Vulnerability – the key to connection and possibility
Brene Brown said, “I believe that vulnerability – the willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome, is the only path to more love, belonging and joy.”
Today let’s explore how vulnerability creates possibility.
As adults, we accumulate experiences. Experiences that at best dull our passions and create a guarded participation in our feelings, and at worst shroud our hearts in layers and layers of armor to keep out any more of the hurt life dishes up in all its varieties. “I want to feel passion again,” is a common refrain. Or “I can’t remember the last time I laughed really hard.” There are also all the hidden dreams we don’t dare embark on, and the relationships that die because we aren’t open enough to risk our feelings and our authentic selves. In stories, these are often the issues the protagonist is working through. We celebrate when someone overcomes an obstacle and lives their dream, when the hero finds hope and joy again when the protagonist transforms a relationship from weak and dying into something fresh and passionate. Think about the stories we watch in the theater and read in books. We are always rooting for the characters to be honest and open, to share and connect.
What does that mean? For me, the big emotional work of my later life has been around finding the desire and the courage to strip off the layers of armor I have so carefully placed around myself over the course of my life. I have on a breastplate, a helmet, a nice piece of heavy mail underneath the outer layers. I have a shield…I have it all. I only know this because of how hard it was to get it off. Stories carved from our pain, these are the tales we often hold close to the chest. In our careful protection of our lives, we suffocate a past, and a future, hold hostage the creator – ourselves.
The dictionary defines vulnerability as:
- Capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon: a vulnerable part of the body.
- Open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc.:
- An argument vulnerable to refutation; He is vulnerable to bribery.
Now, none of those definitions make me want to jump into vulnerability, but I learned a thing or two this year. Namely, that vulnerability is power. That seems like an oxymoron, but it turns out that it’s true. When we are real, authentically who we are, this is the space where true connection is made – or that the possibility of it even exists. One of the things that I have learned in my writing is that when I share real stories, not crafting them so they sound good, but the raw, real stuff; the stuff that makes me vulnerable, this is the space where people are touched. This is the space where readers can relate. This is the space where writing is not life as it should be, but rather, life as it is. And this makes connection. Writers help society understand the connections that bind us, and this is done, often, through realness, which requires vulnerability.
In my Next Level workshop there were many people who were striving to find their own vulnerability. Men wanted better relationships with their wives and they weren’t sure why they were hitting a wall. Vulnerability was completely foreign to them. That space where you share yourself, your feelings, your fears. Fathers and mothers wanted to reconnect with children, children wanted to reconnect with parents. They wanted to heal relationships. They needed a key and the key was vulnerability. Stripping off the armor that we have so carefully placed over our hearts and heads is no small feat. In fact, it’s not something you just do. It’s a practice. It’s a way of being. It’s facing the fear every day when your next encounter could be made better by showing up open, by sharing feelings, by being your real self. It’s only when we are brave enough to risk, to be open, that possibility is created, that real connection can take place. And so, we practiced. You don’t get better at anything without practice. One vulnerable moment at a time – and one amazing result after another.
Brene Brown, author, researcher and academic specializing in vulnerability and shame said, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
I took a survey to get some ideas of where people had braved vulnerability in their lives. Let me share some of the responses I got.
One woman said, “I think there are many types of vulnerabilities, and all pretty unique to the person. For me, one type is knowingly placing myself in a position where I can be rejected. Sharing my story in a writing class was a big one for me. It was not only sharing my writing, but also sharing a very emotional response to my relationship with my dad. I almost didn’t do it.”
When I asked her if it was worth it, in hindsight, she said, “ It was absolutely worth it. I didn’t share the whole thing with the class, but I ended up writing about when I was molested by a neighbor boy. It was the first time I’d ever written or talked about it. It was an extremely emotional experience finally writing it down, but it’s changed my life for the better. It’s also made me more open and vocal about sexual assault…which is what I’m hoping to write my dissertation on.”
I want to point out a couple things I notice about her answer. The first is that it took great bravery to first, face an event in her life that was traumatizing. Just writing about it was vulnerable. Then, she shared it, she said it out loud and removed the curtains and shame so they could no longer keep her in the dark. Now, this alone is beautiful and brave, but it created possibility. The possibility I see that her vulnerability and bravery created was the discovery of her dissertation topic. For those who have sought advanced degrees you know that often finding that area of research, narrowing it, it a painful and involved process. Her bravery and vulnerability paved a way for her to find that topic. If she had not been able to face that part of her story she would still be hiding from it, and certainly would not be sounding a voice and creating research to stand up for things important to her. This vulnerable space is where possibility was created.
