What being vulnerable really means.
When I first heard Rene Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, I thought it was a bit… wishy-washy at best and I really couldn’t understand the “hype” it created.
Now, after years of battling with the concept of vulnerability, I realise that the reason I didn’t like the talk, was because — like many people — I equated vulnerability with weakness. And as a type-A perfectionist, I really didn’t want to be weak.
Years after, and not too long ago, in my quest to become more authentic (a “goal” I set myself for the last year of my twenties), I got hold of her book, Daring Greatly: How Vulnerability Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.
I’m only halfway through the book, and I’ve already realised that I couldn’t have been more wrong about vulnerability.
Vulnerability isn’t weakness; it’s the only way we can become truly strong and authentic in everything we do — our relationships, work, and life in general.
There’s no such thing as perfect.
I thought that in order to be ‘strong’ I had to be perfect and bulletproof, but these two seductive concepts do not exist in the human experience.
They only exist as an idea that crumbles really quickly the very moment we start engaging with the world, whether in our relationships, friendships, careers, or other pursuits.
Sure, we can distance ourselves emotionally and disengage, but we then ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, and turn our backs to the unique contributions that only we can make.
The uncomfortable truth is that in order to truly engage with others and with the world, you have to expose yourself emotionally or, as Rene Brown puts it, dare to show up and let yourself be seen.
With that, of course, comes a possibility of hurt, rejection, and failure.
Now, it’s only natural that no one wants to be hurt, rejected, or experience failure; but if we try to avoid these at any cost, we turn into curled-up hedgehogs, pushing away all that we really want — to experience the world fully and let our true selves be seen.
Vulnerability vs. Self-exposure.
I used to think of vulnerability as a very self-destructive concept; I thought that opening yourself to others was like giving them a perfect opportunity to hit you exactly where it hurts.
Now I’m realising that there’s a difference between being healthily vulnerable and over-exposed.
Healthy vulnerability (or what Brown calls Wholeheartedness) is the courage to show up as your authentic self — with your fears, weaknesses, and pain points — whilst also being resilient to hurt.
Over-exposure, in turn, is having no scrutiny in who we become vulnerable with, without building a strong foundation within ourselves to rest upon when we’ve been hurt.
Over the years, I’ve choosen wrongly, and exposed my wounds to those who were likely to poke them. But I was also lucky enough to meet people — often complete strangers — who respected and honoursed my vulnerability;
And those people showed me that only through daring to become truly vulnerable, we can build real, lasting connections.
You are worthy.
I used to think that I have to do something special to deserve to be loved, respected, accepted; and the few times someone didn’t show me love, respect, or acceptance, I would blame myself for it and turn it into a belief: there must be something wrong about me.
The more I study yogic philosophy, though, the more I realise that we are all worthy. To quote Buddha:
You can search the entire universe and never find a single being more worthy of love than you.
This, of course, doesn’t give you the permission to be a shitty human; but it helps reconcile with instances when your vulnerability isn’t met with respect and care.
If someone you carefully selected to be “real” with, doesn’t appreciate the uniqueness and beauty in your cracks, they aren’t “your people”.
I start all my yoga classes with a quote that deeply moved me that week. Last week, it was a quote from a children’s book by Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit. It very beautifully summarises what being Wholehearted — or healthily vulnerable — really means.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthfull. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”