If the Webster’s dictionary is to be trusted when it states that being vulnerable means one is “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,” why then has psychologist and TED-talk celebrity Brené Brown created a publishing empire built on encouraging listeners and readers to engage in this exact behavior? In one section of her superb book, Daring Greatly, Brown asserts, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” How can it then be possible that the dictionary and Brown are in such disagreement about this word? How can two definitions be so diametrically opposed?
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
— Author and therapist Brené Brown
Many of us grew up in circumstances where shame and fear were the foundations of our daily emotional experiences. Environments that were more likely to teach us that vulnerability was an opportunity to be emotionally wounded, instead of being a birthplace for love and belonging. Too many of us had parents who were scared, afraid, and ashamed, and who passed these things onto us because they came from parents who, similarly, were afraid and ashamed.
“It is often the case that people’s first experience of complete vulnerability being met with compassion, support, and encouragement happens in therapy. ”
In order for us to do the hard work of transcending these deeply ingrained patterns of shame and fear - patterns that often have significant influence on our self-perception and, in turn, our behavior - we need to gain a deeper understanding of these reactions. To begin to do this, we need to learn to comfort and show compassion for these parts of ourselves, rather than treat our fear and shame with the same anger and dismissal with which they were met in our childhood.
If we take steps towards this process, vulnerability becomes possible, and suddenly Brené Brown’s beliefs about the amazing opportunities and rewards vulnerability can offer begins to seem less far-fetched. However, many of us need a training ground in order for the practice of vulnerability to feel less dangerous. This is where therapy comes in.
It is often the case that people’s first experience of complete vulnerability being met with compassion, support, and encouragement happens in therapy. In my experience as a therapist, I have seen that for those of us who are afraid to be fully seen by others, or are taught from a young age that emotions such as anger, fear, loneliness, and jealousy are unacceptable, we are terrified of others seeing those things in us. If others do – an inevitability in close friendships or romantic relationships – how could it mean anything other than rejection? If we reject ourselves constantly for having these unavoidably human emotions why wouldn’t we expect others to do the exact same thing? However, sitting in a room with an accepting therapist, and seeing them reflect back understanding and compassion in the face of fear, pain, anger, and loneliness, can help us learn that perhaps not only our therapist can respond well to vulnerability.
The dangers of cutting oneself off from vulnerability are beautifully illustrated in writer Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Here, Carver uses the metaphor of the knight in medieval times as a means of understanding love and vulnerability. In this story, one character discusses the dangers of avoiding connection with other people by describing how knights wore extremely heavy and impenetrable armor for battle, and yet these knights would often still die in the battlefield. Their deaths were not from the blows of their opponents, but instead, from suffocating and overheating from within their own armor. This poignantly demonstrates how our emotional armor, that which we believe is protective, can often be the thing that is suffocating us.
We have learned to wear armor for good reason, as often our homes were battlefields growing up. However, the therapeutic relationship can help us to feel safe enough to take off the armor, knowing that in doing so, we may just be opening ourselves up to love and connection.
Thank you, Zach, for your thoughtful reflection and perspective. We appreciate your insight, metaphors, and willingness to be vulnerable.
Questions, thoughts, or feedback? Keep in touch at [email protected]. We'd love to hear from you.
Meet today's guest blogger, Zach Shapiro. Zach is a wonderful therapist in the My Wellbeing network, a talented writer, and a paragon of compassion and empathy. The therapy Zach provides focuses on creating a safe, supportive and non-judgmental therapeutic space, devoted to helping each individual gain understanding and compassion for themselves. He has extensive experience dealing with issues including major depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, bipolar disorder and addiction. His specialty is in trauma work and he has been trained in EMDR Therapy. In this piece, Zach reflects on his years of work as a therapist and personal experience with vulnerability and what he calls emotional armor. We hope that it invites your own reflection. If you have any questions for Zach or want to learn more about his work, you can reach out to him at [email protected].