The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness. – Brene Brown
I lost my skirt on the elementary school playground in 1969, and I don’t think I’ve ever been the same since.
It was recess – on the blacktop at Quarrels Elementary in Winchester, Virginia. I was a little league cheerleader, just like a lot of my friends. We were practicing a football cheer. You’ve probably heard it. “Johnny Johnny, Johnny he’s our man, if he can’t do it, Tommy can!” Repeat, with lots of enthusiasm, down the row with a new player name. Jump up for a Radio City Music Hall can-can kick when it’s your turn to shout out the next new name.
Except that when it was my turn to jump up, the heel of my shoe caught in the hem of my little corduroy pleated skirt. The skirt stayed down while I went up. I don’t recall if I was wearing a slip or not. I probably was, as we were all good and proper Southern girls in 1969. But what I do remember is standing there, semi-naked, mortified, shaking, while everyone laughed. The period of time until I pulled my skirt up was probably less than 10 seconds, but in my memory the laughter went on and on and on, for a very long time.
That is the first time I can recall feeling vulnerable. And I hated it.
In fact, my nine-year-old self had a mini little breakdown. The principal had to call my mother to come and get me. My mother was a teacher, and this sorely inconvenienced her. She was not happy about it, and could not, for the life of her, understand what all the fuss was about.
I survived the experience, without therapy I might add, and managed to make it through elementary school, middle school and high school. I graduated top in my class, Valedictorian no less, right along with most of those kids who were there on the playground that day. I’m sure none of them remember the incident. So why do I?
I have been thinking a lot about vulnerability over the past few weeks. Mostly about my passionate aversion to it.
I’ve thought about it in my writing. How much should I say on my blog about my recent exit from my 33-year corporate role? Just how much detail should I share about what it’s been like to wrestle with the ‘fear monkeys’ romping around in my head these days? How much is ‘prudent’? How much is just enough to make a good story, but still maintain a ‘safe’ social media profile? How much to offer, to be authentic and share the lessons, while still maintaining strength and distance?
I’ve also thought about vulnerability in the workplace. As a professional woman, I learned very early that the first, cardinal rule of corporate life, is to NEVER, EVER let them see you cry. Anger is permissible (within reason), but showing weakness, being too honest, or showing too much of oneself is definitely NOT OK. Yet, paradoxically, some of the best, and most successful women leaders I know have broken that rule. And what they got in return was more loyalty, more trust, more productivity and more commitment from their peers and subordinates.
So is vulnerability really all that bad?
We all have a personal ‘story’ that is created from our first waking memories. Stuff happened, whether it was good or bad for us. Those experiences, and most importantly, the FEELINGS that went with them, create deep-seated BELIEFS around which we make our lives. Those beliefs drive our ACTIONS and our choices.
Whenever we get a trigger that generates those old feelings, we go straight into our story. We put up walls – put on our armor – and act in ways that reinforce and protect those beliefs. It’s unconscious, a deep-seated pattern seared into our very essence. A mind-body circle that runs in the background and is very hard to break.
Often, we just live in that circular story forever, unless something BIG happens to help us break the cycle.
My story, framed from the time that I was 9 years old, was this:
Strength and a full suit of clothes (read, armor) are good. Vulnerability, exposure and weakness are bad. Very bad.
I became very vulnerable in December, maybe for the first real time since I stood on that playground in 1969 with my skirt around my ankles. I still hate the feelings it generates, but since it’s here with me now, I’m giving it some considered study.
Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, spent years studying the social science of shame and vulnerability. Her TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed TED videos out there, with over 23 million views.
In thousands of case studies, Brown found that those people who were the most courageous, who were living the fullest lives, demonstrated what she called “whole-heartedness”. These people had the courage to tell the story of who they were with their whole heart; they had the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves, and to others. And they were rewarded with connection, as a result of that authenticity. They fully embraced vulnerability. They didn’t like the feeling of being vulnerable, but they described it as absolutely NECESSARY. Necessary for living life at its fullest.
“Vulnerability is the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. We want deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
I sat on the porch today and looked out into the back yard. The birds flitted around the bird feeder. They are vulnerable to almost everything in winter. Our big oak tree was still standing, despite losing most of its leaves last season to those nasty cankerworms. It’s now armored with a band of sticky stuff around its trunk, to try to protect its buds come spring. But it’s a slim and narrow band for such a big tree.
Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.”
Whoa, that is a pretty broad definition. If that is what vulnerability is, then who or what is not vulnerable at almost any point in their day?
Everyone, and everything is vulnerable. Probably most of the time. We just don’t like to talk about it.
I went to a Writing Retreat in January. I didn’t produce a lot of finished writing, but the experience was truly phenomenal. I laid down my armor for that week, and let them see my slip, and my pale, bony nine-year old shins.
Two weeks out from it, I can see that my willingness – and theirs – to be vulnerable created a powerful connection that might just be the catalyst for finally changing my ancient and worn-out playground story.
Vulnerability is our collective Achilles heel and yet, possibly the biggest gift to the human state. It’s not a death sentence to run from like the plague. In fact, having the courage to stand in our proverbial slip and be seen by others is the path to real connection and whole-heartedness.
So I’m getting a little more ok with being vulnerable, with taking off my armor now and then. I still wouldn’t recommend trying it on a blacktop with 300 other souls watching. But in a safe place, there may be something to it.
Now, if I can just get the image of that little corduroy skirt out of my mind.