I’ve started writing this column before. In fact, according to my revision history, I’ve started off and on for about 2 years now. Each time, I get a few lines in and stop. “What can I write about vulnerability that hasn’t already been said? “, “Who am I to put into permanent ink (and electronic print) what I’ve learned about vulnerability and connection?” and then most practically, “How do I condense dozens of pages of notes into 700 words?” But alas I sit, in a hotel lobby, awaiting my train home to Delaware, two days after a morning in the presence of Brené Brown’s own vulnerability and wisdom, opening up this draft again. And so, if nothing else, this is homage to the life-altering work of Dr. Brené Brown, admittedly my vulnerability-promoting, shame-smashing, authenticity-building, personal and professional idol.
If you’ve read my columns, this is not the first time you’ve seen me reference Brené Brown’s work. But if you’re not familiar with her research, her famously and humorously delivered TED Talks, or her books, I am certain that how we view ourselves, interact with one another, make decisions, choose relationships, protect ourselves and find connection can be understood through the lens of our human vulnerability. And if anyone can make vulnerability fascinating, relevant, funny and personal, it’s Brené Brown.
So what comes to mind when you see this word:
(looooooooooooooooong pause for thought)
Strength? Courage? Let’s be real here. For most people, those are the last words that would come to mind. The most common word people tend to associate with vulnerability is weakness. Yet, being vulnerable means being real, authentic, “showing up to be seen”, all which require tremendous bravery. Yes, believe it or not, vulnerability requires bravery, courage! Many people insist “I don’t do vulnerability” and it’s true, many don’t, and they’re drowning in emotionally disconnected relationships, marriages, depression, addictions to substances, gambling, pornography, or their phones. Rather than engaging in connected conversation or dispute, as Dr. Brown explains, they attack or blame as a way to discharge pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, most of us (myself included) aren’t raised to be vulnerable. Instead, we’re taught to put our best selves forward, hide our flaws, not show “weakness”, spending incredible efforts to protect ourselves.
Brené Brown’s research has identified many ways that we protect ourselves from vulnerability, with these 3 most common:
Perfectionism: based on a false belief that perfection will protect us, a false sense of security; an identity based on accomplishment, living in fear of failing, of not being enough. I can speak from experience in saying that unmasking perfectionism is a painful process of vulnerability in action and can take years to undo.
Numbing: anything that allows us to avoid or deaden our feelings, from staying super busy all of the time, to needing that glass of wine or beer every night “to take the edge off”. Unfortunately, we can’t selectively numb; while we numb discomfort, pain, and fear, we also numb our full experiences of joy, creativity, excitement, love.
Foreboding Joy: experienced when we’re “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, bracing for tragedy, reluctant to fully experience happiness lest we be disappointed or something terrible happen (“knock on wood”).
Guess what? It’s only through vulnerability that we can have authentic, intimate, connected relationships. If we all knew this, were given permission, even encouragement, to be vulnerable and authentic, our marriages would be more intimate, our families would be more connected, our communities would be more protective, our corporations would be more humane, our governments would be more inclusive and diverse…can you imagine the possibilities?
If I managed to stir curiosity within you, I hope you will follow it to learn how you are working with or against vulnerability in your life and in your relationships. If you’ve read to this point, you have the seed. Water it.