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Vulnerability is the Path

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” — Brené Brown

Here’s a snapshot of some of the things clients and I have explored in our coaching sessions recently:

  • the weariness and fear that keeps a woman from telling her husband how his constant negativity is crushing her spirit;

  • all the reasons why an executive can’t tell her boss that his fear-driven behavior is poisoning the organization;

  • the refusal of a man who was recently fired to share with friends how terrified he really feels; and

  • the silent sorrow of a man whose wife knows nothing of his true desires or passions in life.

What do all these scenarios have in common? Each one is a call to vulnerability. It seems that all growth, all healing, all true becoming requires us to be vulnerable—to take the step that we don’t want to take, to say the thing that we’re terrified to say, to expose ourselves to the person who has hurt us before, and may be hurting us even now. That’s because love, which is essential to a meaningful life, is vulnerable by its very nature. It’s like C.S. Lewis said:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” — C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I don’t know about you, but I kinda hate that this is the way life works. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t like the feeling of it. So I get it when my clients say they don’t want to tell someone they love the “real truth,” or confront a boss about his corrosive behavior, or reveal to friends all the ways they feel betrayed by them. Sometimes the cost of vulnerability seems too high, too threatening and painful for us to risk the exposure.

“Just answer the f#%king question.” I still remember my counselor saying that to me in one of our sessions. He asked me to tell him about the sexual abuse my mother inflicted on me when I was a young boy. I began to tell him all about it, but he kept interrupting me and saying, “NO.” And then he’d repeat, “Tell me about the abuse.” I’d start again, and he’d interrupt again. “NO.” This went on for a while, until I finally got mad. “I don’t understand what you want me to say!” He answered, “I want you to tell me about the abuse. Not report to me the facts. Just answer the f#%king question: Tell me about the abuse.”

I’m not sure I ever got to the emotional center of it all in that session. Or in any of the next dozen.

Growing up, it was too dangerous to ever reveal vulnerable emotion. It was like handing a gun to my mother, with the absolute assurance that she would use it to shoot me. My vulnerability was weaponized and used against me. That was, after all, how the abuse started in the first place.

For those of you familiar with the Enneagram: I am an Enneagram 4, arguably the most emotionally fraught type on the wheel. I feel everything so deeply, so intensely. Feeling for me is often like being swept down a river with Class V rapids. I have no control over where I go or how long it lasts or where I end up when it’s over. But this roiling tumult inside me was not something I could expose in my childhood. It was not safe to be vulnerable in my home.

So, I learned a trick. And man! It’s a really good trick, if I say so myself.

Impulse control. The ability to intercept and block any reactive gesture, action, or expression before it could happen. Essentially, I learned not to flinch.

So when my mother came to my 10-year-old self weeping, sad about her marriage and her life, looking to me for the emotional support that should have come from an adult and I had no capacity to offer her, I learned to hold my body still. I showed no reaction in my face, or in my eyes. I would not betray to her my terror, or my disgust. I would give no indication of my racing heart or the nearly overwhelming impulse to run, to flee, to get away from her and hide somewhere safe. But there was nowhere safe I could go. There was nowhere I could hide. And if I showed her my horror, my fear, my panic, my disgust, I knew without question she would use it all to punish me, to collapse in a heap of shame and accuse me of doing it to her, of being the cause of all her pain, of not loving her and not caring and on and on it would go. If she saw, or even suspected, my vulnerable fear in those moments, then everything for me would get exponentially worse.

So I learned not to flinch. Not to react. Not to reveal a single drop of the roiling river of emotion going on inside me. This is how I survived being raised in an unsafe, abusive home. This is how I kept my heart intact. I’m damn proud of the boy I was back then—of his resilience, his intelligence, his refusal to give in. He found a way to keep her from using his heart against him. He found a way to deny her any access to it at all.

I love that boy more than I can express. I still carry him around inside me. I wouldn’t trade him for the world. Only now, the trick he learned to keep his heart alive is suffocating mine. I no longer need to hide my vulnerability the way he did. But I learned the lesson too well. It turns out, once you’ve learned how not to flinch, it’s hard to flinch at anything ever again.

Nevertheless, I am learning, or rather, relearning, how to flinch again. How to be emotionally vulnerable in real time. I’m learning because I know, as we all know deep down, that as hard as vulnerability is, it’s the only way to ever experience love, or joy, or wholeness, or anything else that’s worth experiencing in this life. Jesus once said, “Narrow is the way that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” I think at least part of what He’s talking about there is the cost of vulnerability that true life demands. Let’s face it, the Way that leads to Life is packed with Vulnerability. It requires nearly daily acts of courage to expose your heart and let people see you. And I mean, let them really see you.

Just recently, I met up with a long-time friend who did something a few years back that shattered the trust between us. We’d been estranged ever since that event, until a few weeks ago, when we finally agreed to meet up and reconcile. In the past, I would have come to that conversation fully shielded, reasonable and calm, but revealing no hint of the depth of injury or loss I have experienced these past few years. This time, I openly wept in the conversation. I flinched. I felt messy, and exposed, and weak. It’s hard to describe what a major step toward recovery that is for me.

As I rediscover the capacity for vulnerability in my own life, I’ve learned a few tips that help me on the Way. Maybe they’ll help you too:

  • Stop all pretense. Stop editing what you tell people to hide your vulnerability. Instead practice the simple art of “just answering the f$%king question.”

  • Bottom line it. Don’t hide your vulnerability behind a tsunami of words. Just say what’s true—simply, directly, succinctly, with an open heart.

  • Don’t hide from yourself. We don’t just hide our vulnerability from others; we’re also pretty good at hiding it from ourselves. To help counter this, check in every day with all three of your centers of intelligence—your head, your heart, and your gut: What’s your head telling you right now about your life? What’s your heart saying about it? What’s your gut telling you? Really listen. Get the full picture of where you feel vulnerable at the moment.

  • Listen to the Spirit. We don’t often think of this, but God is actually a terrific source of “intel” for our inner lives. When you don’t know what’s going on inside you, ask God to tell you. You’d be surprised how quickly the answer will appear.

Finally, move toward your fear. Brené Brown says that “vulnerability sounds like truth, and feels like courage,” but I say it also often feels like fear. To live in true vulnerability, you have to do the thing you’re scared to do. That doesn’t mean you should act unwisely, or extend trust to someone who clearly isn’t trustworthy. But it does mean that many of the most significant steps you take toward authentic wholeness will be terrifying.

I’m sorry about that. Truly. I get it. But I didn’t make the rules. 🙂

So…where is your life calling you to a new level of vulnerability?

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