“Real dishes break. That’s how you know they’re real.”
– Marty Rubin, American author and motivator
“Wow, she’s a great speaker! Such passion and power in her words!”
“Too much disclosure,” replied my buddy. “I don’t need all that background.”
Years ago, I listened to a speaker share her life story in front of a vast audience, and I remember feeling moved by her honesty – her willingness to be real – revealing her blemishes, bruises and battle scars. I was inspired by her courage. My companion thought she made herself too transparent – too unprotected – and that made her appear vulnerable.
I think most people equate vulnerability to a feeling of being weak or helpless to control a particular outcome. By definition, vulnerability means being open to the injury of attack, being exposed. I think being vulnerable at the right time and place takes tremendous courage.
Brené Brown, the researcher/storyteller whose TEDx talk on vulnerability went viral, made the following observation: we try to avoid vulnerability because we think of it as a weakness, yet when we witness someone being vulnerable, we often consider them to be courageous.
Brown refers to people with healthy self-esteem as the Wholehearted: people with a strong sense of worthiness or, as Brown defines it, a sense of love and belonging. After a rigorous study of vulnerability – one which landed her in therapy for a year – Brown concluded that the better our self-esteem, the more willing we are to be seen. In this case, being “seen” means less fearful, more confident and yes, more vulnerable.
In Brown’s study, participants were asked about a willingness to put themselves out there – despite judgment or censure – and most claimed that vulnerability was not always easy, but the benefits outweighed the discomfort. Many spoke about the necessity of vulnerability and freedom that comes from saying “I love you” first, even though there are no guarantees.
But embracing vulnerability remains a struggle because of its association with fear. How do most people deal with fear? We attempt to hide it or, as Brown affirms, “We attempt to numb it.” Now here’s the paradox: we can’t shut down or numb specific emotions without dimming all emotions to some degree.
We may consider grief, fear, shame, disappointment and so on as undesirable and attempt to switch them off or dial down the volume. We do this in a variety of ways: running away, hiding, fighting, blaming – even engaging in addictive behaviour. When we dial down these “bad” feelings, we also dial down love, courage, resilience, joy and hope – all the seemingly best and most desirable emotions. The more fearful we become, the more we spiral downward. The less worthy and deserving we feel of love and belonging, the more afraid we become of being vulnerable.
And yes, I would agree that there is a place and time to be vulnerable and a level of vulnerability to be expressed depending upon the situation. To understand the difference, we must draw upon our wisdom rather than our fear.
And here’s another point to consider: we may allow ourselves to be vulnerable at an inopportune time so that we may “unconsciously” punish ourselves and further reinforce a subconscious belief in our lack of personal value.
“When we were children,” wrote Madeleine L ’Engle, American best-selling young adult author, “we used to think that when we were grown-up, we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Perhaps learning to be vulnerable at the right time, the right place and to the right degree is the ultimate expression of wholeheartedness – of healthy and vibrant self-esteem.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.