Another woman shared, “As an actor every time you get on stage your vulnerable. Whenever you put yourself in any spotlight you’re opening yourself up for others critiques about you. If you aren’t really honest on stage the audience can tell. Dance is that way too. In my choreography class, we had to choreograph a piece for our final concert. It was such a beautiful concert because people really dug deep and put themselves out there, myself included. It was terrifying because a piece of me was on that stage being graded by other people.”
I’ll give you another example, she said. I became terrified to gain weight and would only eat a pop tart or a granola bar a day. When I realized that I was headed down a slippery slope I told my roommates and close friends what I was struggling with. I was scared because I was worried they would judge me or not take me seriously. They were amazing though and really helped me through it. I think vulnerability is not only sharing your true self with others but also letting others share with you.
I asked her – so is it your experience that when you come from a vulnerable place, that you can connect more authentically with others? Her response, “For sure. When you’re not willing to be open and vulnerable then it’s a lot harder to connect because there’s some sort of block there.
Another woman, a sports writer, shared a vulnerable piece she wrote about the domestic violence cases in the NFL and how the public needs to be more open about the conversations about domestic violence. In order to do this, she divulged in this article her own experience with domestic violence. Do you think that was vulnerable? When you submit a piece like that there is a weight in the pit of your stomach as you hit the send button. It’s fear letting you know that this vulnerability stuff is scary, and it’s pure courage when your finger pushes the send button anyway.
There are numerous ways to be vulnerable. Another woman, a martial artist brought up the physical vulnerability of training with men. She said, “As a woman who does martial arts with men vulnerable happens almost every time I train. When I train with men I don’t know, I am putting myself out there. They could be full of themselves and want to dominate, or they could be brand new and go all wild and out of control on you. However, off the mats, I feel just opposite. I am empowered, strong and confident and know that I can handle myself if needs be. And that is so invigorating!
Despite that feeling of vulnerability on the mats, she creates the possibility for her empowerment off the mat by accepting and working through that vulnerable state during training. If she let her fear keep her from the mat she would be neither accomplished nor empowered. Courage – every time I see these examples of vulnerability I see courage! Courage to write, courage to speak up, courage to train, courage to dance, courage to share secrets that feel shameful. Courage to risk. And it is that courage that creates the possibility for richer experiences.
For my vulnerability work, every day I remind myself that I am open. I walk around with my body posture open. I don’t dismiss people, I engage with them. I stop using my armor to hold people out and instead I remind myself that I am surrounded by great people and I want to get to know them. But, I will not lie to you, I have to remind myself to do it. Sometimes I just repeat to myself “I am open.”
Sometimes vulnerability looks like moving forward into things that might cause you pain or loss, but doing it with your heart open. Another woman who shared her vulnerability said, “Tomorrow marks 7 weeks since the doctor told us Tracy’s liver would fail in 6-12 weeks without treatment. In that short time, I’ve gotten even more comfortable in the uncomfortable. More importantly, I’ve learned to walk in the “and” rather than in the “or”– meaning that despite the outcome (the or), we still get to plan for and live our vision for however long we can AND I get to be okay with creating and living MY vision no matter the outcome. It’s like living with each foot in a different world but walking ahead anyway in the same direction.”
While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted; how we love, and how we lose; how we grow and how we fail is never a new one, it’s a story full of other people. These people, by themselves, lead lives full of the same things, on their own terms, so the space for connection comes when we chose to acknowledge the realness of the journey, to be vulnerable and trust that being open holds more joy and possibility than closing down.
Brene Brown says that vulnerability is THE work of living a whole-hearted life. And, she couldn’t have been more right in my case when she said, “hiding out, pretending and armoring up against vulnerability are killing us: killing our spirits, our hopes, our potential, our creativity, our ability to lead, our love, our faith and our joy.”
Isn’t that why you are reading today? Because you are a seeker. You want to live a whole-hearted life. If you didn’t care you wouldn’t bother with blogs and podcasts that lift and give you ideas for better living. We are all about living a whole-hearted life. I know that I feel better when I’m open. I meet people I wouldn’t have met. I create exchange and possibility. It’s really a key that unlocks a hundred doors. Try it.