Where Vulnerability Becomes a Liability (hint: it’s the place where courage is born)

Vulnerability is currently a hot topic in education. I find it’s commonly viewed in one of two ways: either people believe it’s the way to create deep connections and forge relationships built on trust or they feel that showing vulnerability is the equivalent to waiving your Achille’s heel in front of everyone while daring them to take a shot. I’ve been thrilled that most people are beginning to believe the former, and even if they find that vulnerability is a difficult concept, they see the value. For anyone who is working on their own vulnerability – I am so proud of you. It’s not an easy task to take on and at first, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable.

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. She also describes it as the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity (Daring Greatly). If we dig down the root of so many of our social and culture/climate challenges, we will find the issue typically begins with the absence of one of these emotional connections. Many times, teachers or students will shut down from communicating when they feel like they don’t belong. When they lose their joy they become disengaged. When they forget to employ empathy they break connection. Showing vulnerability to another person who is receptive to that kind of emotion creates a connection that is not easily severed.

Maybe you understand this already. Or, maybe you’re working on being more vulnerable with the people around you. This is a worthwhile way to spend your energy. Vulnerability is a choice. A good one. But, it’s also a risk. And unfortunately, eventually, you may have your vulnerability used against you. It’s an unfortunate side effect of showing your soft inner belly while so many people still believe that vulnerability equals weakness or they don’t understand how showing vulnerability impacts a person on a deeper, personal level than just about any other emotion. This is not a warning issued against working toward this particular goal. Instead, by recognizing the potential for the situation you can be more prepared for it to happen and understand that just because someone doesn’t understand you, doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.

In the past, when vulnerability has been used against me, this has looked like leaders questioning my abilities when I admit that I don’t know. It has looked like taking a risk just to be reprimanded when I failed. It has also been the perception of weakness when I show my vulnerable side. But, perhaps the most daring way I have had my vulnerability used against me is by someone who pointed out that I may have relationships that are forged and continued by people who pity me because I talk about my depression and former thoughts of suicide. All of these instances have angered me and absolutely gave me the right to armor up and protect myself from those situations happening again. Particularly the incident regarding mental health and the deep wound that it created in an area that I work so hard to expose and destigmatize, it would have been reasonable to expect that I would close myself off and change the way I operate. That would definitely be the easier choice and it’s natural to want to crawl into a hole and protect your wounds, especially after exposing yourself expecting connection and instead needing to retreat to attend to the unexpected damage.

Here’s the part that’s important to understand in these circumstances: when people themselves are not vulnerable they don’t understand vulnerability. Until they are able to change and accept the power of this connection, they will always look at humanity as a weakness. In some cases, I believe that one person showing vulnerability actually causes emotions in people that are too intense for them to handle so they armor up to avoid that discomfort. Either way, that is not about you. That is about them and where they are in their stories; their own life journeys. That is not a time to decide to be “tougher” and avoid being vulnerable. That is a time to continue to model and show others how it’s done.

There will always one person who is ready to push back against anything that feels uncomfortable. Sometimes that comes out as adult bullying or snide remarks or looks of dissatisfaction or disapproval. Sometimes, it’s a person who seems to feel like your vulnerability is a liability. There will always be these people. However, allowing that to bother you, or worse, change you, gives those people more control in your life than they’re probably entitled to. Part of owning your vulnerability is becoming comfortable with opening yourself up when you know there is the potential for someone to equate your actions with your Achille’s heel. When Brown speaks of vulnerability and courage, I believe it’s at the point where the courage is born.

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