“Live life fully, in all its joy, in all its pain and in all its glory.” — Anais Nin, French-Cuban author
“I don’t like having my underbelly exposed,” she said. “I hate being vulnerable.”
“So you equate vulnerability with weakness?” I responded.
“How else can you equate it?” she replied.
It seems that nearly everyone equates vulnerability to a feeling of being weak or helpless to control a particular outcome. Understandable as, by definition, vulnerability means being open to injury of attack, to be exposed. But there is another deeper connotation of this word.
Before sitting down to write this column, I posted a question about vulnerability on Facebook. I simply asked, “What makes you feel vulnerable?”
The responses were many and varied: needing but not receiving acceptance and validation, debilitating diseases, growing old, meeting new people, falling in love, honestly sharing deep feelings, control, masks and facades.
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.
I remember, years ago, listening to a speaker share her life story in front of a huge audience and feeling moved by her honesty — her willingness to put herself out there for all to see, blemishes, bruises and battle scars.
It was inspiring on so many levels. I recall afterward how audience members talked about the courage it took for her to be so vulnerable.
It was Brown who referred to people with healthy self-esteem as the Wholehearted: people with a strong sense of worthiness or, as Brown defined it, a sense of love and belonging.
After an exhaustive study of vulnerability — one which actually 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 sense, being “seen” means less fearful, more confident and yes, more vulnerable.
What most of us seek in life is a connection to other people and in order for connections to happen we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Brown calls it the courage to be imperfect. The willingness to stand naked in the rain (if only metaphorically) and be seen for who we truly are. No masks, no facades and no hiding behind pretense — real, authentic, vulnerable.
The Wholehearted (claims Brown) seem willing to let go of who they think they should be in order to be truly authentic.
In Brown’s study, when participants were asked about a willingness to put themselves out there — despite judgment or censure — most claimed that vulnerability was not always easy but the benefits outweighed the discomfort. They talked about the necessity of vulnerability, of the freedom that comes from saying “I love you” first, of a sense of empowerment that results from doing something even though there are no guarantees.
We struggle with vulnerability because we equate vulnerability with weakness and fear. And how do most of us deal with our fear? We attempt to hide it or, as Brown affirms, “We attempt to numb it.” Here’s the problem: we can’t selectively shut down or numb emotions without dimming all emotions to some degree.
We may look at grief, fear, shame, disappointment and so on as undesirable and attempt to turn them off or dial down the volume. We dial down these emotions 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.
When empowering emotions are diminished, we become more lost and afraid, caught up in a vicious and disempowering downward spiral. The more fearful we become the less worthy and deserving we feel of love and belonging and ultimately the more afraid we become of being vulnerable.
I would caution that there is certainly a time and a place to be vulnerable and a degree of vulnerability to be expressed depending upon the situation. We must exercise good judgment and draw upon our internal wisdom rather than our fear.
And as odd as it sounds, sometimes we may allow ourselves to be vulnerable at an inopportune time so that we may punish ourselves and further reinforce a subconscious belief in our lack of value and significance.
Notes Brown, if we can allow ourselves to be seen — deeply seen, vulnerably seen — then we will be able to love even though there is no guarantee.
We will be able to practise gratitude and joy and lean into the joy during those moments of terror when we’re wondering, “Can I love this much?” “Can I believe this passionately?” “Can I be this fierce about something?”
Perhaps with a little practice and a shift in our outlook, we can accept our vulnerability with a sense of gratitude.
If we can, we might then acknowledge that if we’re feeling vulnerable it means we’re alive. And just possibly, as Brown asserts, if we can work from a place that says, “I’m enough” then we can stop screaming and start listening. We can be kinder and gentler to the people around us and kinder and gentler to ourselves — we can become wholehearted.
It was Madeleine L’Engle, the Newbery Award-winning American author who wrote, “When we were children, 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.”
Vulnerability is not a weakness. It could perhaps be our greatest unrealized strength. To allow ourselves to be vulnerable at the right time, the right place and to the right degree could be the ultimate expression of wholeheartedness – of healthy and vibrant self-esteem.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca