To most of us, vulnerability isn’t a desirable state. We think of vulnerability to disease or attack and assume it’s something that should be avoided at all costs. But according to Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, a speaker, author and research professor at the University of Houston, embracing our vulnerability is an essential skill for a happy, connected life as well as recovery from various addictive and compulsive behaviors. In her talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” which has more than 5 million views online, Brown explains that human beings are neurobiologically wired for connection. It’s why we’re here, she says. And while connection is a possibility (necessity even) for all of us, so is shame. And the less we talk about it, the more we have. Beneath most feelings of shame, Brown says, is the core belief, “I’m not good enough.” In order to have connection, we must allow ourselves to be seen; in other words, to make ourselves vulnerable. What makes people feel vulnerable? Here are a few examples: being the first to say “I love you”; asking for help when we’re sick; initiating sex; waiting for a call from a doctor; getting laid off; taking a leap of faith even when the outcome isn’t guaranteed; and investing in a relationship that might not work out. After years of research trying to determine what sets apart the shame-filled from the “whole-hearted,” Brown concluded that people with a strong sense of love and belonging:
- Believe they are worthy.
- Have the courage to be imperfect (which Brown defines as a willingness to tell the story of who you are with your full heart).
- Have the compassion to be kind to themselves first, and then others.
- Have connection as a result of authenticity (in other words, they are willing to let go of who they thought they should be and embrace who they are).
- Believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful.
Brown explains that modern adults are the most in debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. Why? Because many vulnerability-phobes fall into a dangerous cycle. We feel vulnerable so we numb the pain with drugs, alcohol, food and other temporary fixes. The unfortunate reality, says Brown, is that we don’t get to selectively choose our emotions. If you drown out the painful feelings such as shame, anger and fear, you also lose the positive feelings of joy, gratitude and happiness. When we find that life is still meaningless and empty, we dive back into unhealthy habits to further mask our vulnerability. Even for those who don’t numb their feelings with addictions, they may run from vulnerability by trying to make everything uncertain certain, says Brown. We need scientific proof to believe in religion; we stop having discourse and resort to blaming to discharge our pain and discomfort; we pursue society’s ideals of beauty with surgery and fad diets; we do everything for our kids so that they don’t have to experience their own vulnerability. In all of these efforts, we do a disservice to ourselves and others. We pretend our actions don’t affect other people rather than accepting our imperfections, apologizing and making things right. For those people who fall into the “control freak” category, or those who need to know the ending before they begin, here’s Brown’s advice:
- Let yourself be deeply and vulnerably seen.
- Love with your whole heart even though there are no guarantees.
- Practice joy and gratitude.
- Believe that you’re enough.
- Stop screaming and start listening.
- Be kinder to yourself and others.
We live in a vulnerable world. Stop trying to control and predict everything. Stop trying to numb your emotions. Allow yourself the freedom to be human, to be vulnerable, and see how rich life can really be. After all, feeling vulnerable means you’re alive.