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Emotional Vulnerability Is Key For Whole-hearted Living, Leadership and Love

In last week’s blog we shared a particular facet of human vulnerability some of us might inherit or develop and how to keep ourselves ‘safe’. In this week’s blog, we take another direction and share how, in order to have true happiness, wellbeing and love , cultivating emotional vulnerability is key.

The concept of ‘vulnerability’ and to be more precise ‘emotional vulnerability’ has truly entered our public lexicon and common consciousness thanks, in part, to Dr Brown’s (a Texan vulnerability and shame researcher) pioneering work. Some of you might have read her widely sold books based on her research, or even watched the Netflix documentary or TedTalk on Vulnerability which has garnered over 6 million views.

Vulnerability goes hand in hand with ‘intimacy’ or the art of being open and authentic to build meaningful relationships to connect with others. This is true of all spheres and is a key factor in business and sales too. Since human relationships are the last bastion of human superiority over machines, and what makes us so complex and beautiful, understanding vulnerability, learning the language of emotions are key in today’s highly volatile environments.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Dr Brene Brown

Those of us Brits, will feel a kinship with Dr Brown. She reported a kinship with us Brits, and said with much humour “in some ways Texans are like you (the Brits). We’re probably more like the boots-on-the-ground version of y’all. We look at people on the West Coast and East Coast who are much more therapy-centred with some distrust – like, “Get your s— together, soldier on, suck it up.”

Dr Brown’s Research Findings: Wholeheartedness

Dr Brown’s vulnerability research, started just before 9/11, is ground-breaking. She reported that in the middle of her project she suffered a very real emotional breakdown for a whole year thinking “she was going crazy”. She saw her therapist who advised her to “embrace her vulnerability” to which she replied “screw that”. In her own words she shared:

“I was raised in a family where vulnerability was barely tolerated: no training wheels on our bicycles, no goggles in the pool, just get it done. And so I grew up not only with discomfort about my own vulnerability, I didn’t care for it in other people either.’

After interviewing over 1000 people for her research, Dr Brown was surprised to discover that there was only one variable separating the group of people who felt a strong sense of love and belonging from those who did not: they believed they were worthy of love, belonging and connection. She felt that “wholeheartedness” best described the shared experience of this group of people. In her own words, findings from her research highlighted:

“Wholehearted people live from a deep sense of worthiness. What they had in common is a sense of courage, from the Latin word “cor” meaning heart. They had courage to tell the story of who they are with their own heart. They had the courage to be imperfect, the compassion to be kind to themselves first (and then with others), and they had connection as a result of authenticity.

They were willing to let go of who they should be in order to be who they are. They also fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They did not talk about vulnerability as comfortable or excruciating (as in those felt shame). They were simply willing to do something where there were no guarantees.”

Photo: Mattheus Ferrero

Being Human is Being Vulnerable

“It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.” John Steinbeck

So what is Vulnerability?

We all constantly live with this undercurrent that we are flawed, that we are not ok, not enough, that deep inside we are very bad and ugly and that one day someone will find us out. Vulnerability could mean a fear of being rejected, humiliated, of lovers and loved ones leaving or rejecting us. Maybe it is about finances, a fear of not being able to provide for ourselves and our family, of not making ends meet in a VUCA (volatile Unpredictable Complex Ambiguous) economy.

Photo: Alex Iby

And so we create a persona to be liked, we put on our armour and our masks, so that we are accepted by others. We have very good reasons for this. We might have been hurt, bullied or rejected so many times when we showed our true self and so it feels safer to be who we think others want to see…until, like Dr Brown has admitted, one day we can no longer keep up appearances. This is where our work begins…and the real journey (of the Self) starts, as it did for Dr Brown. When she discovered that her most feared and ugly quality (her vulnerability) was her gift, all changed for her.

Dr Brown defines vulnerability as something which “sounds like the truth and courage, which aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness’.

It expresses itself through our feelings and is universal. Humans are inherently vulnerable with the hardest part of us, our skeleton and bones, being inside us, covered by our most tender parts, our flesh and blood. We are all vulnerable. We are all going to die and it is natural to feel worried about this.

Photo: Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, life-long partners

Dr Brown adds that although vulnerability and shame are deeply human emotions, she believes that the expectations that drive shame are organised by gender.

She states:

“For women it is expressed as ‘Do it all, do it perfectly and never look as if you’re working very hard’. And for men it’s ‘Don’t be perceived as weak’.”

So we tense up, we clench and protect our most vulnerable and tender parts – our heart and soul (or essence). We’re doing all we can (sometimes to the point of our own ill-health) to make sure we and our loved ones have what we believe we need, so that we are safe, protected and loved. We so much depend on others for our survival and wellbeing (we are wired this way) and we desperately need others to accept us. We look up to social cues and we do all we can to not deviate from it – to look right, say the right things, meet those often impossible standards….

