Some moments stay with us, moments that might seem insignificant, nothing much in the grand scheme of life. Many, many years ago, I was at a college dance, in the washrooms, redoing my make-up or washing my hands or whatever else teenage girls do in washrooms. It’s so long ago, I don’t remember. I do remember the young woman who stumbled into the washrooms, slightly drunk. “That bastard!” she said.
The man she was seeing had either two-timed her, or dumped her for someone else. Her initial anger soon turned to tears, then back to anger, more tears, more anger. Although she was a few years ahead of me and I barely knew her, I tried to soothe her – with inadequate and forgettable words. I might even have used the clichéd line: “He’s not worth it.”
Her reply was more memorable. “I’m never going to be hurt like this again. I’m going to harden my heart.”
“No,” I said. “Don’t harden your heart. That won’t help you.”
At nineteen I was no sage, but somehow I knew that trying to make ourselves hard was not the route to happiness. Yet many times, over the next years and decades, I forgot. At times, like everyone else on this planet, I tried to protect myself by faking confidence, by hiding fear, by hardening myself. It never once made me feel protected, safe or confident. Instead, it made me feel more vulnerable, at risk of exposure.
If that young woman in the washrooms did as she vowed, she would have begun any new relationship expecting to be betrayed. She would have said things like, “Men aren’t to be trusted.” With her hardened heart she would have treated men badly in an attempt to avoid being treated badly herself.
This cannot ever work. All it does is cause us pain. Yet so many people do it. We do it with marriages, with friendships, with relatives. When we try to stop ourselves feeling vulnerable, we build a protective shell around ourselves. We act defensively, and generally that means we’re on red-alert for any sign of attack, and so we often attack first. I know I have reacted to some people, not because of what they’ve actually said or done, but because of what I thought their words meant, what I thought their actions implied.
Allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable isn’t easy. But honestly, do we have a choice? Whether we allow the feeling or fight it, we still feel vulnerable – so wouldn’t it make sense to drop our defences?
Brené Brown thinks so. She is a researcher-storyteller – and she’s spent a long time studying shame, vulnerability and living life wholeheartedly. In the Ted talk in the video below, she says that shame is a fear of disconnection, based on the belief that there is something wrong with us that we need to hide from others. If other people see it, they won’t consider us worthy of connection.
She says, “It’s universal; we all have it [shame]…No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it.”
She also says, “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
After years of interviews and research, she found that: “the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.”
These people had the courage to be imperfect, to value themselves as they were and be compassionate with themselves. Brené Brown says, “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”
Being willing to be seen isn’t always easy to do – Brown says it’s really hard. I wonder though, is it hard, or is it just that we aren’t used to and so fall back into old habits? Are we so used to trying to protect ourselves that we don’t even notice we’re doing it?
In daily life, we pretend to agree with people we don’t agree with, or we avoid certain subjects to prevent confrontation, rather than accepting differences and feeling safe with that. Even with close family members, sometimes we pretend not to feel how we do, or to think what we do. And when we tell our stories on the internet or in print, even when we attempt to be “real” and honest, there’s often a tendency to use subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways to protect ourselves. Writers use phrases such as: “Don’t judge.” Or, often without realising, they present their story as an attack on others, either by saying their way is right or by saying people who judge them are jealous, feel inferior or in some other way have issues that they, the writer, doesn’t have. My own “favourite” protection tactic is probably over-explaining.
All of these are just ways to try to control how readers receive our stories.
If we are truly to create deep and healing connections with others, whether in person or in writing, we need to let go of trying to control how people receive our words. We need to have compassion for the person who might not understand. We need to risk being vulnerable.
To do that, we first need compassion for ourselves, to trust that if someone disagrees with us, it’s not a reflection of our worth – or of theirs.
Like Brené Brown, who wanted to measure everything in her research, most of us want to control life, and to predict outcomes. Brené Brown discovered, as most of us eventually do, that life is neither controllable nor predictable. Yet the willingness to accept that is what leads us to contentment and a sense of safety. (More irony, I know!)
Instead of trying to control how others see us to avoid vulnerability, we would be better off treating ourselves with compassion. Brené Brown’s interviewees who felt loved were those who treated their imperfections with compassion. If most of us were to do that, most of the time, what a different world we could create.
To free ourselves from vulnerability, we need to be willing to be vulnerable.
This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Compassion and Vulnerability.
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