n. Susceptibility to attack or injury; the state or condition of being weak or poorly defended.
n. a specific weakness in the protections or defenses surrounding someone or something.
There is no better expert on vulnerability than Brene Brown. Her TED talk on the subject has been viewed over 22 million times. I highly recommend spending 20 minutes to view it, if you haven’t already.
The basic gist of the talk is this:
Connecting gives our lives purpose and meaning. In order to connect to others, we need to embrace vulnerability and be willing to take risks. We need to have the courage to be imperfect. To be kind to ourselves, so we can foster compassion for others. We need to be who we are, rather than who we think we should be.
All difficult stuff, right? Especially considering all the forces working against us: fear, shame, disappointment, expectations, the media, etc.
She also pointed out that our society is very good at numbing against vulnerability:
“We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.”
I didn’t realize it until I watched this video, but my struggle has always been about vulnerability. I spent a good deal of my life in quiet fear of failure, showing weakness, and emotion. Trying to live up to expectations. To avoid (physical, mental, and emotional) risk. To build up an image of perfection to those around me. To be something I’m not deep down inside. Along the way, I avoided reality and never experienced vulnerability. I stopped connecting. I stopped living.
For me, that meant not addressing traumatic experiences in my past, making life choices based on the likelihood of success, and a limited number of close relationships with people.
I was very shy growing up and naturally good at all things school tries to make kids do well, so I floated through my early life. I got good grades, was a model student, had no major problems, and I never got in trouble. Every parent and teacher’s dream, right?
The problem with that dream is there was nothing pushing me to grow, take risks, fail, and really learn. Even the big, character forming experiences of college and moving across the country were filtered through my need to limit risk and emotion. I never ventured too far from my comfort zone.
The basic theme to each period in my life is risk aversion. I floated through life. And then when real, adult problems finally hit (and they always do), I didn’t know how to handle them. I resorted to what I do best: be passive so I don’t make the wrong choice.
Except that really isn’t the answer that keeps you from failing. It’s the answer that keeps your from really addressing the problem, from growing and being vulnerable. I learned this the hard way, because I came awful close to failing spectacularly and losing my marriage and family.
Thankfully, through a lot of counseling and self analysis, I discovered the why and how of who I am. I also figured out who I want to be in the present — to undo some of my defaults, in order to finally grow and be vulnerable. To not let fear and passivity drive who I am and the choices I make each day. To connect with people I care about and to live.
The truth is, we are all enough. Good enough as we are, good enough to live out our dreams, good enough to be loved, and good enough to love. The key is to let that person out, especially around the people we love. Once I did that, the changes I needed to make became much simpler. And, turns out, being vulnerable can lead to levels of happiness I had never experienced.
As Brown said in the talk:
Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, “I’m enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”
This subject is also a core principle of Buddhism and the central tenet behind the Four Noble Truths: Dukkha. Life is Dukkha. It’s suffering, it’s impermanence, it’s change, it’s a pervasive struggle against a sense that things never measure up to expectations or standards. It’s struggling against ourselves and everything around us, rather than just being open and accepting. The rest of the Four Noble Truths deal with finding the origins of this suffering, the truth that you can eliminate suffering, and the path toward that cessation. It all comes back to being vulnerable.
One of the reasons I started this blog, as a more personal outlet for myself, was to open myself up to vulnerability and honesty. To share stories and ideas I haven’t had the courage to do in the past. It’s hard. Most of the time, pushing the Publish button is not easy — especially with some of the more blatantly honest and forthcoming posts. I do, though, and haven’t had any regrets. I feel it has helped me grow. It has helped me feel alive. Hopefully it helps you in some way too.
I’ll leave you with a couple great quotes from the talk:
“You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
This is an expanded version of a post I wrote in 2012.