Vulnerability is big news these days. Or rather, vulnerability-as-a-good-thing is big news. For most people, growing up in a rugged individualist culture, vulnerability is to be avoided at all costs. Brene Brown’s beautiful and touching TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, lays out a radically different view: the people she finds to be happiest and most wholehearted are the ones who embrace vulnerability as a fact of life. She’s not saying you have to like it, but she is saying you need to make peace with it.
Brown’s work is based on in-depth qualitative research, and in that respect it’s new and exciting. However, the fundamental tenets of her talk are laid out by M Scott Peck almost 30 years ago in the astonishing book The Different Drum. Peck came to similar conclusions as Brown through years of working as a therapist, observing that intimacy, connection and community come through the sharing and expressing of vulnerability. As Leonard Cohen elegantly put it, it’s the cracks that let the light in.
So let’s start from the assumption that we agree on this uncomfortable fact: vulnerability is a powerful way to get closer to other humans and to ourselves. (I’m not saying you actually believe this, but let’s start here anyway.)
This leads us to an interesting question, and one which I feel is discussed less:
What exactly is vulnerability?
I find this question fascinating because I have a morbid fear of vulnerability. As a child it simply wasn’t safe for me to show any chinks in my armour: if I did, my mother would store the information and use it against me later. As my soul coach Avanti puts it, as a kid it just hurt too much for me to care. Consequently (and partly because I’m socialised male) I toughened up, became a bit hard and developed personal power without softness, compassion or empathy.
As I became an adult I was pretty much incapable of human connection. I was either giving or taking and there wasn’t much love in it. I enjoyed flexing my muscles at work, almost rubbing my hands with glee as I prepared to shout at a supplier that had let our clients down. My world was muscular and largely unfeeling, and I cringe when I think of some of the ways I’ve treated people for most of my adult life.
Discovering Scott Peck’s work in my mid-20s was a first tentative step towards breaking open. I attended groups and cried in front of other people. I learnt to express a little tenderness. I learnt how to listen more. I began to develop the beginnings of empathy. (This is a long slow road for me, one I’m still on today – so everything remains conditional and incomplete.)
For me, vulnerability was always about softening: showing weakness, crying, being tender, being sympathetic. Above all, it was about letting others have power over me: the thing that had caused me to get hurt again and again as a kid. In this way I was a ‘typical bloke’ – toughing it out, pretending I didn’t have any cracks, being hard outside where I felt soft inside.
So after over 15 years of exploring this type of vulnerability in myself, I started to believe that this is what vulnerability was.
I was challenged by my dear friend and collaborator Ruby May, when I set ‘vulnerability’ and ‘power’ up as opposites during a workshop. “Surely we’re teaching people the power in their vulnerability?” she quipped. And she was right: I’d confused the things that make *me* feel vulnerable with the wider possibilities of what vulnerability might be for each person in the room.
After that I started to notice that some people cry easily and express feelings of hurt, tenderness and fragility without too much prompting. Those socialised female are more likely to be comfortable with this, as it’s more acceptable in our society for women to be fragile than it is for men.
So I looked into it some more, and I realised this: vulnerability is what’s in you that you don’t want other people to see. For some it may be fragility. For some it may be anger. For some it may be hopelessness. For some it may even be joy. If you’re inclined to hide it away from others, it’s vulnerable for you to show it. And therein lies its power!
For me, vulnerability is still about showing fragility. It’s about admitting that I need other people. It’s about recognising – and naming – when I’m not ok. It’s about loneliness and isolation. It’s about despair. Above all, it’s about allowing myself to look weak.
But for someone else, the most vulnerable thing they can express is how bloody furious they are. To show the intensity of their feelings, how much something pissed them off, how furious they became when they found out. By the time they tell the person who’s pissed them off, it’s often so toned down that it’s barely audible as anger any more. So the other person doesn’t quite hear it.
In this case what’s vulnerable is usually the idea of being “a nasty person.” For many people this is an incredibly risky thing to do: expressing strong negative emotions that show something other than how lovely they are.
We all have things we don’t want other people to see. Often this is connected with aspects of ourselves that don’t fit our self-image. If you catch yourself thinking “I’m just not the kind of person who does that sort of thing,” then you’re probably heading towards something vulnerable. Follow it gently and see where it leads.
Often this feeling or way of behaving is vulnerable for us because it hasn’t been safe to express up to now. Maybe when we were a kid we were told to pull ourselves together and not cry so easily. Or we had our exuberance shut down and forgot how to express joy. Or we learnt that ‘nice people don’t talk to each other like that’ and learnt to button our lip.
Whatever it is, it’s probably been disapproved of somewhere along the way. It becomes vulnerable because we don’t have a blueprint for expressing it and have it received by other people – or welcoming it in ourselves. So we hide it away from the rest of who we are: often in the secret chamber where we keep all the things that make us uncomfortable.
Would you like to read more thoughts about vulnerability? Continue to part two of this article.
And if you’re interested in exploring the theme of vulnerability with Faerie & Ruby, check out Lady Cacao’s Secret Chamber on 19/20 March.