Like many people in my generation, I was raised with the idea that vulnerability was a weakness. Showing vulnerability was something to be avoided. Many of us were taught that if we were ever feeling vulnerable it was best for us to do everything possible to hide this from others.
This mindset regarding vulnerability did not serve us well and thankfully I realized that at a relatively young age. While suppressing vulnerability at all costs may serve a person well when facing a saber-toothed tiger or facing an armed enemy, it does not serve a person well when it comes to living and loving well. In fact, as I learned just this week, there is now extensive research that shows that the key to living well, the key to living a whole-hearted life, is the ability to feel and express vulnerability.
I am in Houston this week for a national conference of leaders in the Episcopal Church who are passionate about helping others to learn about life-giving approaches to teaching and experiencing the Christian faith. One of the keynote speakers for this conference, Dr. Brené Brown, is a graduate professor in the school of social work at the University of Houston, and is also an active member of Christ Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Houston where we were meeting. We had the privilege to sit in her church, listening to her tell us about her research on “the power of vulnerability.” We were not the first people to hear this fascinating woman speak about vulnerability.
The fact is that over 18,000,000 people have watched Brené Brown’s twenty minute TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability.” (I highly recommend it. You can watch it here.) It is one of the most widely watched of all TED talks. Additionally, Brown has had several bestselling books on this topic and she consults regularly, not just with church leaders, but with the leaders of Fortune 500 companies as well.
In brief summary of Brown’s research, she has discovered that while blocking or numbing feelings of vulnerability may help us deal with pain in the short run, in the long run it also blocks us from the ability to form meaningful connections with others. As I heard her say this week, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, and of love.” It turns out that science now proves that the advice that we should do our best to hide feelings of vulnerability is not at all helpful, as was once believed. Instead, the ability to express vulnerability is a key to experiencing happiness and joy.
Here is a concrete application of what Brown is saying. Imagine you have experienced a loss recently–perhaps the death of someone you love, a recent illness, job loss, or some other kind of hurt or set back. When a friend asks you how you are doing your first instinct might be to avoid any expression of vulnerability and respond that you are doing just “fine.” The problem with this, of course, is that is not true. You know it, and the person you are responding to, knows it, too.
Now imagine instead that, while it is not easy, you choose to be vulnerable with that friend and respond by sharing with them how difficult it is for you right now. Responding in this way will do several things. It will immediately deepen your connection with this person, it will help with your own healing, and it will likely illicit a response from your friend that lets you know that he or she may have experienced something similar in his or her life and that you are not alone in feeling the way you are feeling.
Dr. Brown’s research on vulnerability is counter-intuitive to what most of us have previously been taught and believed. I hope you will do yourself a favor and watch one of her TED talks or read one of her best selling books. More importantly, my hope for you, as it is for myself, is that we will have the courage to live our lives in ways that promote wellness through authenticity, and vulnerability so that in the end we can experience a life of joy and whole-heartedness.