"Daring Greatly" - Chapter 2 - Debunking the Vulnerability Myths
Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona
March 19, 2020
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.
Myth #1 - Vulnerability Is A Weakness
The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous.
When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on.
We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.
Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment - emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and lead.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation - that’s vulnerability.
To let ourselves sink into the joyful moments of our lives even though we know that they are fleeting, even though the world tells us not to be too happy lest we invite disaster - that’s an intense form of vulnerability.
It starts to make sense that we dismiss vulnerability as weakness when we realize that we’ve confused feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities.
If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it.
“Vulnerability is ______________ . ” Here are some of the replies:
- Sharing an unpopular opinion
- Standing up for myself
- Asking for help
- Saying no
- Starting my own business
- Helping my 37 year-old wife with Stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
- Initiating sex with my wife
- Initiating sex with my husband
- Hearing how much my son wants to make first chair in the orchestra and encouraging him while knowing that it’s probably not going to happen
- Calling a friend whose child just died
- Signing up my mom for hospice care
- Saying, “I love you,” first and not knowing if I’m going to be loved back
- Writing something I wrote or a piece of art that I made
- Getting promoted and not knowing if I’m going to succeed
- Getting fired
- Falling in love
- Trying something new
- Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
- Waiting for the biopsy to come back
- Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
- Exercising in public especially when I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m out of shape
- Admitting I’m afraid
- Stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts
- Laying off employees
- Presenting my product to the world and getting no response
- Standing up for myself and for friends when someone else is critical or gossiping
- Being accountable
- Asking for forgiveness
- Having faith
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.
And the answer that appeared over and over in all of our efforts to better understand vulnerability? Naked. Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter. It’s being naked when everyone else is fully clothed. It feels like the naked dream: You’re in the airport and you’re stark naked.
When discussing vulnerability, it is helpful to look at the definition and etymology of the word vulnerable. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning “to wound.” The definition includes “capable of being wounded” and “open to attack or damage.”
Merriam-Webster defines weakness as the inability to withstand attack or wounding. Just from a linguistic perspective, it’s clear that these are very different concepts, and one could argue that weakness often stems from a lack of vulnerability - when we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.
In order to get patients to comply with prevention routines, they must work on perceived vulnerability. And what makes this really interesting is that the critical issue is not about our actual level of vulnerability, but the level at which we acknowledge our vulnerabilities around a certain illness or threat.
Far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.
Simply seeing people as people rather than “the audience” reminded me that the challenges that scare me - like being naked - scare everyone else. That’s why empathy can be conveyed without speaking a word - it just takes looking into someone’s eyes and seeing yourself reflected back in an engaged way.
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.
My vulnerability prayer: Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen.
“What’s worth doing even if I fail?”
Honest conversations about vulnerability and shame can change the world.
The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.
Often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory march as much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.
Myth #2: I Don’t Do Vulnerability
When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable.
But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
Unfortunately, there is no “get out of vulnerability free” card. We can’t opt out of the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that’s woven through our daily experiences. Life is vulnerable.
When we operate from the belief that we “don’t do vulnerability” it is helpful to ask ourselves the following questions:
- What do I do when I feel emotionally exposed?
- How do I behave when I’m feeling very uncomfortable and uncertain?
- How willing am I to take emotional risks?”
Regardless of our willingness to do vulnerability, it does us. 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.
Myth #3 – Vulnerability Is Letting It All Hang Out
Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.
We can’t always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don’t bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don’t lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” That’s not vulnerability. That may be desperation or woundedness or even attention-seeking, but it’s not vulnerability. Why? Because sharing appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships that can bear the weight of our story. The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement.
Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and disengagement.
“Letting it all hang out” or boundaryless disclosure is one way we protect ourselves from real vulnerability.
And the TMI (too much information) issue is not even a case of “too much vulnerability”—vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today’s culture.
We need to feel trust to be vulnerable, and we need to be vulnerable in order to trust.
Trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.
Let me give you an example of that from my own relationship. One night, I really wanted to finish a mystery novel. I thought I knew who the killer was, but I was anxious to find out. At one point in the night, I put the novel on my bedside and walked into the bathroom. As I passed the mirror, I saw my wife’s face in the reflection, and she looked sad, brushing her hair. There was a sliding door moment. I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight; I want to read my novel. But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad. Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust.
One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship—very gradually, very slowly - but very permanently.
There is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust. In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring - or appearing not to care. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement.
Stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears -- the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain -- there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.
Like trust, most experiences of betrayal happen slowly, one marble at a time. Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture—it’s a growing marble collection.
Myth #4 – We Can Go It Alone
The vulnerability journey is not the kind of journey we can make alone. We need support. We need folks who will let us try on new ways of being without judging us. We need a hand to pull us up off the ground when we get kicked down in the arena (and if we live a courageous life, that will happen).
Most of us are good at giving help, but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help, too.
Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help. We all need help.
After running from vulnerability, I found that learning how to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure was a painful process.
I believed that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable, so when it happened -- when the phone rang with unimaginable news; or when I was scared; or when I loved so fiercely that rather than feeling gratitude and joy I could only prepare for loss -- I controlled things. I managed situations and micromanaged the people around me. I performed until there was no energy left to feel. I made what was uncertain certain, no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and my fear could never catch up. I looked brave on the outside and felt scared on the inside. Slowly I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known. The shield required that I stay small and quiet behind it so as not to draw attention to my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was exhausting.
I can be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.
Vulnerability allowed me to slowly begin to take more risks, to show up at work and at home in new ways. I took more chances and tried new things, like storytelling. I learned how to set new boundaries and say no, even when I was terrified that I was going to piss off a friend or squander a professional opportunity that I’d regret. So far, I haven’t regretted a single no.
The people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never the critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me.
We simply can’t learn to be more vulnerable and courageous on our own. Sometimes our first and greatest dare is asking for support.