‘Our willingness to be vulnerable
is at the heart of our ability to give and receive love.’
In my last post, The Burden of Truth, I brought up some ideas and questions that I hoped would serve to launch people into a deeper inquiry on the subject of truth. More importantly, I wanted it to serve as a catalyst that might help us get back in touch with and become more consciously aware of what we genuinely think and feel. This is something many of us have been conditioned to deny, minimize, and suppress in many ways in order to cope throughout life. Basically, the post was a call to action in reclaiming an essential part of ourselves that we may have unknowingly been taught to disown.
This leads to a subject that has been very difficult for me to write about since my last post…
The dilemma of vulnerability is not new for me. It is something I’ve wrestled with in various ways off and on throughout most of my life. For me, feeling vulnerable is much like a two-sided coin or a double-edged sword, depending on what angle I happen to be looking at it. So I’ve decided to share something vulnerable about myself not because I wish to dwell on the past, but with conscious intention to be an example of it in action so that it might help others. I also share it because it does touch on some similar fears I’ve had to contend with in the present. So it seems to be highly relevant.
On the one hand, the nature of my own vulnerability reveals the birthplace of terror, suffering, shame and pain in childhood. On the other, there are occasions when my vulnerability became the bridge to genuine connection with others. It also became the gateway to a measure of rebirth and healing when I was able to reveal parts of myself that had been locked in hiding underneath the layers of masks I had to create in order to survive.
- What parts of yourself have you had to lock away in life?
- Which parts have you been able to safely bring out into the light?
- Which parts of you might still be hiding?
Recently, Dan Rockwell, author of the popular Leadership Freak blog, wrote a post called The Secret Power of Vulnerability. He asked a very important question, which I believe to be at the heart of the vulnerability dilemma.
‘If you reveal your real self, what’s left if it’s rejected?’
We either have to go dwell in a cave somewhere in isolation. Or we learn to hide the parts of ourselves that have been rejected. We create and don a multitude of masks to adjust to the people and environments we live and work in. I don’t mean to imply that adjusting to certain levels of appropriate behavior in order to get along well with others is at issue here. I’m referring to having to deny the very essence of our true selves that makes us who we are at our core. Or the parts of us that were shamed for having legitimate needs and feelings.
If sharing our honest thoughts and feelings were rejected
by the most significant people in our lives,
we learn to hide them.
For example, if they were hurting us, we may not have been allowed to register our ‘no’. We may not have been allowed to safely express, ‘This hurts. This is not acceptable to me.’ Or if we did, we may have been punished for it. We may have learned to deny our own pain and allow others to violate us because we may have had no choice or other options at the time.
It may have meant cutting off and detaching from our own internal world of feelings in order to cope. Our very own personal navigation system. If so, this comes at a very steep price because in order to belong, we may have had to disown ourselves just to survive it.
‘The love I gained with such uphill effort and self-defacement was not meant for me at all but for the me I created to please them.’
- In what ways did you have to change in order to gain the approval of others or to receive their love and acceptance?
- What feelings were you forced to hide or repress most often? Do you still have to hide them today?
- In what ways are you still playing the same roles in order to obtain love that has never touched the real you because you’ve had to be somebody else to them?
- Who are you allowed to be yourself with most often without excessive fear?
Up until the age of 18, that is how I lived. The real me had to take a backseat. More then that, it was locked up in some dark closet somewhere deep inside. When, at one point, I was considered to be a bright, smiling, loving, enthusiastic child (even despite my circumstances), I turned into an empty shell. I withdrew for a spell. Pulled inward. It got to the point where I couldn’t even raise my hand in class anymore in grade school because I was terrified of calling attention to myself. Any attention.
If I could have become invisible at that point, I would have.
