Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change - Brené Brown
I want to explore some ideas about vulnerability here, with some insights from my own experiences. I would say that vulnerability is about showing up in the world as who we are, without pretense or facade, and without the need to appear a certain way - which in our world might mean appearing strong, superior, smart, unbreakable, immoveable etc. People talk about strength and vulnerability walking hand in hand, and about vulnerability being a strength. Growing up, I perceived that to society vulnerability was weakness, and that faking it 'til you made it was more the order of the day. I was never quite able to fake anything, so I learned to be a stronger version of myself - or to create a facade of being strong.
I was born with my emotions very close to the surface. My sensitivity to criticism was notably high and my imagination was particularly vivid. I spent my childhood playing imaginative games, daydreaming, singing, writing poetry, and reading children's classics like Heidi, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Pollyanna and Seven Little Australians. I had a lot of fear about a lot of things. I was very quiet, but I also connected easily with others, and built strong friendships, some of which have lasted to this day. I wondered whether everyone was like me, I assumed that they must be, and then I discovered that many of them weren't. Although I always did well at school, somehow, from the school environment, I absorbed the idea that my way of being was not conducive to adult life. The fears and the struggles only amplified with this newfound perception.
Skip forward to my late 20s, and I had built a pretty strong protective shell around myself. I never showed emotion publicly. I am now learning to view my sensitivity as being worthy of the utmost care, and I'm recognising that as someone who easily intuits others' emotions, high levels of self-care and personal boundaries are not luxuries, but necessities. But back then, I felt that they were just excuses that were holding me back in life. I felt that the only way to be acceptable was to toughen up. And, because that wasn't enough, I piled on layers of perfectionism that weighed me down even further. Please understand, I do not see this as a badge of honour. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, "perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes", and I was very afraid that I was incapable of navigating adult life without it.
In about 2012, without warning, my fragile, patched-up veneer started to crack. My sensitivity to criticism was triggered at work, and I was unable to hold my emotions in. I felt like I had completely blown it, because now it was evident that I wasn't able to keep it all together, but my boss seemed very happy about it, almost relieved, and she even hugged me. I was putting babies to sleep at the time, and through it all, my ever-present cerebral self was fascinated by the way they were standing in their cots, looking at me with such concern. I was thinking that what I learned at uni about babies' and toddlers' social and emotional development was not quite right. Here, I had proof that they were capable of connecting with me on an emotional level. I was worried that it might upset them, but it didn't. It's just additional evidence that it's okay to show some vulnerability to children, as a natural part of who we are.
The next couple of years I continued to push myself further out of my comfort zone, to prove that I was strong and capable, and not governed by my innate nature that I still didn't see as 'enough'. My emotions were all over the place during that time. One night I cried through three hours of first aid training, and nobody even said anything. It was nothing out of the ordinary, so they just left me to it. Just to differentiate, this was not vulnerability, it was severe burnout. I didn't recognise it or accept it then, and it's taken me until now to really come to understand how serious it was. I was very unwell, but other people didn't see it because I was still trying to achieve a facade of perfection. I'm just so grateful that life maneuvered me to a new place so that I was able to learn all the skills that I need to learn to ensure it never happens again. The perfectionist is still there, but the fear has become less and less, to the extent that I rarely notice it now. And, as for fear, we always need to keep a bit of it around, to help us to make decisions that keep us safe.
So, I'm assuming that you're wondering when I'm going to get to the point about vulnerability. For me, it's the way I connect with people, because I want to let them know that they're not alone. I sometimes question whether it appears weak or too self-deprecating to others. I sometimes wonder whether it might be smarter, after all, to put on that facade that we're advised to create, whether then I would be more trusted, and whether better opportunities would then come my way. But no, I really don't believe in it. To create a pretense that we always have it together, that all our ducks are in a row, or that we are impenetrable to the judgements of others, is very unrealistic. Everybody knows that this just isn't the case. When we can open up to each other, let our rawness touch other people's rawness, then we can start to build those deep, meaningful connections that we crave. To be seen in our imperfection, as the essence of what it is to be human, and to be accepted as imperfect, is what we secretly long for. It's what I used to daydream about when I was a little girl.
I've always read a lot of autobiographies. What I learned, is that life has ebbs and flows, that there is joy and there is deep pain, that there is so much learning and that this means that our views and perspectives will keep evolving, that people come and go, that there are times when the body is strong and there are times of illness, and that there are successes and there are failures. What I learned, is that people go through all of this, and they survive. As long as we are human, perfection is not attainable, or desirable. We are here to ride the waves of it all, to make a mess of it, to pick ourselves up and keep going multiple times, and to create our lives as beautiful works of art that encompass all the pain and joy and love and fear that we have experienced along the way. Embrace vulnerability, embrace imperfection, love yourself, and love others. This is life.
Gilbert, E. (2015). Big magic: Creative living beyond fear. Riverhead Books.
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