Photo: Bruno Aguire

Unfortunately, in that process we also change our personalities, we wear masks, we ignore vital feelings and emotions (our own body organism sending us important clues about our wellbeing) so vital is our need to belong and be loved.

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Helen Keller

Why Being Emotionally Vulnerable Is Important

Research shows that individuals process pain differently when they hold the hand of a significant other with whom they have a “securely attached” connection, one where there is mutual trust, deep care and loving kindness, as opposed to those who are in anxious or “insecurely attached” relationships. Pain does not register as strongly in those who have a loving connection with loved ones. The same is true of stress, anxiety and other negative thoughts or emotions.

British Psychologist and “attachment theory” researcher, Dr John Bowlby demonstrated in his work that our need to feel safe, connected and to create mutually protective alliances with others and loved ones is vital. Vulnerability and trust play a crucial role in creating a secure attachment. In any type of mutually beneficial and successful (happy) relationship both parties have awareness of the importance of the partnership and care about the other party equally. It prioritises “the partnership” (relationship) over just “the self first”. During more difficult times, the quality of this partnership means that if assistance is needed, it is sought from the relationship seen as a secure base. The connection is authentic and based on trust and deep respect. It is rooted within “long-termism” rather than “short-termism”, meaning that partners agree to invest in the connection, to return to the connection and to nurture a safe relationship space. Building a safe relationship space is a vital element of successful relationships.

Our challenge, which we can overcome, is to understand that to be human is to have armours but that we can put them down. We have very strong wiring for survival, which is our default system. To armour, to run away, to not feel uncomfortable experiences, including love, which although it is what all deeply crave, is also deeply feared, might have played a part in our survival. If our ancestors did not have that instinct in prehistoric times we would not be alive! However, there is no need to run away today.

Softening Our Armours

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” 


Sigmund Freud

Photo: Henry Hustava

Dr Brown believes there are three types of armours we use to protect ourselves from vulnerability:

  1. Perfectionism (doing everything perfectly)
  2. Numbing (using substances -alcohol, drugs, food – or processes – work, over-partying or over-socialising for ex, to deaden true feeling) and
  3. ‘Foreboding joy’: closing up when we feel overjoyed because of the dread that kills happiness. For ex Dr Brown thought she was the only mother who would feel overwhelming love at watching her kids sleep and then complete dread when allowing herself to think the worst would happen to them.
Photo: Conathan Hoxmark

“Integrity means you choose courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.” Dr Brene Brown

What she discovered, was that we can’t selectively numb painful emotions whilst retaining positive ones. Pain and joy are in the same place: the heart. By numbing pain we also numb joy., therefore pushing the love and connection we so crave away.

Living life like this reduces our experience. It’s keeping us small, preventing us from reaching our full potential to live our best life. When we allow ourselves to stop, we know, deep down, that we do this, and we know, who we truly are. Dr Tara Brach defines it as our “lives having become ensnared in this trance of unworthiness”. Learning to accept ourselves, to know that we are worthy, with all our apparent imperfections is our first step toward reconnecting with who we really are and what it means to live fully. 

And so, the only way to have freedom is by opening to that sense of vulnerability. Through opening to vulnerability we have the capacity to love and be loved.

The answer therefore is to soften for just a little bit more each time we want to run away or close up.

We meet ourselves on the edge of ourselves.

6 Steps to Increase Our Capacity for Vulnerability

“The bottom line is that our capacity to be whole-hearted can never be greater than our willingness to be broken- hearted. “

Dr Brene Brown

  1. Be Clear About Your Values

Dr Brown suggests to be very mindful and clear about your values and to set your intention as soon as you wake up in the morning. The reason for this is that when times are harder it is much more difficult to be “knocked down” from that deeply anchored place.

When you wake up in the morning take a few minutes to greet yourself and to remind yourself of your values. Set your intention when you first get up in the morning to be mindful of your thoughts every moment of every day.

2. Offer Non-judgemental Presence

We can stop for a second and make the choice to soften. We give presence to what’s presence, we try to not ‘protect’ for just 2 or 3 seconds. We increase our tolerance for discomfort just a little bit longer each day.

We tend to fear the judgments of others if we judge ourselves harshly. As I have written extensively in many of my blog posts and especially in ‘Being Kind to Ourselves’, in Westernised society, we have been conditioned to ‘keep calm and keep going’ and that we must feel good at all cost. This is where we become ‘needy’ of others’ approval, validation and for someone else to tell us we are ok.

“Don’t grab hurtful comments and pull them close to you by rereading them and ruminating on them.

Don’t play with them by rehearsing your badass comeback.

And whatever you do, don’t pull hatefulness close to your heart. Let what’s unproductive and hurtful drop at the feet of your unarmored self.
And no matter how much your self-doubt wants to scoop up the criticism and snuggle with the negativity so it can confirm its worst fears, or how eager the shame gremlins are to use the hurt to fortify your armor.

Take a deep breath and find the strength to leave what’s mean-spirited on the ground. You don’t even need to stomp it or kick it away. Cruelty is cheap, easy, and chickenshit. It doesn’t deserve your energy or engagement.

