by Barry Kerr
“It is no measure of good health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – J. Krishnamurti
To feel…anything…is to be vulnerable. While thoughts are generally experienced in our minds, feelings can flood our bodies, color our sensory perceptions, and reveal intimate information about us to others, in ways we don’t normally allow.
What others do with this information is out of our control. Some will see a weakness and use the situation to attack or undercut us. Boys are taught not to feel so as to be “strong” warrior/protectors. Our patriarchal culture has come to equate vulnerability (feeling) with weakness. And who, in their “right mind”, wants to be weak?
Yet, it turns out, vulnerability and weakness don’t equate. Psychologists and others have come to see that not only is vulnerability not weakness, but it requires strength and courage. Indeed, a willingness to be vulnerable is necessary to a life fulfilled.
Psychologist Brene Brown, Ph.D, in her recent book, Daring Greatly, shares what she has learned about vulnerability in her ten years of research on the topic. She reports that the people who demonstrate the most capacity to create love, relationship, and joy, who feel the most alive, connected and creative, are people who have learned to embrace vulnerability and invite it regularly and pro-actively as a conscious way to engage life. They also point to how being vulnerable in various ways and times was the very thing that allowed them to move forward in life. This applies to people of all backgrounds, economic levels, and social status.
Now here’s the trick: Yes, inherent to vulnerability is risk. You can’t know the outcome. It’s a bit scary. However, by stepping though the fear, by being willing to expose to others your thoughts, feelings, ideas, creations, or longings, knowing that others may not like or agree with you, you experience connection.
Even if the feedback is not positive, it is at least a response to your authentic self and not to some unauthentic, protective mask you wear to feel safe. Whether it draws people closer to you or they choose to distance themselves from you, the feedback is inherently good for you. You get more clarity about your relationship to the world, to people, and it opens up possibilities for adapting your ideas or actions in the future. By hiding behind a mask, you create a life of events and relationships that align with the mask, not you. That creates a static emptiness that may feel safe, but is deadening.
Vulnerability is the basis for all emotions and feelings, the birthplace of vitality and meaning in our lives. If we avoid it because we equate it with weakness, then we are rejecting life. The irony is that even if we try to avoid it, we end up continually being vulnerable anyway, even as we can’t see it. In fact, we usually end up losing control over where, with whom and how, we show up vulnerable, putting on various defense mechanisms like anger, which only increases the perception that we feel weak inside. But if there is any real weakness; it is not in being vulnerable but in not knowing how to do it consciously.
Those who come to embrace vulnerability, understanding it’s positive role in their lives, also learn the skills of discernment. Learning how to recognize the appropriate times, situations and people for vulnerability is the key to feeling empowered in it. It’s always a risk. That just comes with the territory. However, as we gain more experience in being vulnerable, we can more realistically weigh the risks against the possibilities and make more conscious decisions, even though they will still feel a bit scary. In fact, if there isn’t some level of scary, then we probably aren’t really stepping into vulnerability.
Most of our clients have come to recognize the pain this fear is causing them, and have reached out to us for help. Asking for help, in itself, is one of the most vulnerable acts we can take in life. As they begin to rise out of shame and to recover their authenticity and wholeness, our clients also begin to see just how many people around them, even many of those who appear successful and happy, are actually suffering, more or less. They also begin to recognize the signs in those others who, having embraced their own vulnerability, are able to now appreciate and applaud vulnerability in everyone. This creates connection and belonging.
You don’t have to be broken to need help. Life coaches, healers and therapists specialize in providing a safe container to be vulnerable and learn from it. Asking for help may feel a bit scary, but that’s probably because it feels vulnerable. A perfect start.
This article was originally published in Natures Pathways magazine, March 2014.