I’m going to pepper this long post about vulnerability with pictures of moody geese that I took today because I think that going for a walk in the rain and getting soaking wet but coming back with something beautiful to show for your pains rather than staying in the warmth of your flat and playing video games all day is a perfect metaphor for vulnerability.
Plus it gives those of you who have enough reading to do without adding 2000 words of my attempts at auto-CBT to the list something to look at.
I’ve just finished reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, a stalwart on the modern self-helper’s bookshelf to be filed right alongside Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting your Greatness (which annoyed me slightly more than it challenged me), Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good-Life (slipped out of my hands and into a donations bin when I reached the section explaining how ‘Emotions are Overrated’), Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (look, don’t blame me, I didn’t put it on the shelf, it’s just there now and we have to deal with it) and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (which I was surprised to find I liked a lot, not least because Marie Kondo reveals herself to be a bit of a weirdo and I really have a lot of respect for that).
Jesus Christ, do they all have long names or what? As if a lengthy subtitle on the cover of a book, by borrowing the aesthetics of academia, bestows any sort of legitimacy to the claims made within. Makes me want to do a 180 on my own PhD project (Topographies of Sentiment in the Altai: how Mongolian Kazakh Song Reinforces Place-Based Senses of Home and Belonging) and just rename it Places Matter or something along those lines.
In the immortal words of bloggers who came before me, I digress. But from what? I wanted to say something about “vulnerability“, a word which has newly entered my wellness lexicon thanks to Brene Brown in order to describe something which I’ve been blindly feeling my way around the edges of for a while.
But first, a bit of bitching. In his book, Mark Manson writes the following:
Sometime in the 1960s, developing “high self esteem” – having positive thoughts and feelings about oneself – became all the rage in psychology. Research found that people who thought highly about themselves generally performed better and caused fewer problems … But it’s a generation later and the data is in: we’re not all exceptional. It turns out that merely feeling good about yourself doesn’t really mean anything unless you have a good reason to feel good about yourself.
And then he spends the rest of the book telling us all about how we stoically need to stop kidding ourselves that we have any inherent value and put our overrated emotions into a lead-lined vault before we can have any chance at Pulling Ourselves Up By Our Bootstraps because Pressure Makes Diamonds and Giving A Fuck is Lame and The Only Way Out is Through. We just need to be self confident and not worry about the rest. What I see here are the words of someone who has learned to hide from his own vulnerability and is suffering under the impression that the only way to go it is alone.
Cute idea but the problem is that he’s confused the chicken with the egg, and Brene Brown – one of those pesky researchers he derides in the opening of that excerpt – has spent a lifetime learning that the “good reason to feel good about yourself” is not something we can attain through acting self-confident, but through being vulnerable with ourselves and others. She tells us that:
If you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups … there’s only one variable that separates the groups: Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They don’t have better or easier lives, they don’t have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they haven’t survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but in the midst of all of these struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.
You can’t hide from your feelings – you have to feel them. And know that they matter. And let other people know you have feelings, which matter, and show interest in their feelings, which matter too.
Enough with the abstractions. What kind of practices is Brene Brown talking about? How do people allow themselves to believe they are worthy of love? The trick, she says, is to be vulnerable, to lean into human connection even if it makes us uncomfortable or even afraid, to let people in. It’s actually really fucking hard to do this but if you give yourself permission to act like it’s feasible that you might have some value – to be vulnerable with yourself and with others – you begin to believe in your own value. What follows are four examples of how I understand vulnerability to manifest. They’re all true-ish stories: amalgamations of experiences I and my closest friends have had in the last few months.
Operating from a place of vulnerability means that before you go to speak to your boss about going down to four days a week because you are struggling with burnout, you deliberately take off your outer adult self and enter the room as your inner child, knowing that your inner child is worth caring for. Vulnerability here is not the same as weakness.
Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we’re taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.
Your boss can say no, but you are operating from a place of knowing that your request is reasonable and you are good enough as you are and you deserve to feel happy and sane and whole. You access the level of vulnerability you had when you were seven years old and coming to tell your dad that your finger had a cut and asking if he could help you bandage it up. It was easy to tell him what hurt because you knew he loved you and saw your pain as real and important. If you handle this conversation with your boss in the same way, secure in the knowledge that you are worthy of care and your feelings deserve to be taken seriously, you are operating from a place of vulnerability.
Operating from a place of vulnerability means that when you’re sitting in a seminar with your accomplished, experienced, capable PhD colleagues and you tell them you’re scared of going to do fieldwork because you had a weird relationship with someone you met last time you were there, or that you’re anxious because you don’t understand the difference between ontology and phenomenology, or that you’re not keeping up with the readings, you willingly dispense out a plethora of sharp knives and your raw heart on a platter, fully aware that they might turn you into carpaccio, knowing that your anxieties are worth treating gently and with respect. Vulnerability here is not the same as over-sharing: you are risking something (humiliation, rejection, or worst of all, disinterest) to have a chance at camaraderie and empathy and connection, not just to get something off your chest. You can’t build a meaningful relationship if everyone stays in their perfectionist towers without windows and doors, but it’s so hard to be the first to break the seal.
We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough—that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing, and impressing.
Here’s the crux of the struggle:
I want to experience your vulnerability but I don’t want to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.
I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.
