The courage to be….vulnerable

courage to be vulnerableWhen I go out on my bike at the weekends, I often take a podcast for company. I have a few podcasts of which I am a regular listener – and one is Dan Harris’ “10% happier”. This week he interviewed Brene Brown: a researcher in vulnerability, authenticity and shame who came to public awareness with her TED talk that first aired in 2010. Since then, the 20 minute talk has amassed over 40 million viewers. I watched the talk about 5 years ago and then read a couple of her books – “Daring Greatly” and “Braving the wilderness”. I especially enjoyed the latter given its focus on the quest for belonging and how significant that aspect of human being-ness (with its flip side loneliness) has been to me on my life journey to date. On listening to this interview and hearing Brene had a new show on Netflix I suggested to my partner that we take a look over the bank holiday weekend.

Even if I hadn’t heard this interview with Dan Harris or if I hadn’t been exposed to Brene’s previous work I probably would have been curious enough to watch the Netflix special when I next logged in for my regular Netflix ‘fix’. The title of the special “The call to courage” invokes another of my personal path processes – in Paul Tilich’s words “the courage to be”. I’ve shared with you previously on this blog that much of my personal journey has been learning to listen to my experience of anxiety and develop an alternative relationship with it. To hear how it helps direct me towards needs for connection and invites courage to be my Self – when alone and with others. In some ways, courage IS my path. Rather than rid myself of anxiety by nailing down as much certainty as I can, it is to open to the fear…courageously.

You can watch Brene Brown’s special for yourselves, so I don’t feel I need to provide another review or account of it here for you. Instead, I wish to simply share a few of the highlights for me; things that made my partner and I take stock and relate to our own lives.

Life is too short to live it small
Brene’s first book “Daring Greatly” is inspired by her meeting with Teddy Roosevelt’s words from 1910…
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
This got me thinking: where am I not living in the arena? Where could I do with daring more greatly? A few ideas came to mind, my book project being one of them, and my dedication to my spiritual path being (a related) other. But also on a personal level, where am I staying small? It made me think of how we all carry a shadow side, and their is certainly shadow material here for me that needs bringing out….

Who do we let influence our world?
…and we need support in bringing those parts of us out, those vulnerable parts. Listening to Brene speaking about “living in the arena” again I was reminded for the need to only listen to feedback from those people who are living in the arena themselves. It is very easy to take on criticism whenever we hear it, but do we need to? Why not limit ourselves to taking on and trusting the feedback of those daring greatly themselves?

Why not live in the arena?
It is scary, that’s why! To live in the arena brings uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure – Brene’s definition of vulnerability. To chose to live there is to know we WILL fail sometimes. Going back to my default reaction to uncertainty, I know in the past how much effort I would take in planning, and not just planning but having a Plan A through Z contingency of plans (often spending entire meditation sessions elaborating this mission!). Slowly (and not without pain and discomfort) I have found another way – to feel the anxiety rise, to not create a story but rather stay with the sensation realising its simply an echo of a time go by when I wasn’t safe (emotionally in my case) and was relying on my hard-writing to survive.

No wonder we get confused
Society tends to deliver two contradicting messages – on one hand we are invited to “be brave”; yet we are also urged “don’t be weak” or “be strong”. These simply are not compatible. I have personally found it useful to distinguish between ‘brave’ and ‘courage’. For me, bravery invokes something of an armouring up – a need to cover the vulnerable parts in order to go out a ‘do battle’ in the world. Courage on the other hand feels different. Interestingly, Brene shares a quote from a workshop she did with the military, and one man shared his experience that “there is no courage without vulnerability”. For me in my life, courage has been opening up to the vulnerability – to go in to the world without my armour.

The trade off
There is nothing wrong with wearing our armour. I was only speaking with a client recently about the need to honour the strategies we have developed to stay safe from harm – whether that be shielding ourselves from anxiety, risk or emotional exposure. However, in keeping those things away we lose the capacity to feel joy and to connect with others. I’ve enjoyed Brene’s writing on ‘belonging’ – she highlighted to me ways in which I have related to others and situations with my armour on – in other words, not believing Helen in her own right belongs, Helen has to find a way of being which will be accepted and she can ‘fit in’. There are still a few areas in my life where this can be considered work-in-progress. I would perhaps add an additional benefit of living from a place of vulnerability – as a therapist, it is only through knowing and experiencing my own vulnerability and ways to shield that I can fully understand and be with clients in their vulnerable place. Vulnerability begets vulnerability and is a powerful conduit to connection. Brene shared a lovely analogy of being with others in their dark place; and not being tempted to turn the light on (fix).

stories we tellWhat story am I believing?
As my partner and I watched this Netflix special together we had just come off the back of a ‘heated discussion’ at the dinner table. It was one of those conversations that seemed to take on a life of its own, we had spiralled to a sense of not knowing who had said what to whom (or “who started this”?!). I was very confused what had happened, as was she. We agreed to take a time out and sit with things. It was when Brene told a story from a recent holiday (don’t worry, no plot spoiler coming) that we were able to go back to the dinner exchange and explore the stories we were telling ourselves, and then projecting on to the situation. It is rather reminiscent of the work of Byron Katie – so rather than believing the thoughts that come up, deconstructing them, challenging them. A key difference between Byron Katie and what Brene Brown presents is how to share this in the relationship; to ask for a reality check with the key protagonist in the situation. I can see how this would help me (as I can develop some VERY believable fantasies at times); but I also see how it requires us to be emotionally exposed…so it might not be a possibility in all our relationships. Brene is very clear about vulnerability needing boundaries – or it is not vulnerability but show boating. I have witnessed this in group therapy situations: being vulnerable requires a sharing, a dialogue – not a monologue outward. Talking TO people, not about them.

But life is the best it has ever been, why am I MORE anxious?
I’ve often experienced this with clients. Having worked together for a period of time, the client reports great progress and experiences many shifts in their life and relationships. BUT, they complain of a heightened anxiety. I too have experienced this same thing: we can feel more vulnerable the better life is. It is as if the more we have, the more we have to lose; that someday the other shoe is going to drop. Brene normalises this to some extent in her work and reported that her research data shows how many people experiencing vulnerability seem to cope with it better by pushing that energy toward gratitude for what is (over the fear of what might be). How can we feel the vulnerability and rather than armouring up readying for the axe, feel the tenderness and open to it?

Whether you’ve come across Brene Brown’s work or not, I’d recommend taking a look. What I appreciate the most about her is how authentic she is in this work. She models exactly what she encourages us to consider. There are not many people who live such an exposed life in the public eye, and I deeply admire her for that. Imagine what the work place would be like with leaders who were prepared to be vulnerable (and therefore more approachable); imagine families and relationships where we could ‘reality check’ what is going on for us rather than living a life full of worry about what others might think. Of course what happens is we often wait for others to be vulnerable before we feel we too can put down our shields, understandably because it IS a risk to live life this way.

Therapy is one place we can learn to do this. But that requires therapists to be equally prepared to share vulnerability and take risks with clients by sharing their experiences of being in relationship: in the room, in real time. 

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