“The original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language, was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” – Brené Brown.
During a recent realisation about how I make my way through the world, this quote, from renowned researcher and speaker Brené Brown, crossed my unsettled path.
The words stopped me in my stride. I had never thought of courage, or indeed vulnerability, in that light before. My mind began to expand with possibilities and my heart dropped the heavy weight that I had not even been aware it was carrying.
As Brené teaches, many of us view vulnerability within ourselves as a weakness, but see it in others as a strength. Ignoring the original definition of courage, and buying into the myth of vulnerability being a fault in ourselves, is profoundly dangerous. Afterall, without the feeling of vulnerability, our world would come to a stand still. Take a moment to really consider how our daily lives are impacted by the elements of vulnerability: emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. Without vulnerability, no one would put forward new ideas, your soulmate would walk past – both of you too scared to make a move, and close friendships would cease to exist.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” – Brené Brown.
So what drives our fear of being vulnerable? Most of the time it is our inner judge or critic who is laughing maliciously at what we see as weaknesses in ourselves. This inner bully jumps to conclusions around how others will view us, that shames us into hiding our true feelings. This is usually the ego’s or the personality’s way of keeping us safe.
Yet, it is vital that we overcome this overly-critical inner demon, to push the shame away, to stand tall in our truth.
“Connection is why we are here, it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives,” Brené explains. “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, means I won’t be worthy of connection?”
Ironically, it is the fear of disconnection that is preventing us from connecting, opening up and being vulnerable. As Brené says, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
She continues, “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.”
I learnt this first hand. For me, the past five months have been difficult. It has felt like my life has been spirling rapidly down a rabbit hole of despondency. Occasionally the spiralling has slowed almost to a stop and I grab hold of the edge, but just as I begin to pull myself up, another boulder collides into me, knocking me down again.
During my adult life, in order to guard myself against the perception of being a young, blonde, emotional woman who needs saving, I have learnt to hide feelings that would be seen as ‘weak’ from those around me. I have tried to only be seen as positive and happy with my life — Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time this is the truth, but I do have some dark moments as well.
At the start of my spiral, I tried to keep a mask on. ‘I can handle this’, I thought. ‘I’m a strong, independent woman. I don’t need help’. I didn’t want to let others see the depth of my struggle, I was ashamed of what I had allowed to happen to me, and I didn’t want to play into the idea of a damsel in distress. So I tried to find the door back to normality by myself – but no key seemed to fit.
Then one day the mask cracked. While meeting some friends at the local market, surrounded by people I knew, I broke down. I let it all out. Tears flooded the serene environment. On the wave of tears was shame. I felt I would suffocate in this emotion. Yet, a subtle shift began murmuring inside, a shift that I did not initially recognise.
I tried to put the mask back in place, but after that day, it just kept slipping off. It no longer fit. I had outgrown it. And that felt good, sometimes scary, but also always good. So I stopped trying to put it on, I took a deep breath and threw it away. And this is when that subtle change began to transform into an internal growth spurt. I stopped feeling weak. Bits of light began to appear in the darkness.
Instead of feeling pitied, my courage grew from those around me who stuck by me, and to my surprise, it was also true vice versa. Once I had vocalised how I felt, it seemed like a wall had been knocked down. Friends I had known for years began to tell how they felt the same, how they had been in a similar situation. And as they told their stories, they too removed their masks. And as each mask came off, we seemed to collectively exhale – and to see one another anew.
“If we are going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path.” – Brené Brown.
My opinion of these friends did not drop with their falling masks, in fact I saw the act as brave and open and honest – to me admirable traits. I realised I also was not the damsel in distress. Through showing my vulnerability, I felt more courageous and connected than ever before.
Since beginning to show more vulnerability, the changes within myself and those around me have been tangible. I now follow Brené’s advice to change my thought patterns from catastrophizing what might happen, to saying to myself, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”
Brené ended one of her famous Ted Talks with a quote that seems to fit the end of this article:
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena (because I think I did it my whole life) and think… ‘I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect.’ And that is seductive. But the truth is, that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster, when you got in there, that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.”
What are your experiences with vulnerability? What has happened when you, or those around you, have opened up? We would love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
With love, courage and vulnerability,