I moved to Boston in 2008 after graduating from university. During my first year there, I used most of my energy to run away from Boston which meant hopping on a $10 bus to New York most weekends. I met a lot of characters on my trips back and forth to New York but one is particularly relevant to the topic of vulnerability and authenticity.
I was boarding the bus to the city one fine weekend and as I headed down the aisle to find an empty row, a young man called out, “I have Tourette’s syndrome, if you don’t want to sit near me…” It took me a few seconds to process what he had said and then I wasn’t sure if he was just making a bad joke. I turned around to get a read on the situation and noticed his verbal and physical tics were genuine and the psychology researcher in me became very intrigued. As each person boarded the bus, he continued to explain his condition and give people the opportunity to find alternative, more distant seating.
I, on the other hand, would have been happy to sit right next to him. But the bus wasn’t completely full yet and I felt like sitting next to him at that point might seem a little too eager… Conveniently, the row across from him was empty so I took the aisle seat. Suddenly, Marc exclaimed, “katie, KATIE, katie” followed by profuse apologies to a girl boarding the bus. “Sorry Katie, I just overheard your name and, ugh, it’s the worst with names, when I get caught on them. Sorry again.” He looked at me and said “names are the worst…awwwwkward!” I was in complete awe of his authenticity and sense of humor.
Shortly after we departed, I found my self dazed out in the direction of his computer. I snapped out of it when I noticed that he was repeatedly turning his head toward me. I realized that the page on his computer was Gmail and I thought that he might be trying to tell me to mind my business! I awkwardly muttered “I’m not reading your email. It’s way too far to see anyway…” to which he responded that “looking to the left is one of [his] tics.” Of course, I was a little embarrassed at this point…and extremely eager to learn more about him! My opportunity came after a phone conversation that he had, after which I couldn’t help but ask, “I heard you say that you received several standing ovations this week. What were you doing in Boston?” And this is what I learned.
Marc Eliot had been traveling from school to school in an effort to teach students about tolerating difference. This venture had been so successful that he decided to forgo medical school to pursue his public speaking. He teaches people to recognize and challenge the assumptions they make about others. In the first five minutes I spent on the bus with him, I certainly felt like I had a lesson in challenging assumptions. I knew very little about Tourettes before I boarded the bus but an articulate young man like Marc was certainly not the first thing that came to mind. I found it so amazing that speech was both his challenge and his gift.
For most of my life, I have kept my physical and mental health to myself. People told me this was wise and even necessary but it kept me from getting the support that I needed. What do you do when you think people will judge you? When people may not understand and there could be consequences? Do you hide in shame or seek the support that you deserve? I thought about what I would do if my own physical and mental health problems were not concealable. We all have challenges. Some inspire support while others problems are more stigmatizing. When it comes to issues that people are likely to cast judgment upon, many/most of us keep them to ourselves, do our best to appear perfect and hope no one finds out the truth. I’m not saying that we should go around broadcasting our struggles to everyone but that there is enormous harm done when we are hiding out of shame rather than a simple need for healthy boundaries. This hiding comes from a belief that there is something wrong with me and that it’s not okay to struggle or to have problems. The fact that stigma is the main reason individuals do not seek help for mental disorder or that Brene Brown’s work on shame has gone viral demonstrates how desperately our society needs help with issues around vulnerability and shame.
So what happens when we dare to loosen our grip on our image and bring our imperfections out of hiding? My experience has been that in attempting to hide my weaknesses, I robbed myself of the opportunity to reveal my strengths. When I stopped keeping my challenges under wraps, I was finally able to seek the love and support that I needed from myself and others. I became less concerned with measuring up or being “better than” others and more interested in connecting with them. Ultimately, the process of embracing imperfection has not only helped me to cultivate self-compassion but also a passion for using my experience to help others. I have by no means mastered compassion or self-acceptance but I am committed and I am constantly inspired by what Marc’s example and my personal experience have taught me: that imperfections are not necessarily the obstacle but rather the path to finding our unique calling and making a meaningful contribution to this world.
When I went to find videos of Marc’s lectures for this post, I found out that Marc has learned to control his tics. On his website, he explains that his healing is the result of what he has learned in courses on human potential. He is not only a model of authenticity and openness but also a testament to human potential. Check out Marc’s videos below.