Sunday, August 25, 2013

What It Really Means to be Vulnerable

Vulnerable: susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.

Over the years, many people have commented that one of my strengths as a performer is that I'm so vulnerable it gives the audience an opportunity to access their own vulnerability.  I help them to feel and process emotions they otherwise avoid or keep bottled up.  I've been pondering that for quite some time now because that word -- vulnerable -- keeps coming up for me.  Usually it's referred to as a strength, which goes against its very definition.  Over the last few years I have opened up more and more to the point where I feel this unusual sense of power when I am being vulnerable.  I don't feel weak.  I feel bulletproof. 

A year or so ago, a friend who had recently been diagnosed with cancer said in casual conversation that I am the bravest person she knows.  That floored me, and triggered something deep in me that reduced me to tears.  What on Earth could someone with bigger, scarier problems than I have see in me that would lead them to say something like that?  I'm not brave, I'm terrified every day.  I'm constantly putting myself in situations that are uncomfortable for me.  I force myself through the discomfort because what I want is on the other side.

A-ha... Isn't that the definition of bravery, to face your fears, to put yourself in uncomfortable situations because you know you must in order to act with integrity or to follow your dreams?

She explained that I don't let anything get in the way of what I want.  I don't write myself off.  I show up.  I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, even when I'm afraid... especially when I'm afraid.  I had never considered this, and certainly never thought of myself as courageous. 

After the Sandy Hook shootings, I saw a powerful  interview with the mother of one of the children who was killed.  She glowed with love and pride as she spoke of her child and her voice held so much power and certainty.  It was so unusual to see someone who had suffered something so unspeakable relating their feelings in a way that was, for lack of a better word, empowering.  Then she said something that struck me personally.  I'm paraphrasing here since it's obviously been awhile since I saw the interview, but this is the gist of what she expressed.  She said when you experience a loss so great, you gain a kind of fearlessness. You can't be hurt any more than you already are.  You have nothing more to lose and there is a freedom in that. 

My losses have not been so great, but they have taken me close enough to the bottom to feel the fearlessness that comes from the rawness of being laid open by grief.  I've even written a song about that experience, Phoenix (Sleep Without Dreams).  There's no weakness there.  You have felt such hurt that you are amazed that you are still alive.  For better or worse, you feel invincible.  All the petty fears that loomed so large before your loss are forgotten.  There is nothing left to be afraid of. 

I have tried to explain this epiphany to several people and it seems the ones who really understand it are those who have faced loss themselves.  We have talked of Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey, of the metaphorical death and rebirth in the cycle of our journeys.  It is a personal redemption as we process our losses, shed the trappings of the world that no longer hold power over us, and attune to our inner strength.  Letting ourselves be laid bare and vulnerable realigns us with our authentic selves and our soul's purpose.

So, just as I've finally come to my own understanding of what it really means to be vulnerable, I hear an interview with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, on the TED Radio Hour on NPR.  Some of her quotes that grabbed me:

  • Vulnerability is not weakness.
  • Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.
  • Embedded in real vulnerability is an honest raw bid for connection.
  • You cannot selectively numb.  When we numb vulnerability, we numb joy, gratitude, and happiness.
  • Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.
In her second TED Talk, Brené ties vulnerability to shame and our fear that if others see us as we truly are, we will be found unworthy and unlovable.  We will face disconnection from others, which is the most terrifying fear we possess as social beings who rely on connection for our very survival.  

I have discovered over the course of the last few years that being authentic and expressing my own vulnerability is a means for me to really experience my worthiness.  I'm afraid when I open myself up, I will be be found lacking and will be abandoned.  But that has not been my experience.  My experience has been that when I am authentic others embrace me and they open up, too.  And those few who do abandon me are replaced exponentially by those who recognize themselves in my struggles. I have become part of a support network of "the Whole-Hearted," as Brené has named them.  The Whole-Hearted are people who feel worthy.  The more I challenge that part of me that feels unworthy, the more I call it out and name it, the more worthy I feel and the more whole-hearted I become.

Brené found in her research that the Whole-Hearted have the following in common:

  • They have the courage to be imperfect.
  • They have the compassion to be kind to themselves and others.
  • They have connection as a result of authenticity.
  • They fully embrace vulnerability.  They believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful. 

If any of this resonates with you or piques your curiosity, I strongly encourage you to listen to the NPR interview with Brené, and both her TED talks (the most recent is at the top of the page and the earlier one is further below): 

I hope you will share your thoughts and insights with me below.