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What Does It Take to Be Vulnerable?

by Carlo Alcos Mar 23, 2012
Vulnerability is vital in living a fulfilling life. But in a society where this is synonymous with weakness, how does one go about it?

I JUST WATCHED Brene Brown’s latest TED talk, called Listening to shame. It’s a follow up to her hugely popular talk on vulnerability, which inspired me to write this post. Dr. Brown is a shame researcher. Her findings — about the importance of vulnerability in innovation, creativity, and change — came from her research about shame.

Shame is what can paralyze us into non-action. I’m not good enough. Who do I think I am, anyway? Shame creates doubt and blocks us from being vulnerable, afraid that others will see our shame and exploit it to our detriment. In our society, vulnerability equates to weakness. But, in truth (and ironically), vulnerability — as she says in her talk — underpins what society deems as valuable attributes: innovation, creativity, and adaptability to change.

To illustrate how vulnerability is looked upon in our culture, Dr. Brown speaks about how — after her talk went viral — she was approached by schools, parent meetings, and Fortune 500 companies to give talks. But a common request made of her was that she avoid the topics of vulnerability and shame.

What’s missing from the conversation?

There’s something I find lacking in the TED talks she gives, and also in the post I wrote. Through 12 years of research she has concluded that being vulnerable is essential to happiness. It’s refreshing when something that has been known for thousands of years through plain old wisdom is backed up by research (because our culture believes something only when it’s “proved” by data). But knowing this is one thing; the question is, how does one exercise it?

When you go looking for something, you tend to find it.

We’re taught from an early age — through our parents, through media — that the world is a hostile place. People are not to be trusted. Guard yourself; don’t let anyone take you down; under any circumstance, do not expose your weakness. It’s little wonder so many have trust issues. When you go looking for something, you tend to find it.

I used to be the same. I didn’t trust anyone other than close friends and family. I focused on the negatives in people, even though — in looking back — I can see how I conveniently ignored all the good that I experienced in others. It’s kind of like airplane crashes. Even though, statistically, we’re much less likely to be involved in a plane crash than a car accident, we have no issue getting getting behind the wheel, yet we carry fears about flying.

Trust and faith

These are loaded words; these two concepts, I think, are necessary to practice vulnerability. Trust in other people — believing in the good of fellow human beings — is essential. I find it’s also a healthier way to live. It brings me lightness in my life; it takes a lot of energy to always be suspicious and expecting the worst. Do I open myself up more to be taken advantage of? Most certainly. But I’ve found that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Maybe I’ll get taken advantage of now and again, but the number of positive and meaningful connections I make is well worth it.

And even if I do get taken advantage of, I have faith in myself that I will recover from it. I also have faith in my judgment of character. I can sense the energy given off by others and behave accordingly. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean opening yourself wide open to every single person out there. But even if it did, if the strength of your resolve is such that you can handle anything coming back at you, what’s wrong with that?

If you don’t have trust and faith in yourself and other human beings, it will be pretty hard to practice being vulnerable.

If courage is valued, so must be vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not weakness; and that myth is profoundly dangerous.” ~ Brene Brown

Vulnerability is the opposite of weakness. It’s courage. Try standing in front of a crowd of people and recite poetry, sing a song, tell jokes. These are all vulnerable acts, but they’re all courageous. Most people don’t have the guts to do it, yet most people will have no problem criticizing and shaming those that do. Those acts take no courage whatsoever.

What underlies all of this, of course, is fear. If we can make friends with our fear — accept it — maybe we can push through the shame. Yeah, this is scary as hell, but it’s OK. Whatever happens I will survive and chances are I will be the better for it.

Be vulnerable. Be courageous.

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