I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening to me at home. Not even my best friend. I could barely allow it to register myself when my step-father began raping me at the age of 7. And whenever he was finished with me, I was forced to ACT as if nothing happened. I had to pretend that I wasn’t dying inside. I had to put a fake smile on my face so that no one would know anything was wrong. Keep other people ‘happy’ at all costs. Don’t make anyone angry, especially my step-father.
‘Wind in time,
rapes the flower trembling on the vine.
Nothing yields to shelter it.’
I learned quite a bit during those years. I learned that no matter what I did. No matter how much I smiled and tried to keep everyone else happy. No matter how much I tried to be ‘good’ and obedient. No matter how good my grades were. No matter how well I did in band or sports. No matter how hard I worked outside of school to ‘earn my keep’ for fear that I would be abandoned again if I required too much. No matter how hard I prayed at night and begged God to help me as I cried myself to sleep. It was never enough to stop abuse or earn me any amount of genuine love and acceptance from the people I needed it from the most.
Even when we went to church.
I’d hear the words, ‘God loves you. He will provide for all of your needs.’ And they fell flat on my wounded heart and mind. They carried no genuine meaning to me because they didn’t make one damn bit of difference to the hell I was living through at the time. Yet, what did I know? I was just a child. Maybe everyone else was right and I somehow missed the boat when it came to God’s good love, mercy, and grace.
These were a difficult bag of beliefs to contend with in the face of what I was experiencing. They didn’t compute or match my reality at all. The only version of God I came to know from childhood was in the form of multiple abandonments, abuse, and rape. And not even then did it feel like genuine love to me in any way, shape, or form. Yet it was all I knew. The positive aspects of love were nothing more then fairy tales to me. Fiction.
Fortunately, at the age of 18, I was able to bring part of myself out of the closet and safely reveal her to the man who eventually became my husband. I remember feeling so ashamed when I told him about what happened to me. I was afraid that once he knew, he wouldn’t want me anymore. I really loved and cared about him so I was able to override the terror I felt and took the risk to do it. To face his rejection, if need be. In my heart and mind, the sooner I told him, the better. No sense in prolonging the agony.
So I did. I told him all of the things I thought would repel him in complete disgust. And as I expected him to find some lame excuse to make a quick exit out of my life, he surprised me and did the complete opposite. He stayed. He accepted all of me and embraced me fully with a compassion I had never known before.
I was able to find a measure of happiness
in the genuine connection, love, and acceptance
offered by another perfectly imperfect
It wasn’t something I ‘did’ by myself or found all on my own. Yes, I had to take the risk to be vulnerable but there was still another real live human being involved. After all, we aren’t islands unto ourselves. And here’s the thing. The man I married was not a saint. His name wasn’t Jesus, Gandhi, or Buddha. His name was Gary Neal Hall. He was not the President of the United States or the CEO of his own company. He didn’t even come from a wealthy family. He was simply a young man filled with genuine love. For me. He was willing to share his whole heart. With me. And that is what reached my own.
I didn’t learn about genuine love, compassion, and mercy from a church or out of a book. I began to learn about real love from the man who became my husband.
It was because I found someone who was able to receive me and all of my own vulnerability without feeling threatened that helped create the safety I needed that disarmed many of my defenses. The major ones were no longer necessary with him. It was finally safe to be myself. At least with him at the time.
Brene Brown has done some profound work on the subject of vulnerability. In her TedTalk, The Power of Vulnerability, she mentioned how shame is at the heart of our issues with connection. Shame is our fear of disconnection if we reveal who we really are, or share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves. She said,
‘Is there something about me that if people see that I somehow won’t be worthy of connection? What underpinned this shame, ‘I’m not good enough’, was excruciating vulnerability. In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.’ ~Brene Brown
And that was at the very heart of my fear in initially sharing myself with my future husband. Yet it’s not my dilemma alone. Many share this same struggle with vulnerability. Each of us, in our own ways, have had our struggles with that internal question,
‘If I show you who I am, or share something vulnerable about myself, will you still accept me?’
Are you a safe person that I can open up to?’
