Brené Day and Being Vulnerable
Brené Brown, PhD. is a name you should know. She is a social worker. She is brilliant. She has one of the most viewed TED Talks in ALL of TED Talks. She is a researcher and best-selling author. Her bad-assery is simply unparalleled, in my opinion. Dr. Brown came to Nashville this weekend for "Rising Strong" Day. My Instagram feed was full of face-breaking grins, tears, and long embraces. I heard one of her young protégés say to me that she was experiencing a "Brené-over" on Monday. Unfortunately I was not able to attend the daylong Brené-summit due to my yoga teacher training. But I had enough comrades and colleagues in attendance to feel some of the impact through simple osmosis. Dr. Brown studies something fascinating. She studies shame. And through her research, she's become an expert on the topic of vulnerability. Her visit inspired me to write about this topic.
As a therapist, the word vulnerability is over-represented in my conversations. I have a plethora of synonyms (and near synonyms) that I use all-too regularly. With the rise of Dr. Brown's TED Talk and research, vulnerability is now a more frequented subject (even in popular culture) than when I began my work as a social worker years ago. (Thanks Dr. Brown! This makes the work of therapy a bit easier, and for that I am grateful.) Even with the great publicity that vulnerability has received lately, there is still some difficulty in conceptualizing this elusive and often avoided topic. I often hear people lumping vulnerability with an action, and therefore (unintentionally) avoiding the important lingering process of vulnerability. In my opinion, vulnerability is more of a process than an event. This is the difference between doing something vulnerable and being vulnerable.
If we are all honest, we know what vulnerability feels like. And if we are more honest, we know the process of being vulnerable is more difficult than doing a vulnerable thing. It is a distinct feeling and/or sensation to most of us. To me, it feels a bit "icky." It's that uncomfortable and uneasy feeling that hangs awkwardly in the silence after a vulnerable action. It’s the moments that follow. It's the creepy-crawly-discomfort of exposure and anxiety. It's your defense mechanisms and ego calling your name. It’s remaining in that space, awaiting a response. It’s managing our own expectations, thoughts, and feelings while still being open and willing and ...vulnerable. How often do we describe our vulnerable actions with pride yet fail to discuss the maintenance of our new or shifted way of being? Are we so focused on doing vulnerable things that we are missing the point of remaining that way afterward?
When a knight takes off his armor he is more vulnerable to attack and injury than if he had the armor on, right? Taking the armor off is a vulnerable action. Leaving it off is "being vulnerable." Saying “I love you” for the first time is a vulnerable action. Remaining loving when your partner doesn't say it back is being vulnerable. What about saying, "I miss you and I wish we could re-connect" to an old friend? This is vulnerability. They might not call you back. The friend might not desire the reconnection but not have the courage to say that. Either way, remaining friendly and remaining open to the relationship is where the rubber meets the road. Whether we take off our armor or “say it first” is usually the topic of focus. What if it were more important whether we remained loving after such a disclosure? This would place a priority on being vulnerable. Remaining open to the relationship and to continuing to love that person if they don’t say it back is scary. You’re continuing the vulnerable action in process. You’re opening yourself to harm anyway, because the intimacy is worth the risk. In my opinion, it’s the being vulnerable that really makes or breaks us in the long run, and it’s the being vulnerable that’s really difficult.
Please do not read this to mean that the vulnerable or risky actions are unimportant, because that is not what this is saying. Those actions are so important. Telling the secret (mindfully), sharing the feelings (with care), removing the armor is the vital first step. And...remaining somewhat transformed from this action is equally important. I also do not intend this to mean that I expect people to walk around vulnerable or "armor-less" all the time. To the contrary. I believe mindful and conscious self-protection is healthy and important. In relationships, intimacy grows as pieces of armor come off, and not all relationships deserve the same amount of transparency or vulnerability. Along the same lines, not all actions of vulnerability warrant a continuation. For example, chronic self-disclosure or chronic emotional risk-taking is not healthy vulnerability and does not lead to intimacy. Sometimes it is appropriate to simply take the armor off for one moment and then put that helmet right back on.
What I do hope we take away from this is a different conceptualization of vulnerability. When we evaluate the level of vulnerability in our lives, let us not only wonder if I we have done enough vulnerable things or made enough vulnerable statements. Let us ask ourselves if we have hung out in that uncomfortable spot after those actions, and have we let that space change us for the better? I believe that Dr. Brown's work is teaching us not only to act in ways that are daring, strong and vulnerable, but also teaching us to let those actions change us so that we remain daring, strong and vulnerable. By taking emotional risks safely and mindfully, we can become more adept at being a softer more vulnerable people.
If you are interested in Brenè Brown's new book, Rising Strong, you can check it out at her website.