Exploring my relationship to vulnerability is work in-progress, and Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly is deepening my understanding of how my own shame and vulnerability operate.
In a nutshell, she names the irony of my life: “I want to experience your vulnerability, but I don’t want to be vulnerable.”
As you read on, be prepared to recognize how your own beliefs about vulnerability may be standing in your way of living more fully, even if “daring greatly” seems to be too grand a possibility at the moment. (It isn’t, but sometimes we have no sense of our own courage.)
Let’s start with a couple of definitions. Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Add the dictionary definitions, “capable of being wounded,” and “open to attack or damage,” and we’ve got a list of good reasons why people avoid vulnerability. Layer on the prevailing misconceptions listed below, and it’s no wonder we’d rather poke out our eyes with a toothpick than show our true selves.
Myth #1: Vulnerability is Weakness
Weakness is defined as the “inability to withstand attack or wounding.” Immediately we see the difference, and vulnerability seems much more natural.
Of course we’re capable of being wounded when we live with open hearts. It doesn’t mean we won’t survive.
Having experienced the wounding of abandonment early in life, I learned to harden myself against vulnerability in every relationship, which only served to cause the inevitable abandonment by anyone who wished to know me. They retreated, frustrated that I wouldn’t express my needs, or show any other signs of vulnerability (see above, “irony”).
What makes learning to live with vulnerability so important? We can’t fully experience the richness of life—creativity, connection, courage, deep love–without risking rejection or judgment.
Being vulnerable requires immense strength to withstand the reactions of others. It is the opposite of weakness.
Myth #2: “I Don’t Do Vulnerability”
Longtime friends have witnessed my tendency to march right past any feelings of vulnerability without pausing to consider their value. Like Brené Brown, I believed that I didn’t “DO vulnerability.” I learned early in life that getting wounded leaves you weak, and weakness threatens survival. So I soldiered on, without letting on when I was unsure, didn’t know the answer, or felt an emotional response rising. I was invincible, and terribly lonely.
“Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice,” writes Brown. The only choice is our response.
In short, everyone “does” vulnerability. Imagine my surprise, discovering that whether I admit it or not, I am vulnerable. What’s changing for me isn’t my level of vulnerability, it’s how I am choosing to recognize, allow, and name it out loud.
(As you’ll see in Chapter 4, we each have a stockpile of protective armor to guard against the possibility of rejection. The shelves of my own arsenal are overflowing with the emotional equivalent of muskets and flintlocks.)
Myth #3: Vulnerability is Letting it All Hang Out
Growing up, I learned that self-discovery and discussion of one’s inner life invited the worst kind of judgment and contempt, so I was wise to avoid it. I equated vulnerability with the kind of over-sharing and attention seeking that we can now watch unfolding on-screen 24/7, a perfect balm for those times when we feel like witnessing someone else’s disaster in progress.
In one of my most commented-on posts, I discussed the difference between sharing experience and “TMI,” and it’s worth reading (or re-reading) now.
In Brené Brown’s words, “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust.” The kind of celebrity and social media exposure we see around us is not about being vulnerable, but about using vulnerability to create dramatic tension. The drama queens (and kings) in our lives follow this formula.
Myth #4: We Can Go It Alone
This is perhaps the most damaging myth of vulnerability that I’ve embraced. I spent much of my life in a state of total independence and individualism that is highly prized in our society and which, in my mind, equated to survival. I learned that the idea of needing help made me “needy,” and that someone of my educational background, intelligence, and resilience should be a helpER, not a helpEE.
Connection is a basic human need, and I spent most of my life denying the necessity for relationships that required me to show up fully in both roles.
The wise Dr. Brown points out that one can never give openly if one has never learned to receive openly.
A judgment about asking for help is attached to a judgment about giving it, and that judgment serves to further separate us from each other.
Learning to depend on the people who are consistently in my corner (and forgiving or ignoring those who are not) has been a lesson in openness, love and vulnerability that I have to practice every single day. As I’m struggling to carry overflowing laundry baskets to the basement, my husband reminds me, “You’re not alone anymore, baby.” It never fails to bring me to tears, as I recall all the years I struggled with my loneliness, believing I had to do it all myself, and do it perfectly, whether it was a physical chore or an emotional crisis.
In my own life, protecting myself from vulnerability has kept me small. In order to grow, I am consciously, quietly and timidly taking tiny steps toward exposing my creativity, emotional responses and personal truths to the world. It’s difficult to lay down the armor, but in doing so, I hope to signal to the world that I come in peace.
Explore Your Own Vulnerability
If you’re interested in understanding how you “do vulnerability,” grab some paper and a pen, and “do” the exercise. Thinking about the answers is NOT the same as writing them down. Trust me on this. I’ve tried.
Download a Vulnerability Worksheet, or just write down your thoughts.
Make a list of 3-5 recent situations in which you felt vulnerable. Give each situation a shorthand name that describes what triggers the feeling of vulnerability, for instance, “not knowing the answer,” or “making a mistake,” “speaking my truth,” or “tripping over the dessert cart.”
For each situation, describe the feeling states associated with that vulnerable situation, and how you behaved.
Did you allow your vulnerability to show? How? If not, what would it take for you to be able to take an emotional risk the next time you find yourself in a similar circumstance?
What would constitute “Daring Greatly” for you in these situations?
How would someone who understands how to support you respond? How could you request the kind of support you want? How can you surround yourself with the kinds of people who can support you in ways that feel good to you?