It’s difficult to admit that you haven’t got it all figured out, to put down the pretence of absolute self-confidence, to share times you’ve fucked up or failed and been scared or wrong or lonely, and it’s especially difficult when you’re admitting all that to near strangers who have only just started to reconfigure themselves into friends. But FUCK equanimity. Just FUCK IT! We’re not swans gliding seamlessly through a royal pond unburdened by raindrops! We’re geese. And it’s raining. And we’re going for a walk.
Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter.
Operating from a place of vulnerability means that when you ask your smart and beautiful new friend if they want to go on a date with you, you’re intentionally taking out the glittering crystal that is your soul and placing it on the table between you and hoping they don’t tell you that all they see is an ugly boring rock, knowing that what you have to offer is stunning, captivating and worthy of wonder. Vulnerability here is not the same as steeling yourself: you aren’t pretending that if they reject you it won’t hurt, or numbing yourself to the inevitability of rejection. It’s sitting there with fear in one hand and hope in the other and knowing that no matter which way they respond, you are still worthy of a “yes”. I’m not saying you deserve a yes from them, but that you are worthy of receiving one from someone. This is very difficult because we all have a very loud inner voice called shame (booooo!) which tells us that we are not pretty/fit/graceful/strong/creative/alternative/extroverted/intelligent/sexually experienced enough to be loveable/dateable/fuckable etc. But rather than devoting energy to quieting that voice of shame entirely before you approach someone, vulnerability means becoming resilient to it by paying attention to and respecting all the friends and family members and past lovers who have told you that you are not just enough but a gift to their lives. Give shame a seat at your table (not because you want to, but because it’s there and you’re not in the habit of kicking anybody out), but only one, and reserve all the other seats for those who have kinder things to say. And then, once your table is heaving with love and affirmation and support and shame is feeling a little awkward, go out and be vulnerable with someone you can’t let slip away.
Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary and yes, we’re open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?
Operating from a place of vulnerability means that when you’re spending time with an elderly or sick family member, sharing a piece of homemade cake and talking about your childhoods with a green landscape spread out below you and swallows darting through the sky above, you open up your arms and trust-fall into all that the moment is with the enthusiasm of an adrenaline-junkie bungee jumping backwards off a cliff, knowing that you are worthy of the joy the moment is offering no matter what else might happen later on. Vulnerability here is not closing your eyes to the possibility of suffering down the line: it’s allowing yourself to relish the good bits without pressing fast-forward to the bad bits.
A man in his early sixties told me, “I used to think the best way to go through life was to expect the worst. That way, if it happened, you were prepared, and if it didn’t happen, you were pleasantly surprised. Then I was in a car accident and my wife was killed. Needless to say, expecting the worst didn’t prepare me at all. And worse, I still grieve for all of those wonderful moments we shared and that I didn’t fully enjoy. My commitment to her is to fully enjoy every moment now. I just wish she was here, now that I know how to do that.”
When Brene Brown talks about vulnerability with vapid, alienating American catchphrases like “daring greatly” and “wholeheartedneess” and “closing the disengagement divide”, she’s really just talking about putting down our defences, looking our shame in the eye without blinking, and accepting that for all that it’s true that the only way out is through, we must also bear in mind that the easiest way through is together. And the only way to build a meaningful togetherness is by operating from a place of vulnerability.
This ties a lot into another piece of advice I have picked up from reading the Ask a Manager and Captain Awkward blogs: use your words. There is no perfect script out there that will allow you to apologise for something without admitting blame, or ask someone out without letting them know you like them, or seek out help from your boss without revealing that you’re struggling with your workload. Combining this knowledge with Brene Brown’s idea of operating from a place of vulnerability has been very freeing for me. By letting go of the idea that I have to be perfect or xyz enough before I deserve good things, it’s become much easier for me to communicate both with words (“I couldn’t follow what that lecturer was saying at all, did you?”, “I don’t like Chinese food, let’s find somewhere else to eat tonight.”, “Do you want to go for a drink with me?”) and with actions (drawing boundaries around my time, reaching out for physical affection).
Some of the things Brene Brown says don’t resonate for me at all: I don’t feel trapped in a culture or a career where I am compelled to acquire overt markers of success and I don’t think she does a great job of addressing typical sources of men’s shame, which is disappointing since she does a decent job at digging into common tropes of women’s shame. I also think that vulnerability isn’t the panacea she presents it to be: much as she tries to establish the connection, I don’t see how being vulnerable alone will help anyone overcome perfectionism and shame and I wish she’d put a bit more meat on the bones of her claim that it can be used to actually build self-worth and trust where there is none. Ultimately, a self-help book is no replacement for therapy.
What I do think is that vulnerability is incredibly useful for transforming communication, both with yourself and with others, since only by treating ourselves like we deserve what we are seeking can we ever hope to believe that we deserve it. What’s missing for me in all the other self-help books I listed at the beginning is this element of human connection in establishing, developing and maintaining self-worth. The idea that establishing self-worth is some sort of process we can execute ourselves, alone in our bedrooms or on a mountaintop, screaming “I MATTER” into the wind, is a lovely fantasy. In truth, it takes two, or three, or a village, to undo the webs of shame and self-doubt that we’re all entangled in. I think that we need to say and hear things like “Please come back to bed, I miss you already” to believe that we are dateable enough, things like “Thanks for what you said, it helped me understand something new which I didn’t before” to believe that we are smart enough, things like “Wait a moment, I can’t run that fast” to believe that we are fit enough etc. and the only way that we can reach a point in our relationships where someone helps us build self-worth is by allowing them in to that process.
[Being vulnerable] is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive.
…and that’s why it’s so important. Good luck.