When you ask someone what it means to be vulnerable they oftentimes start talking about it as a synonym for weakness.
To be vulnerable means to be at risk of experiencing harm. In the military, vulnerability is a measurement for how likely it is for damage to be inflicted. If we fail to buy the proper renters insurance we are “vulnerable” to things like burglaries and floods. But, being vulnerable means something else when it’s placed in connection with human flourishing. This is what empathy writer and researcher Dr. Brené Brown writes about in her wonderful book Daring Greatly.
“Vulnerability isn’t good or bad. It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
In one of her TED talks, Brown said that, after her first TED talk became popular, she was contacted frequently by leaders in the business world who asked her to come and speak to their teams. But, she said, they often asked her to avoid talking about things like shame or vulnerability — the very subject areas in which she is an expert. When she asked them what they did want her to speak about, they said “innovation, creativity, and change.” A smiling Brown then goes on to say that the root of these three sought-after talking points is vulnerability.
The answers to the big questions aren’t simple positive affirmations. They aren’t necessarily “positive” at all, in the way that a lot of self-help gurus might want you to believe. It’s important to be vulnerable because doing so allows us to share those things which have hurt us, and feel compassion in the act of sharing. And the same vulnerability allows us to experience great new avenues of thought.
The writer and philosopher Roman Krznaric, in a talk he gave at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, talked about Patricia Moore, the woman who helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, and who pioneered a whole generation of new architecture friendly to people with disabilities.
Moore could see that there was a problem with how her contemporary designers were looking at the world, but she literally needed to step into the shoes of someone with limited physical abilities before she could fully grasp all the difficulties inherent in the life of such a person. By touring the country in a disguise that limited her physical abilities and gave her the appearance of an elder, Moore opened herself up to a deep level of vulnerability and was able to innovate in new ways because of that. Her empathy had a measurably massive impact on the world, and that empathy sprouted from her willingness to be vulnerable.
Brown concentrates on two questions which she views as utterly dangerous and detrimental to the growth of individuals and society.Those questions are, “what should I be afraid of,” and, “who’s to blame for it?” We encounter a stressor which actives a flight or fight fear response and we want to kill the thing doing it to us. It’s a primal piece of our makeup, but it’s also a symptom of social manipulation. We’re taught to view the world in this way, and we’re taught that viewing the world in this way is the most natural way to experience life. But it isn’t. Researchers in empathy, community development, anthropology, social patterning, and psychological development, have shown us that “fight or flight” isn’t the only basic human drive. That competition and aggression are not our sole motivators. Sure, if your society is structured to reinforce those values, you’re going to end up inheriting the effects, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to us.
The data is clear: we are social animals. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have been vindicated by modern behavioral and neuroscientific research: we do, in fact, exist for each other.
I can look at someone who robbed me of something (health insurance, say,) and hate them for that. I connect with my fear of not having medical care and I identify my enemy.
“Mitch McConnell,” I might say, “you are such an evil douche.”
This may be utterly accurate, and he may be completely unable and unwilling to connect with my emotions and needs, but I can still connect with my emotions and needs. I can look at my feeling of anger and say to myself “I am feeling really angry. But that’s because I’m really scared, too. I’m angry because there’s an injustice in the world. I’m scared because I don’t feel like I have any power to stop things happening in my society that will harm me, directly. I’m afraid because I don’t feel safe. I’m angry because I want to ensure my safety and can’t.”
Being vulnerable with myself meant connecting with the deeper, and scarier, things that were going on.
At this point, I might not be able to really engage with Mitch, but I can engage with myself. I can allow myself to be vulnerable with myself; I can open up to the admission of fear and pain, and the real reasons I’m feeling those things. Then I can say “Okay, wow, I need some love and compassion right now. I need to be understood.” And I can then give myself a moment to simply be with myself and everything I’m feeling, to hold all of that without judgment (either judgment at myself for feeling frightened, or angry with some outside actor who provides a scapegoat). The real trick is recognizing that my anger is a distraction — it’s a way of not really connecting with my deeper feelings and needs at that moment. It might be true that there is injustice in the world, and it might be my sense of anger that reminds me to vote actively and participate in ways that defy that injustice, but in the original moment the underlying feeling was fear, and that fear had intimate needs it was connected to. Being vulnerable with myself meant connecting with the deeper, and scarier, things that were going on. It meant acknowledging my own helplessness in the face of vast forces. But it also meant being, suddenly, in a position where I could offer myself real compassion.
This same process works in the outer world, though, too. More often than not, connecting with people through empathy actually works, and it frequently works in situations where you might think it impossible. Between members of villages who have been killing each other for generations. Between victims and their attackers. In his book Nonviolent Communication (which focuses heavily on empathy) Marshall Rosenberg recounted a story, told to him by a woman who had taken his NVC training, where she was attacked by a man who was clearly planning on sexually assaulting her. She was able to fall back upon her empathy training, however; she fell into the net of her NVC training and she talked to the man using the NVC method to tell him that she was scared and that his actions were making her afraid. She kept it up, reminding the man of her humanness and vulnerability; she created a sense of connection between them that forced him to see her as she was — to see a piece of himself in her, perhaps. Eventually, the man ran away with just her purse leaving her unharmed.
There are practical benefits to connecting with people, even in circumstances where we might believe it to be pointless or detrimental.
Now, there is also an important difference between sympathy and empathy which Brown discusses. Sometimes, it can seem that words like empathy, compassion, and sympathy, are all synonymous. Perhaps we can agree that “pity” at least, feels different, but many might not be certain of what creates that difference. Brown says that “sympathy is something we do when we don’t want to feel vulnerable.” It’s something we do that implies the sentence, “I am sorry that’s happening to you but I don’t want to actually have any part in what you’re going through, seek help elsewhere.”
Empathy is exactly the opposite. Empathetic connection implies the sentence, “it seems like you’re experiencing a lot of pain, I would like to stand by your side while you feel this way, and support you if you need it, even if I can’t fix whatever is going on.” And that requires vulnerability. It does mean that, sometimes, we need to be able to connect with feelings that are dark in ourselves. It means we need to be willing to hurt just as much as someone else, and we need to be willing to do this without anything to gain.
There’s actually this excellent scene in a science fiction series I like, Altered Carbon, where (MINOR SPOILERS) this wealthy and powerful individual goes out among a group of sick and contagious people to hand out food and water, intentionally exposing himself to the dreadful disease (which, because he wasn’t born with it, will quickly kill him). The thing is, his body is just a cloned “skin,” and his consciousness will simply be transferred into a fresh body as soon as his current body dies. He gets to experience a faux-empathetic connection with the plague carriers. He “feels” what they feel, but only at a surface level. There’s no real risk involved for him. He could get all of those people cured by giving them fresh bodies, but he won’t, because that would deny him the opportunity to feel good about himself in this particular way. Empathy without vulnerability isn’t empathy at all.
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