I read an blog post yesterday entitled, "The One Quality We Often Mistake For Weakness Can Actually Make You Stronger," which extolls the virtues of being "vulnerable." Citing examples from President Obama to the Dalai Lama, the piece gives examples of the strength that comes from being vulnerable. The post refers to a book, "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead," by Brene Brown.
While I essentially support what the post and book are trying to say, the language of the authors demonstrates a very common error which I would like to address here.
"I feel too vulnerable when..."
How often I hear individuals begin a sentence like that. Usually, the person in question who is perceiving themselves as "vulnerable" is talking about being "open" in some situation that is revealing of their inner life to another. But this common connection in one's mind between openness and vulnerability is erroneous.
You are not vulnerable when you're open.
The definition of "vulnerable" in most dictionaries is: "susceptible to physical or emotional harm." Okay. That's pretty straightforward. So, when are we the most susceptible to harm in those ways? Well, in two situations, mainly: 1. when we are without an option for avoiding danger; and 2. when we are truly dependent on another person or persons who may choose to do us harm. And when are we most likely to be in such situations? Well, unless you are literally a hostage in a terrorist takeover, or a prisoner of war or in jail, the most prevalent time human beings are actually vulnerable to harm is - you guessed it - in childhood!
That's right. In childhood, especially early childhood, we are essentially hostages to our parents and caretakers, without options to avoid the slings and arrows of our environment. And we are utterly and completely dependent on those others for our well-being, even for our very existence. Whatever the vicissitudes of our parents' mental and emotional health, or lack thereof, we, as children, cannot protect ourselves or remove ourselves from harm's way. We can't stop adults from hurting us, nor can we trade in one set of adults for another. In other words... we are vulnerable. Truly.
Now, here's where the confusion comes in and how the erroneous connection gets made.
As children, as newly minted human beings, we are naturally open, physically, mentally and emotionally. We feel everything fully when we're first born, and to some degree, we stay that way throughout the very early years of life. However, because of the undeveloped, un-self-actualized aspects of humanity, we are injured by our environment. Our parents and caretakers hurt us. Yet, we cannot stop them, nor can we leave them.
So what do we do? We begin to shut down, distort, and/or disconnect parts of ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally in order not to feel the pain so acutely. We form a character structure, and initially, it actually does seem to mitigate the pain, which seems to validate the conclusion that open is vulnerable, and closed is safe.
See, we can't understand truly when we're little that we're little. We can't really picture that one day, we'll be adults ourselves, and have the choices adults have. In other words, we can't understand that it's being little that makes us vulnerable, not being open that makes us vulnerable. And so, stuck in the confines of our character structures as time passes, we miss the fact that nature provides the solution to the problem of vulnerability in childhood - we grow up!
In adulthood, we can realize that protecting ourselves emotionally with the armor of character defenses is very inefficient and inhibiting, and most importantly, no longer necessary. Wearing that suit of armor doesn't make for the easy enjoyment of a sunny day, let alone for making love. On the other hand, being fully open to our inner lives, which frees up the mind and body, gives us the energy and flexibility to creatively express ourselves, enjoy life and, if need be, avoid situations that would do us harm, which mainly means not engaging with negativity. Thus, in this realization, we can engage in a healing process, in an holistic self-work process, that can dismantle the armor and allow us to be ourselves fully.
So, FPL readers, let go of the false belief that when you love and reveal yourself to another you are vulnerable. And Brene, forgive me for suggesting a slight change to the title of your book, but "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be OPEN Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead" would work better for me.