Uncertainty. Risk. Emotional exposure: The three “ingredients” in the recipe for vulnerability. For a lot of people, this concept conjures up feelings of discomfort, unease, and apprehension. It so happens that the Latin root of the word vulnerable is vulnus: to wound. That said, it just makes sense to armour up and get ready for battle against this “opponent” called vulnerability! Without appropriate protective gear, we could get hurt (wounded), so “Armour up!”, right?. Once adequate layer upon layer of protective armour is wrapped around our heart and mind, it is as though we are numbed from feeling pain or anguish or overwhelm, numbed from any negative sort of emotion. “That would be wonderful!” Would it, though?
Pricked by the Thorns of a Beautiful Flower
Each of us lives in the midst of a beautiful garden – the beautiful gardens that represent each person’s life. There are numerous different types of flowers and plant life in these gardens. Provided that the gardens are well cared for, watered and otherwise nourished, these plants grow from seeds to gorgeous forms of plant life. It so happens that some of the most beautiful flowers and trees have sharp thorns protruding from their stems and trunks. We all have the choice of whether to risk getting pricked by such thorns and perhaps get scratched and bleed a bit if we really want to pick and bring those flowers into our lives/our homes. A similar theme runs through vulnerability.
To be alive is to be vulnerable. I doubt that there is anyone on this planet who has not experienced uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure (or some combination thereof) at one time or another. Maybe it was when they were deciding which school to attend or whether to get married or become a parent. Maybe it was during preparations for a public speaking engagement or interview for a dream job. It takes quite a bit of courage and tenacity to willingly engage in any kind of action without knowing for sure if or how it will turn out. To embrace vulnerability rather than run from it might seem quite radical – and it is. It goes against our primitive instincts for safety and survival. As researcher Brene Brown (http://brenebrown.com) so aptly put it: “Vulnerability is not weakness. It is the courage to show up and be seen when you have zero control of the outcome.”
A Courageous Endeavour
How often have you seen someone else engage in something you find vulnerable and comment that it was such a brave thing for him/her to have done? However, if you had accomplished the same sort of feat, would you still have evaluated it as a “courageous” thing to have done? Probably not.
It is so common for vulnerability to be considered as synonymous with weakness or as some kind of limitation. Really, there is no greater measure of courage than to “put oneself out there” and do something that feels vulnerable. Will it work? Is this the right choice? Can I do it?? All perfectly reasonable concerns when approaching a novel circumstance or situation. It is only human for our mind to attempt to help us survive difficult times by trying to convince us to stay away from potential dangers and instead stay well within our comfort zones. It is courageous (and gutsy) to “show up and do it (whatever it may be) despite such disheartening mind chatter,
Vulnerability is a part of life, an experience we cannot “opt out” of. Choosing or arranging to keep uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure far, far away from ourselves may seem great at first glance; however, it is through experiencing challenging emotions (like fear, anxiety, and nervousness) that strengths and resilience are born. Joy, gratitude, love, and belonging all have their origins in vulnerability.
To my knowledge, no one has yet found a way to numb pain and other negative emotions while still feeling and fully experiencing positive ones. Rather, when numbness develops for the darker emotions in life, that very same kind of numbness glosses over the positive ones, too. As a result of this, we are likely to miss out on a lot: we miss out on opportunities for love and joy; on replenishing our inner reserves of what we need in order to live full and meaningful lives.
Neurobiologically, we are wired for connection with others. Although we do crave independence and autonomy to some extent, the truth is we simply cannot go it alone (at least not all the way…). We need support from the people we care about just as much as we need to return the same caring support for genuine feelings of safety and trust in relationships to develop, including the relationship with ourselves. Especially when feeling vulnerable, having someone to genuinely and supportively hear you out and talk you through the circumstance, make suggestions on improvements which could be made, someone to laugh about bloopers with and who compassionately grieves for losses with you is essential.
Practicing gratitude is also important. Not just an “attitude of gratitude” but really appreciating what and who you have around you. The care and support we get from others is no small thing: it is our life line! The society we live touts that the remedy to such a plight is control. Wielding this false sense of power over what does and does not happen in the world like a weapon, the hard truths of life are avoided, which often results in the beauty and intricacy of life being kept hidden. In this life, we have no guaranteed guarantees: stuff happens and sometimes hits the fan… Something we can willingly choose to do anytime, no matter what is be thankful. To respond with gratitude rather than react with bitterness or resentment is a choice we always have before us; it is also a choice that has the potential to change a lot – in a good way.
Nothing is “too insignificant” or “too ordinary” to appreciate extraordinarily: your pet, the librarian at your school, sunsets, having the hiccups, the traffic lights – these may initially seem like lowly everyday things but are actually deserving of our appreciation. Take a step back and consider these “ordinary” concepts in a different, more gracious way. Let’s take traffic lights as an example: for one thing, the ability to see the traffic lights indicates that you have the sense of sight to be grateful for. Knowing how traffic lights work and what the three different colours mean shows that you have learned the principles of driving, that you are able to see/distinguish colours, and that you are cognitively able to effectively process information which are all reasons for gratitude. Living in a society in which people follow the same laws on the road is yet another.
Breaking even simple little aspects of the life down into their basics is often a way of broadening your perspective on just how extraordinary the ordinary is. Try it out!
While embracing vulnerability is an important part of living fully and courageously, I would be remiss to not mention the significance of boundaries. When someone engages in an activity that they consider vulnerable but does not observe any appropriate boundaries, it is not considered vulnerability: rather, it is indiscriminate disclosure!. Sharing too much or blurting out personal information to just anyone does not fall within the realm of vulnerability. In online-speak, it is TMI (too much information)! Vulnerability is based on mutuality and reciprocal trust. Think of whether/to what extent it would be appropriate to talk about the experience of your first dental procedure with a group of new acquaintances: would you want to read about/hear about the agony and the blood and the taste of metal in the a random person’s mouth? Probably not. If the person were a close friend or family member, this might be an opportunity to empathize with the person and support him/her after sharing such a vulnerable experience with you. Making the effort to evaluate how appropriate it is to share details, respecting yourself/your own and others’ boundaries, and whether the other person/people have earned your trust and confidence to hear the details is crucial. Crucial for you and for others.
At the Core
Vulnerability is neither a negative nor a positive emotion: It is the core of all emotions. Being vulnerable means that you are human and feel. Being willing to feel the whole spectrum of emotions indicates you are willing to learn. Vulnerability yields countless opportunities to learn and cultivate strengths and resilience and wisdom.
Ultimately, opening up to vulnerability could mean having the chance to arrange a bouquet of beautiful (and thorny) flowers you have chosen to pick from the luscious garden that is right outside your door.