“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Madeleine L'Engle.
For some time there has been a question percolating away at the back of my mind. That question was about how to reconcile the contradiction of vulnerability.
In the Western world we are taught that vulnerability is a weakness. Individuality and self-sufficiency is highly prized and aspired to.
That belief is reflected in so many areas of life. More and more we live in cities of millions of people but locked away in self-contained apartments.
We don’t speak to our neighbours. We put up fences and trees so we can have our privacy, we don't want to be seen.
We need protection. We don’t let people know what they really mean to us in case they don’t reciprocate. Power is everything and to be vulnerable is to be powerless.
On the other hand we seem to be deeply drawn to vulnerability.
Listen to the reaction when someone shows a picture of a cute baby or notice the feeling of connection that you feel when someone opens up to you about their weaknesses.
The impulse to help someone in a vulnerable situation is almost irresistible. Vulnerability seems to awaken something deep within us, it appears to be a very powerful force.
It seemed to me that vulnerability may actually be essential to happiness. By vulnerability I don’t mean neediness which can be damaging, I mean the acknowledgment of our weaknesses and of our feelings even though we risk them not being understood or reciprocated. For example, without vulnerability what really connects two people in a relationship?
Then today, I came across a very interesting discussion by Dr Brene Brown called ‘The Power of Vulnerabilty’. Dr Brown is a social science researcher and stumbled across the topic of vulnerability almost by accident. She found it so fascinating that she’s spent the last 10 years studying it.
Broadly peaking, through her research she discovered two groups of people:
The first group have an intense fear of disconnection, underpinned by a feeling of vulnerability.
In fact they describe vulnerability as 'excruciating'. They try valiantly to protect themselves against it using a number of strategies. These strategies may stop them feeling vulnerable but they also rob them of happiness, prevent them being authentic and ironically lead to the disconnection that they fear.
In contrast, the second group of people experienced a strong sense of love and belonging.
This group had some striking things in common. Firstly they had the courage to let go of who they thought they should be and to tell the story of who they really were. This authenticity led to a strong connection with others. Secondly they believed vulnerability was absolutely necessary – the opposite of the fist group who did everything they could to protect against it.
That’s not to say vulnerability was comfortable but they acknowledged it as necessary for connection and happiness.
As humans, from the moment we are born we are vulnerable, actually we don’t really have much choice over that. What we do have a choice over is whether we acknowledge it.
Dr Brown's research confirms what I had started to suspect. ‘Letting ourselves be seen’ as she puts it and acknowledging our vulnerability is an essential prerequisite to connecting with others.
The challenge is that in practice it's not easy. In fact, far from being a weakness, it's perhaps one of the most courageous things we can do.
Image courtesy of Mih