Vulnerability is a hot topic these days. It's right up there with being authentic and a spiritual gangster.
I'll share what thoughts I have from my ever-changing and rapidly evolving life experience and those of my clients.
Vulnerability feels like a real sonofabitch paradox mostly because it is one. As Brene Brown has expounded, to be vulnerable means to open ourselves to be wounded or hurt. And who the hell wants that? When many people think of the word vulnerability, they might immediately think of a romantic relationship. They might think of opening their heart to a stranger and, hoping the lust would actually be real love, showed something tender and true about their physical or mental state and trusted it would be safe.
And then it wasn't.
And that felt horrible so they fear being hurt again. Rejected. Humiliated. Demeaned. Disrespected. And any other similar kind of word for the experience of wanting to disappear in the hole in the floor. Let's also throw in invalidated, infantilized and invisibilized. Any of those unfamiliar? Stay with me, I'll explain. Because vulnerability extends far beyond romantic relationships.
Who wants that experience of being hurt? Who would choose any of that on purpose? But the irony is, the more we avoid the hurt, the more hurt we become. What we seek to avoid, we experience in greater amounts. The more we try to protect ourselves, the more we bear the weight of a life half-lived. Instead of being vulnerable, or opening ourselves up to more hurt, we try more each day to cover and protect what feels ugly or uncomfortable or broken until each and every person becomes a threat. Colleagues, friends, family, strangers on the street, even trolls on social media! Even though we all know not to take trolls personally or seriously, we let them penetrate and puncture our wee hearts.
If it's something we all crave, why does it often feel so impossible to find or feel?
The way I see it, vulnerability often feels impossible for these reasons:
1) People can't give you what they aren't giving themselves. This goes for most human beings because we can only give what we've been taught or have been given ourselves and that's all based on a limited range of what people of different identities actually need. Yes, we're all human and share the same underlying basic needs but there are also variations based on internal or external differences. Many people lack the self-awareness to know or the discipline necessary to fulfill their own needs. Don't fall for appearances of what it looks like people are doing or being or having. In fact, sometimes the flashier the show, the worse the actual conditions. The truth is, most people lack the capacity to face and deal with their own suffering and then here we come along, trying to get a little bit of airtime for our grievances. But you can't draw water from a dry well and it ends up making your thirst for validation and support even worse. You try to get support and see how everyone's clamoring for some wood to cling to, like the sinking scene in Titanic. For the most part, we're all Rose with no room for Jack.
2) People really suck at listening. They just really do. Most conversation is two people competing to be heard so we spend more time waiting for the other person to take a breath so we can say, "yeah, and here's what's happening in my life," or "here's what I think about what you said" or "let me fix that for you" than we do listening to what's coming out of the person's mouth.
And even if we don't actually say it, we're thinking it. Often without even being AWARE of how much we're judging and assessing and filtering and wondering, we're hardly being present at all. Being a coach changed this about me over eight years, and not as quickly or as thoroughly as I'd prefer most days. But it's better than it was.
People don't or can't listen for so many reasons so it often feels impossible to open up and share because there's no space for it. We can barely get a sentence out before someone's swooping in with some cliche bullshit or make it about them. There's relating and then there's hijacking the conversation to make it about them and the line is fine like spider twine. Most people lack the self-awareness to even know the difference.
3) People patronize to maintain power. People seek to maintain control and have power to avoid feeling out of control. Being out of control means being vulnerable so some people determine other people to be less than to maintain a feeling of power and control. We experience this as momsplaining and mansplaining, both of which create a power differential that is neither pleasant nor supportive. Yes, women and men and folks of all genders in-between, are guilty of being patronizing to those they deem less than.
When all we need is to be heard, unsolicited advice lands as condescending and patronizing. And then, when we try to be vulnerable and express that it's occuring that way to us, those people respond with more defensiveness. Why? Because the advice is never really for us. It's to make the other person feel better. It's their need to control the conversation OR the feelings your pain is triggering within them. I didn't really experience momsplaining until I transitioned, or if I did I don't think I noticed it. My own mother didn't do it much, mostly because she hardly listens to what I say. See #1 and #2 above. And she, like most people, jumped to fixing or judging or invalidating whatever tender truth I was trying to share. So, this new experience of momsplaining feels incredibly gross to me, especially when I'm sharing from my own, fully-formed truth to inspire or encourage people as an adult and as a professional coach. When I share vulnerably from my life in my work or on social media, I'm not doing it because I seek validation or support. I'm doing it so other people don't feel alone. For so many reasons, people (mostly women) jump in and instead of sharing how they resonate with what I said or how it inspired them, like they do with male or female peers of mine, they write or say things to take care of me which would be so nice if it didn't publicly erode my credibility as a mature professional sharing vulnerably to help other people. Perhaps since vulnerability is so rare, especially coming from the mouths of men (or male-perceived individuals) women often jump in to save me from the perils of my own self-awareness. They infantilize me, projecting an image of their lost or lonely son onto me. My status of self-employed professional coach is smothered under their need to stop the bleeding, even though I'm happy to let it flow from my open heart.
I can both appreciate their intentions and candidly name this is problematic behavior. This is one example but people of many different identities experience similar dynamics of being invalidated, infantilized or invisibilized by other people who seek to maintain some sort of power differential based on appearances, long-standing cultural norms and status.
4) People just can't hold space. This is similar to listening, but it's what happens after we express ourselves. It's the moment when we've shared something and it isn't what people expected to hear, and what they do as a result. Holding space is about just being with whatever comes out of a person's mouth. It's a skill to develop because people often just need to say something that's true in a moment of time. It isn't an indictment of who we've always been or will forever be, but it's a realization or an epiphany or unearthed truth. And most people, because of the reasons I explained above, just can't hang for a second. The energy of such raw, honest self-awareness is rare and powerful and most people lack the capacity to hang out and be with it.
When we're vulnerable and we claim our voice and our power, it frightens people. The truth we share may be a bit more than they can bear because they rarely do this for themselves.
That's why it often feels impossible to be vulnerable. We open ourselves to be wounded and people swoop in and hurt us, unknowingly, from their own need to protect themselves. In their own attempt to hold up the dam, they attempt to slam the doors shut on our freedom and self-expression.
These are a few reasons why it often feels impossible to be vulnerable and you can see it mostly involves coming up against the limitation of other people. It feels impossible because we have unrealistic expectations of other humans. We think they are less broken or fragile or inept than we are. We think they have it all together because they try to convince us of that or because we fantasize that they do.
It often feels impossible to be vulnerable because we measure our risk of opening up against our hopes of what people can hold and the reality of how few resources folks have hits us really hard. The hurt we feel is perhaps our realization and disappointment that none of us have as much to give as we all really need.
So we need to be vulnerable knowing this.
Being vulnerable knowing most others can't be is real freedom. When you can do it, it's pretty awe-inspiring.
It's what we all hope to feel and experience with another human being, the actual potential of vulnerability, the leaping and landing safely in the presence of another.
And while it may feel impossible, it isn't. We just need more practice doing and being it with each other. And therein lies the rub.
Are you up to the project of learning how to be that safe place to land for yourself and others?
The reward is worth the work and heartache involved. Trust me.