Well, many of us already know that not everyone is safe. Not everyone is trustworthy. Not everyone has our best interests at heart. Not everyone is at a place where they can safely handle the truths of others, let alone their own.
It takes a safe environment with non-shaming people in order to reveal the most vulnerable and fragile parts of ourselves without doing more damage. Or having tender hearts harden once again in the face of rejection or indifference when attempting to be vulnerable.
Sometimes, other people cannot receive what we share because we trigger their own unresolved fear. It’s not that others are necessarily bad people if they react by rejecting us or what we’ve shared. Sometimes, our information triggers too much terror inside of themselves that they aren’t yet ready for. And although it is not easy, especially if we are in great need and feeling very fragile, we CAN learn to not take the reactions of others so personally.
It takes time to get to a place like that so be patient with yourself if you still struggle with taking things personally.
One of the main reasons why I struggled with writing this post on vulnerability was for this one simple fact. It’s now over 20 years later and I find myself wrestling with some of these same fears once again now that my husband has passed away. His presence in my life calmed many of those early year fears. Now that he is gone, and although I have our memories together, I’ve still lost my closest friend, mirror, and witness in life. The one who knew me more then anyone else, including my own family. So some of those ancient fears can come rushing forth with a vengeance at times and need to be tackled all over again.
Although this is only part of my own story on vulnerability, I know I’m not alone. All of us in some form or another struggle with feelings of vulnerability at times. I wholeheartedly believe that in order for humanity to move forward, we must all become more willing to take the risks needed to learn to be more vulnerable with each other in order to evolve. Yet not even this is something that can be forced as fear can be immobilizing. We can’t reason ourselves out of fear when it is present.
We must learn how to BE with our fear when it arises and learn to give it enough space for gentle inquiry.
So this isn’t a post on how to ‘do’ vulnerability. This isn’t about doing it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is more about a willingness to recognize it. In ourselves and others. To find compassion for the ways we’ve had to protect ourselves from being vulnerable. Whether you were a soldier on the battlefield at one time, or a survivor of child abuse or some other circumstance that caused you to detach from the most authentic parts of yourself in order to survive…vulnerability is a challenging issue that requires immense patience, love, and compassion in a safe environment without shame in order to effectively heal and evolve.
So I’ll go first in saying…..I feel vulnerable sometimes. Do you?
Questions for Further Reflection:
- I feel vulnerable when ________. Try a sentence completion and write down what comes up for you.
- What people do you feel vulnerable around the most and why?
- What is your most common coping/defense mechanisms when you feel vulnerable?
- When you feel vulnerable, do you tend to fight or flee situations? Which do you tend to do most often?
- Are there any people in your life you consider to be safe to be vulnerable with? If so, explore what it is about them that helps make you feel safe.
- What is your #1 area of vulnerability in your life right now?
- How difficult or easy is it to feel compassion for yourself for all the ways you have learned to protect yourself against vulnerability?
- Is there someone in your life you want to be more vulnerable with? If so, what perceived risks are involved?
- If you are willing to take the risk to be vulnerable with someone, what can you do to prepare yourself to handle possible rejection?
- Are you willing to accept vulnerability in yourself and others as part of one of the conditions of our human existence? If so, how will this change how you relate to yourself and others?
Additional Related Resources:
Leadership: People Pleaser by Lolly Daskal
Leadership: What We Don’t Know We Don’t Know by Lolly Daskal
Create a 5 Around Group by Jesse Lyn Stoner
The Power and Paradox of Being Open by Scott Mabry
Seeking Truth by Scott Mabry
Meditation on Friday by Dan Oestreich
How to Give a Fishing Lesson by Nic Askew
Behind the Mask by Nic Askew
Fragile by Nic Askew
Closing the Compassion Gap Tedx Talk by Andy Bradley
Vulnerability Is The New Currency by Blair Glaser
What Is Vulnerability by Dr. Alice Chan