THE QUESTION OF VULNERABILITY?
“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
But vulnerability is not weakness; it's our most accurate measure of courage.
When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: 'Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can't control the outcome?'
When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: 'Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?”
-- Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone
A few weeks ago I overheard a conversation about vulnerability. The idea of vulnerability that was being discussed was that of Brene Brown, PhD, who has pioneered a growing cultural understanding that vulnerability is a key component of emotional and psychological growth.
I was struck by the resistance to Dr. Brown’s ideas on vulnerability. The conversation was part of a larger context on developing a “new masculinity,” embodying truth, honesty and authenticity within men, promoting men to master themselves and become leaders through rigorous personal development and growth - not simply through aggression and social status. I was unaware that a contingency of the “new masculinity” movement is threatened by certain ideas around vulnerability.
The “new masculine” movement is something that I support, as it promotes responsibility, integrity, and personal development - all things that to me require a large amount of vulnerability. I would have thought that Dr. Brown’s ideas would find fertile ground amongst anyone interested in introspection, personal growth and development. And perhaps this is true for the most part; there will always be individuals who are triggered by elements of a presenter’s personality, and will be unable to decipher their ideas from their personality. This may have been the case amongst the individuals resisting Brene Brown’s ideas of vulnerability.
My Personal Thoughts on the Importance of Vulnerability
This post is meant as a commentary on a resistance to vulnerability, and perhaps more specifically, the idea that vulnerability in any way contradicts masculinity.
I advocate that Dr. Brown’s ideas on vulnerability are universal, and are intended to be first and foremost a way of relating to ourselves, not a method of relating to others. I don’t believe that she advocates a general state of vulnerability, by which we leave ourselves open to attack from a culture that seeks to destroy individuals who are “too vulnerable,” as well as weaponize such psychological understandings. I sense that this is the primary concern within the “new masculine” movement - namely, that men are being asked to be vulnerable so that they can be torn apart, and criticized and blamed openly for the woes of historical pedagogy (a legitimate concern, and one which takes vulnerability to admit).
No, it is my reading that Brene Brown is most concerned with personal growth, and the cultivation of the Self. This is the vulnerability she is talking about - fundamentally at least (I admit that the manifestation of this vulnerability certainly has to do with relationships with others - but first there has to be an internal vulnerability).
I’d like to describe my own understanding of this vulnerability within the context of a “new masculine” paradigm - where men are striving to take more accountability for their actions, lead with integrity, and grow in emotional maturity, all while not giving up their warrior spirit.
Vulnerability is the Way of the Warrior
Vulnerability is key. We can only learn by being vulnerable. And this vulnerability is first and foremost a willingness and commitment to open up internally and learn about ourselves. The warrior’s most intense and important battles are waged within himself. It takes vulnerability to even enter that arena.
This is an internal vulnerability. Whenever we open ourselves to learn something new, there is a vulnerability. There is the acknowledgement that “I don't know this. I am new.” And it can be scary. This can be learning a new skill, or learning something new about ourselves.
We all know someone who has absolutely no interest in this type of vulnerability, on any level. We describe them using phrases like: “they are just like that,” or “they are who they are.” Both phrases are simply euphemisms for “stagnant.” These people have no interest in learning, their growth has stopped. They have decided that it is preferable not to question their thoughts, opinions, and ideas; that their current worldview is good enough.
We can look at this decision and quickly realize that it is the safest option. By taking this position, I am able to fortify the defenses of who I believe I am. I can put all my emotional effort into defense, rather than building or expanding who I am, or what I identify with/as (which takes an incredible amount of mental and emotional resources). I do not need to worry about any new information or new understanding changing me.
The vulnerability we experience whenever we open ourselves to exploring something new is absolutely necessary. It is more tangible when we are learning and exploring who we are, what we think, what we do not know, what our potential is, or what we truly want. This type of personal growth is a lot more scary and “vulnerable” than learning a new skill, such as woodworking.
When we begin exploring questions of our identity things get pretty nebulous.Since we don’t fully know how exactly our learning is going to change us when we begin this exploration, it can be unsettling. We inherently have to travel through this unknown space to reach a more refined clarity of who we are. However, the more novice we are with processes of introspection, the more likely we are to experience fear, confusion, and potentially react by retreating back into the comfort of previous patterns, thoughts, and ideas.
This fear of introspection, of exploring these deeper parts of ourselves, is the true source of courage. This is where the true warrior finds it within himself to rise to the occasion and fight the real demons in his life - the internal demons.
This is the most fundamental aspect of vulnerability - it has nothing to do with others. There is an extension of this vulnerability, as we choose to interact with others, and test out elements we learn from our own internal exploration. But this comes afterwards.
Vulnerability with Others
I think a lot of people have the idea that vulnerability automatically means shedding all of our armor, so that we are absolutely defenseless when we interact with others. There’s this idea that vulnerability equals ZERO ACTIVITY, ZERO LEADERSHIP, ZERO BACKBONE.
This is a gross misunderstanding of the value of vulnerability.
First, it is worth repeating that true vulnerability is an internal process. The version of vulnerability that we sense when we interact with others is our decision to share our authenticity, or our insights into the truth we’ve discovered within ourselves. This type of vulnerability is in large part secondary.
Our interactions with other people provide us the training ground to try out our new understandings of ourselves. And yes, these instances are more dangerous than our internal journey. We may be hurt by others. They may not understand us. We may be too raw, and react or be triggered. These are all potential and even likely outcomes. We are scared that we’ll be judged. And we will be judged. Just like we judge people who are trying to do the same thing we are trying to do. We are not perfect at this. We need to practice in order to gain mastery - this is what vulnerability is all about. This is what becoming a master in anything is all about. The dangers increase in direct correlation to the rewards we can expect.
But there is no way to learn, grow and become a more whole human without this type of vulnerability. Both the internal vulnerability of exploring our internal Self, as well as the external practice of sharing what we’ve learned with others.
One Thing to Consider
Of course, vulnerability is going to look different in different contexts. The true warrior knows his adversary, even when his adversary is himself.
Just because vulnerability is a key component to learning and growth - and in authentic relating - doesn’t mean that every situation is going to call for the same level of vulnerability.
I think that many men get this idea in their heads that what is being advocated is an emotional vulnerability 100% of the time. This is absolutely not true. What is being advocated is learning and growth, by humans, both men and women, individually and in relationship with each other. And this learning and growth will occur at the pace of the individuals who choose to participate.