Being vulnerable in our personal lives is difficult for many people. Behaving from a place of openness can give us a feeling of emotional exposure, uncertainty and even risk involved in speaking up. As expression of one’s thoughts, fears and desires openly and honestly with a partner, a child or a co-worker can lead to feeling judged many people quell their concerns and simply hope for the best. However unless we have these Crucial Conversations than our romantic lives are not as fulfilling, our familial dynamic can be thrown into imbalances and the business and civic organizations we are a part of can lose their dynamism and decay. In order to illustrate the importance of embracing vulnerability Dr. Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead shows how it is that vulnerability and shame emerges and operates within our current social topography and how to combat it. After all, allowing this influence to continue to operate unopposed means that we live a life with a dearth of mutual connection, trust and engagement with others. Wholeheartedness, the willingness to act from a place that is open, present and vulnerable, gives us the opportunity to genuinely be embedded in our world, for good or bad.
Dr. Brown’s research first distinguishes between shame and guilt and their relation to vulnerability. Shame is connected to being language (I am a screw-up, I am a liar, I am not worthy) while guilt is related to action language (I have made mistakes, I have lied, I made mistakes). While it may seem a trivial manner of categorizing, the adoption of such logics by the psyche has wide-reaching implications that neuro-psychologists give significant credence to. On a more practical level, use of the former prevents personal self-transformation while the latter is the means by which we can gain control over our personal narrative. This is why if one’s self-talk denigrates and self-destructs an effort must be made to acculturate oneself to a different understanding of themselves and thus their value.
Dr. Brown then shows that vulnerability is not weakness, but a form of courage. It indicates a full engagement with the matter at hand rather than ironic, traumatic or ideological detachment. This can be daunting to embody given the shame-prone culture within which many people live, and further requires that one feel genuinely loveable and worthy of good things, however to not do so is to have our happiness forever dampened due to our unwillingness to engage.
Another point that Dr. Brown pulls from her research is how people often feel ashamed due to hypothesized external judgments that can empty otherwise genuine joy. For example, despite the fact that extensive social science research shows that people are most satisfied with purchases of experiences such as vacations or nights out, due to the social nature of reality people can become fooled into the idea that by spending money on status goods they will be happy. Once comparison compulsion rather than personal values or the words of other people rather than your own principles have control over your emotional life you are immediately enfeebled because of it. Ideas that limit our capacity for wholeheartedness include not only comparisons to other people, but also nostalgia for the past and the general feeling of unworthiness caused by essentialism. People in our lives that tell us we are not good enough, perfect enough, smart enough, “anything” enough as well as saying things such as we’re too unmotivated, not worthy of love, crazy, etc. perform the same function. By limiting these thoughts occurrence and our interaction with those people that claim our being as something we don’t want we are able to gain more freedom for ourselves to be vulnerable and thus happy.
One of the research conclusions that Dr. Brown’s makes that I resonated with is how: “When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be. Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice – the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” (45). While I think the broad implications are clear, bear with me as I pull them out. People crave the feeling of vulnerability as it allows the armoring that we have produced from numerous interactions to be reduced or even disappear. However it is possible that as a result of a previous painful incident, be it work, familial or romantic relationship, we may seek for the sake of our “future self” to be protected from such violations by repressing that softer side of ourselves. Thus when we act in a manner that seeks to deny our vulnerability, we are actually acting counter to what we really wish for. I’ve seen this most often when people have a romantic relationship has ended and they describe themselves as feeling emotionally dead or drained. Their vulnerability, their hopes, their desires are all seemingly dashed and the idea of starting over again seems like a fool’s errand. If we are to be truly happy, at least according to Dr. Brown’s research, than this is exactly what we must do.
Another point that I really enjoyed about Dr. Brown’s book is the need for discomfort at times. People generally, especially those in leadership positions that want to see their employees apply critical thinking, need to normalize the awkwardness that allows for honest exchange. In the crucial conversations that we have with those around us we must expect and be OK with handling anxiety, fear and shame. Allowing their occasional appearance should become normal and the fewer the “forbidden topics” there are is an indication of organizational/relationship strength. Vulnerability is at the heart of the feedback process and it is through this process that growth develops. Lacking it we are armed from the past and stunted, unable to move forward and instead of living life to the lees it’s as if we’re always about to leave. And being caught in such a flight pattern means that we are living with distress and fear.