was mortified, deeply ashamed and disappointed with myself. I am sure that I cried in front of everyone. This was the gist of my running commentary to myself: “How pathetic Milisa! What’s wrong with you? Why are you so scared? You should be able to do this!”

For the next 30 or so years, I believed that I was not good at public speaking. I was in a fixed mindset about this….a very fixed mindset. I did not know there was another way to be about this issue. This was a classic “limiting belief” that I had about myself. That changed about 5 years ago, when I read “Mindset” by Carol Dweck and began to practice being in a growth mindset in other parts of my life, becoming a better coach and, much more difficult, a better mother, one who could be the mother my third child especially required, given his special needs. (See these blog posts I wrote about the growth mindset.)

Fast forward to about three years ago, when my coach, Sabrina Schleicher, advised me that it was time to start telling my stories and engaging with others through public speaking. Oh boy. Sigh. I knew she was right. And there was a core part of me, the most courageous part, that was excited, that knew this was a good path for me to be on. That part of me felt pulled by my vision for myself to contribute in the best way I could. But mostly, I was scared – so scared that I started very small. But I did start. And Sabrina helped nudge me along. I tapped into that courageous part of myself and worked hard to manage my inner critic (the naysayer, chastising, perfectionist, procrastinator part of me – sound familiar?).

First I had to write my initial speech, which took months. It also involved revamping and improving my parenting so that I could actually tell the story I felt I needed to tell from a more positive vantage point – this required even more growth on my part in terms of how I was parenting my youngest child. (Those of you who have attended any of our Making Room For You Events have heard some of these stories in more detail.) Then, I handpicked an audience I thought would be kind and receptive. I had them for lunch in my living room.

From the safety of my living room, with friendly, receptive women in a circle with me, I was able to begin practicing offering myself and my stories to others in this way. I found that I was improving and I was actually enjoying it, finding the opportunities in the challenge – growth mindset!!! I would have never, ever have imagined myself enjoying public speaking as a young adult. Another major part of my learning here was that, lo and behold, when I am speaking to a group, or facilitating a workshop, it is not about me, it is actually about the people who are participating…some of you, in fact! I find it very freeing to step into this reality and try to let my ego take a back seat to the proceedings.  And, I noticed that the way I opened up in my story-telling was permission for others to also show themselves more fully in the circle, and the conversations in the circle became deeper and more meaningful to everyone.

So then last year, after having hosted a number of these lunches and workshops, and slowly building my confidence, I decided to take a course on designing and offering workshops by Leader to Luminary Inc. (Callan Rush and Justin Livingston’s company). Having participated in that course in September, I was so intrigued by what Callan and Justin and company were offering, that I dove right in and signed up for their next step, their “Mesmerize Your Audience” Program. I attended that program – really a camp – a few weeks ago at the stunningly beautiful Brew Creek Centre just south of Whistler BC.

The main lodge at Brew Creek Centre, where we ate the most delicious food, much of it from the gardens at the Centre.

 I was somewhat anxious leading up to the camp because I actually had little idea of was going to happen there. There was purposefully an air of mystery about it. (I will try maintain some of the mystery for any future attendees reading this!) I took comfort in knowing that we were asked to bring hiking gear and that yoga mats would be provided: at least I would be getting exercise. And the photos of the Centre looked gorgeous.  I had to trust it would be good…. Well it was. More than good. It was a fantastic experience, which I am still absorbing.   I learned a tremendous amount and so appreciated being guided by truly powerful teachers and learning alongside about forty other beautifully heart-centred women and men.

I think it will take a long while to fully integrate all that I learned. It will take some more public speaking, for sure. It will take some practicing of the techniques. Integration will also require more self-reflection to connect dots for myself vis a vis this personal journey about presence that was at the heart of the teachings at the camp. Writing to you here is helping with the self-reflection part.

I want to share one big takeaway that I left Brew Creek with. Remember I said I cried in Grade 7? Well, I cried at the Brew Creek Centre too, both as I was speaking, and when I received feedback. I do cry easily. (See another story of mine about crying here.)

I have never been one to be able to hide my emotions like other people seem to be able to do. As it turns out, the feedback I got at the camp was that this way of being can be my super power and my kryptonite – my blessing and my curse – in public speaking, as in life. Brené Brown writes about this in “Daring Greatly” and in “The Gifts of Imperfection”: people who are able to be vulnerable create deeper connections with others. I was inspired and comforted by Callan Rush, the founder of the company, who told me that she believes people are craving authentic emotional expression – something I am very capable of providing.

I want to keep growing into my potential.  So I want to help myself to do so by learning  how to offer greater authentic emotional expression on “stage” and in my day to day interactions with others, while at the same time not getting lost and overwhelmed in the emotions.   I definitely need to bring emotional intelligence (“being smarter with my feelings”) to this challenge.  My feelings are wisdom, data that I need to pay attention to and then make choices about how I will behave as a result. “Controlling” my emotions or ignoring them will result only in further pain in the long term, relating to all parts of my life  – my ability to be effective, be healthy, have healthy relationships, and have a high quality of life.

Since I became a coach ten years ago, I have been working on becoming more open and vulnerable because I do see and feel it’s power in creating deeper, more meaningful connections. See, for example, this post which felt pretty darn vulnerable to write and publish.  And, just this past March, I spoke about managing stress at the Ontario Bar Association as part of the Mindful Lawyer Series.   I challenged myself to say what I would want to say if I wasn’t afraid. So, I chose to tell another powerful personal story that I felt would deeply resonate with many in the audience.   (The Mindful Lawyer Series went on to win an international award for continuing legal education this Spring – I am so grateful to have been a part of that Series!)

So, it’s not like I haven’t already been vulnerable on “stage”, in writing and in small groups and one on one.   But, the feedback I received at Brew Creek was clear: I need to show up even more vulnerably if I want to keep moving into fulfilling my potential as a powerful public speaker.  I need to keep dialling up that vulnerability, to keep showing myself more and more.   As I reflect on this, I think some of what is required of me is to be more courageous about taking a stand for things that I believe in and let my emotions on those subjects show as I take that stand.

This is scary to me. What if I reveal too much and you don’t like me?  What if you don’t like what I have to say? What if you think I am flaky or too self-absorbed? What if I can’t handle it – the crying for example? What if, what if, what if?   My inner critic, that scared part of me, the part of me that does not want me to change, is loud here again. But, you know what? That courageous part of me is growing stronger as the days pass, and I can promise myself and you that I am going to keep going on this journey and rise to the challenge that was set for me at Brew Creek.  I am scared, but mostly excited. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!

PS: here are a couple of quotes I find inspiring in this challenge I am stepping up to:

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
~T.S. Eliot

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.
~Brené Brown

Author: Milisa Burns

Milisa Burns is a certified professional coach, former lawyer and married mother of three, with her own website: www.milisaburns.com.

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