Armoring ourselves is not the only option. It increases the likelihood we will be disconnected from others, and in our natural state, being vulnerable is what makes it possible for us to connect. Oh man. After all those years of repressing, and intellectualization, and inhibitions, and conflict avoidance and all those hyper-trophies I won I have to learn something new!?
I look at it this way: I get to quit carrying all this armor. Think of all the energy spent doing the mental gymnastics for all that stuff and now we get to relax. It’ll be hard, but it can be done.
So what’s so damn scary about vulnerability? In my experience, it was shame. Shame is believing I am not good enough. In some areas, or all areas. Somewhere deep inside, I didn’t believe I was good enough to be worthy of love, success, money, what have you. It’s a belief that ultimately, I am not worthy of connection. And shame views vulnerability as excruciating because someone might see me as I really am: imperfect. Maybe beyond imperfect: I was abused, weak. Therein, the lie.
As this sense of shame grows in our lives, we armor ourselves, to protect us from those judgmental, gazing looks. I did anyway. Some of those ways I mention above. I tried to be perfect, have all the answers, look just right. I tied to make the unclear dogmatic, and religions are a great way to do that. Or flat out pretend. And so the layers of protection begin to pile on, and for decades, pile on.
Until the day.
That day, that time, that moment is one we will all have. Truth be told, the sooner the better, but it needn’t be an event of trauma. At some point, the armor we wear will get too heavy. The numbing that we do to ourselves that results in being addicted and/or medicated (legally and/or otherwise), obese, and in debt. And in those four areas, our society today had statistics like never before in history. The result is living a lie. The lies got so many I forgot what lies I told to cover what lies, and so I disconnect relationships that are catching on to my lies. Or I could spend, to think I am worthy of being new, part of the crowd. Did you know that deaths by prescribed medications now outnumber deaths by illegal drugs two to one, and equal the number of deaths by car accidents annually? So let’s eat. Which apparently we in McAmerica are doing. A lot. Brene Brown, in her TedTalk 2012 on vulnerability, tells us that when we numb ourselves, we can’t do it selectively. We can’t just numb with a beer, the negative emotions we don’t like. When we numb ourselves, we numb all of our emotional abilities, even the positive ones.
I had my day. The day that revealed all the vulnerabilities I really had, and suddenly I just couldn’t take the weight any more, I didn’t give a damn about what I looked like to any one else. You know what? I wasn’t rejected. Maybe some of my tribe lowered me a bunch of notches in the machismo column because I put my head on the Chief’s car and let my tears go, right there in front of all those firefighters, and medics, and police officers. I also discovered a huge tribe of people who embraced me. Does that mean my shame was wrong about vulnerability!? Yes, yes, and yes!
An acquaintance of mine named Mark Brady said on his blog, “Home needs to be a sanctuary for the vulnerable heart.” Addicts know that their former tribe isn’t that home. For many in addictive behaviors, their new home is the community of addicts gathered together to overcome their addiction. Regardless of where that happens, the danger is to then prove what a good overcomer I am. It is very possible to use addiction recovery and religion to once again slip into pretending and making perfect. I did it for years. Over a decade in fact. That home Mark Brady mentions needs two things: an acceptance of the vulnerable heart, and it has to start with me, looking at all of me nakedly, and only me.
In her TedTalk, Brene Brown mentioned one of the characteristics of those who live believing they are worthy, as being compassionate; not just to others, but themselves as well. My Buddhist teacher says the same thing. It starts here, inside me, being courageously compassionate with myself, my perceived flaws, weaknesses, shortcomings, pecadillos. I have discovered that as I drop this armor, piece by piece, as I wear off this callous that has numbed me, that it takes this compassion, this courage, as Brene Brown stated in her speech, of the “telling the story of my life with a whole heart.”
I was wrong about vulnerability, and I live to tell about it.
Thanks to Philip Colgan and John Bradford for introducing me to the lie of shame so many years ago, and to Brene Brown for the re-introduction last fall.