Just step over the comments and keep daring, always remembering that armor is too heavy a price to pay to engage with cheap-seat feedback.”

Dr Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.

3. Practice Acceptance

We recognise what is present and we open to it. We get curious. In some modalities like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Focusing, Inner Bonding we get very curious with our (physiological) emotional responses. This looks like ” I’ve just been hijacked by strong emotions. Hmm I get very curious. What triggered me, what’s the story behind it, do I have all the facts?’ etc.

Mindfulness helps with this. We say “yes’ and become curious with our experience instead of ‘no’. When we feel vulnerability, we decide to pause, sense what’s happening and say yes, we feel it. We try even 2 or 3 seconds more each time when the discomfort appears. We start feeling our emotions and investigating the thoughts behind it and what we are telling ourselves. We make this a regular practice.

4. Learn Emotional Literacy and Emotional Physiological Responses

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl

We have full control over ourselves, our thoughts and our feelings. There is a moment, a few seconds, where we can stop before reacting, as Dr Frankl observed. We learn languages of emotions. Accepting the way we are, doesn’t mean we indulge our negative self-talk. We practice pausing. It also means spending time with ourselves, by ourselves, developing our gifts and talents and what brings us joy, owning our power and not giving it away.

5. Practice Self-compassion

Another key finding in Dr Brown’s research is that we really can’t offer people more compassion than we have for ourselves. This is because in order for us to tolerate imperfection and vulnerability in other people, we have to be able to accept what is imperfect in ourselves.

One practice we can do straight away is to remember ourselves as a little boy or girl aged 2 or 3 years old. You can find a picture of yourself at that age and bring kindness to yourselves. If that little child makes a mistake or wants to share their excitement, how would the adult you react? When we fall short, when we get irritated, we imagine our younger self coming to us asking for advice and we offer kindness rather than judgement.

Photo: Priscilla Du Preez

6. Let Go Of Limiting Self-Beliefs and Past Identities

Letting go of the past and learning to own our strength in order to be vulnerable in life is the greatest thing we can do for ourselves. Not being who we are on the inside is very lonely.

A willingness to be vulnerable is a crucial ingredient of lasting relationships — not just romantic and personal ones, but in other contexts too – where both parties respect each other and see other as allies.

Whole-hearted Leadership

Dr Brown defines wholehearted leadership as the capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivating courage and compassion. From ‘Daring Greatly’ , here is her manifesto:

  • We are worthy, valued and valuable.
  • We will demonstrate our values through our words and actions, by how we treat each other and ourselves.
  • We will engage with each other, our clients, our stakeholders and the wider community from a place of worthiness and respect.
  • We will practice courage by showing up, speaking up with authenticity, compassion and vulnerability.
  • We will share our stories of success and failures with courage from the heart.
  • We take responsibility by being open to learning and by being accountable.

Leading as a whole-hearted individual means empowering ourselves with our whole hearts and to dare greatly.

Both men and women are on a journey. So much of our behaviour is socially learnt, genderised and constructed by social conditioning. Moreover, much of our “wounding” occurred in relationship to others and often with people who we loved deeply (we open to see this without blame), by lack of adequate parenting (they did the best they knew how) and by not knowing or learning how to communicate with significant others. The antidote is therefore to re-learn and heal in relationship.

We have an opportunity for healing and transforming when we can share the truth with each other. We find there is a tenderness, respect and love that is very possible.

We can try to turn towards others and each other and re-definite a new way of relating, which is more authentic.

Trust and Reliability

I wish to add, that, often, when the hurts have been too deep and too overwhelming, as Dr Brene Brown herself shared, and as it has been the case for me, we can not be vulnerable with others alone. It is recommended to seek support and help with compassionate therapists, counsellors and facilitators who have developed self-compassion.

It is also recommended to be very mindful and discerning before we share our most tender selves, especially if, others or the environments in which find ourselves are closed, harsh, critical and judgemental. Dr Brown likens trust to how school kids earn “marbles” and the practice of “marble jars”. We do need to be discerning and check-in with ourselves to determine if it is safe to open, to do so with those who have shown themselves to be worthy of our trust. Trust, Dr Brown added, is something that is earned over time and in the “smallest moments”. An employer enquires genuinely about a sick relative, a friend greets our loved ones at a party, another acquaintance calls for help, a friend is able to be generous when we have a moment of weakness…these are example of small moments of trust which happen consistently over time, not as “one-offs” or in the excitement of early relating.

The challenges and opportunities, which lie before us, individuals and organisations, therefore include how we can become worthy of others’ trust so that they feel safe enough to be their authentic and whole-hearted selves. Equally, the more we develop trust within ourself, the more authentic we become with others.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ~ Dr Brené Brown

References

Bowlby, J. (1983) Attachment. 1983: Basic Books.

Brach, T. (2004) Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. Bantam.

Brown, B. (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden.

Brown, B. (2018) Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery.

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