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THE COURAGE OF BEING VULNERABLE
By Glenn Peters, Ph.D.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not
the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten
thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep
contrition, and of unspeakable love.” Washington Irving
Samantha is terrified of getting older, of her children
leaving home, of being alone. These feelings scare her so much she invents
ways not to face her fears. Mostly, she lashes out at others for “making”
her feels bad. She wonders why she has so few friends and can’t
find a mate.
Fred doesn’t walk, he swaggers. He doesn’t talk, he commands.
When his children and friends head for the exit, he figures they just
don’t have the guts to handle such a big man. But he has an ulcer
and he can’t sleep. Lately, he’s been having nightmares about
being trapped. Deep, deep down, he’s afraid he’s really a
little man after all.
It is painful to admit that we are vulnerable. For so many of us, it means
we are weak, helpless and open to attack by others or by whatever life
throws at us. Our culture demands that we be strong, so we try our best
to hide our fears and cover up our weak spots.
We don’t want to be seen as failures.
But there can be beauty and courage in being vulnerable and value in exploring
so-called weaknesses. By taking the courage in exploring our “dark”
side, we can turn our fears and vulnerabilities into strengths. To paraphrase
author Matthew Fox, “Our demons aren’t in the way; they are
Often, we believe that keeping a stiff upper lip will keep us strong.
We hold a tight lid on our fears and pain, but in doing so, we also cover
up and lose touch with our feelings. This, in turn, shields our hearts
and separates us from our connection to humanity and a deeper more intimate
connection with ourselves.
This is a journey that can be long and difficult, but it’s only
by facing our vulnerable places—not covering them up or running
from them— that we can get to the other side of ourselves and recognize
deeper roots to our alienating and defensive behaviors. If Fred and Samantha,
the individuals previously mentioned, could get beyond their defensive
behaviors and recognize their own vulnerability that is their sadness
or their fear, than they could become more open with others, gain support
from others and start a healthy process of healing and working through
their problematic patterns. This change could lead to a deeper feeling
Being vulnerable is empowerment. It can be empowering to express to your
spouse that you are hurting in reaction to some aspect of your spouse’s
behavior. It is courageous to open yourself up to your vulnerability,
your feelings, and then also courageous to take the risk and to express
this to your spouse. This act of vulnerability enables you to identify
and own your feelings and also breaks down your façade that keeps
you walled off from your genuine feelings. It also can potentially enable
you to have a closer and more intimate relationship with your spouse.
One façade that men have traditionally held concerns the block
against feeling sadness and hurt. In being identified with this so-called
ideal, that one should not feel or express sadness or hurt, we develop
a narrow, restricted and false view of our emotional self. By breaking
through this restricted view of self we develop more emotional flexibility
and find out that we can actually become stronger. It is an interesting
paradox that through the genuine acceptance and exploration of our own
weaknesses, we can become stronger and more empowered. It is important
to note that we all have a wound, a weakness, and when we allow ourselves
to be vulnerable, we accept that wound and then we can move forward. Our
wound can actually turn out to be our blessing.
Being vulnerable hasn’t been very popular in our society, but this
is changing. Words such as “humility” and “gratitude”
and “forgiveness” are being used more frequently. They are
terms that show a cultural shift towards accepting all human traits, negative
and positive, strong and weak.
Author and therapist Beth Miller takes this one step further. In her book,
Resilience: 12 Qualities to Cultivate, she calls vulnerability “falling
apart” and urges that “it is time to bring falling apart into
fashion.” It is through being able to fall apart, such as manifested
in crying and in deeply sharing with others, that we are allowing ourselves
to further develop. In the movie” Ordinary People” it is through
Conrad’s sobbing with his therapist regarding his pain and anguish
about his brother’s death that led to the start of a healthy grief
process. His tears ameliorated his guilt and self-reproach and brought
about an attitude of self-compassion and forgiveness. This attitude of
forgiveness and self-compassion eventually allowed Conrad to “live
again” being able to get involved in activities that brought him
pleasure and satisfaction, a far cry from his past depression.
Being a student of life means being vulnerable—open to life, to
learning, to experiences, to yourself and to emotions. Most of all, it
means being willing to accept things as they are, no matter how painful
that might be. Change begins with the courage to be vulnerable, that is,
in exploring and accepting one’s genuine feelings, which often can
be viewed by our self and even by others as shameful weaknesses.It is
often helpful to work with a therapist to face what you could be defending
yourself against. The therapist can work with you in helping you to understand
where your weaknesses lie and in turn can help you in learning to accept
them without guilt or shame. Guilt and shame only keep our vulnerabilities
locked up inside and don’t allow them to be opened up and seen from
a compassionate stance.
In the perspective given to us by the movie “Ordinary People”
we see how destructive that process of walling off emotions, walling off
our so-called “vulnerabilities” can be, as seen clearly in
Conrad’s mother, Beth, who could not open herself up to the grief
process, the pain and loss of her older son, and therefore also walled
herself off from giving love and receiving love and the support of others.
This defense eventually led to the shattering of her nuclear family. A
therapist can help us to develop self-acceptance and self-compassion that
allows for further understanding and exploration of our emotional self,
our more vulnerable self.
Yet, for many different reasons, being vulnerable comes easier to some
than others. Here are some ways that you can start your own courageous
self-growth process through the exploration of your vulnerabilities:
Be honest with yourself, look for deeper reasons or
motives for your own behavior.You can start by imagining the worse
thing that can happen and start exploring and understanding your fears.
Take a risk. Start by letting someone you trust know
your weak places.
Be willing to listen to honest feedback, even ask
for honest feedback.
Accept the fact that you have anger, and find constructive
words to talk about it.
Let go of guilt and resentment. The past is past.
Make amends if needed.
Accept that you make mistakes. That’s part of
being human. Start the development of increased self-acceptance. It
is a paradox but change takes place through acceptance.
Dr Peters is a psychotherapist in practice in Encino and
Glendale. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.
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