– Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart
“Vulnerability is the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”
I want to be brave when I am afraid.
As an anxious person, I am afraid a lot.
The courageous practice of vulnerability is what I adopted for my 2022 Guiding Mantra, and in fact began to live before the new year even started. This was probably the most fundamental and spiritually significant guiding mantras I have selected to date, and it has already manifested itself in all of my major life events within the past year:
- shaping my relationships with my partner (with whom I am now engaged and living together), my family, my friends, and my clients
- helping me navigate buying a home, practicing for and joining a community band, starting and regularly attending recovery program meetings, and negotiating new contracts and job opportunities
- sharing honestly about finances, logistics, fears, traumas, expectations, joys, and sadness
- weathering great emotional hills and valleys through introspection, therapy, meetings, reading, and reaching out to a support network
- learning to better admit when I am wrong and when I need help
Though I usually write this out at the beginning of the year to set my intentions for the months ahead, it actually took me the entire year to write and process these thoughts, even while I was living them. The words below are both intention setting and retrospective, looking forwards and backwards, while trying to stay grounded in the present.
vulnerability is… a paradox
Though we claim to value vulnerability in others, we constantly try to hide it within ourselves, behind a veil of control, a wall of disconnection, or a fog of dissociation. We fall into a pattern of comparison, where, according to Brené Brown in her book “Atlas of the Heart,” we are trying to “be like everyone else, but better…[due to] the crush of conformity on one side and competition on the other.” We compare our Behind The Scenes to everyone else’s Highlight Reel and fear that we are falling short, so we become increasingly unwilling to show up as our true selves. We make up stories about other people’s experiences, make assumptions and craft expectations around their behavior, and then withdraw or lash out in frustration when those things clash with the stories, experiences, and expectations of others.
This constant tension between how we view others’ vulnerability (as desirable, courageous, and attractive) vs how we view our own (as inadequate, imperfect, and repulsive) is a paradox. Brené Brown encourages us to lean into that paradox, to allow the seeming contradictions to coexist and to examine the emerging feelings and tensions that come with it. We can soon come to realize that many of the things we believe exist in opposition are really false dichotomies, which can actually peacefully coexist.
Embracing the paradox enables us to move past binary thinking in our lives – from either/or to both/and. It allows us to tenderly hold space for opposing truths – that both your experience and my experience are valid, even if they are different.
vulnerability is… choosing curiosity
– Atlas of the Heart
“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking, and sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort […] in these challenging moments of dissonance, we need to stay curious and resist choosing comfort over courage. It’s brave to invite new information to the table, to sit with it and hear it out.”
Choosing curiosity is setting aside your ego, your defensiveness, your preconceived notions, your need to be right. It is not trying to have an answer for everything or acting like you already know. It is being willing to hear something new, something challenging, something hard. It is being willing to experience something with an open mind, allowing for a new outcome. It is being not only willing, but excited to learn, grow, and expand, even if the lessons are painful or require a lot of work.
Curiosity is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing faith
– Atlas of the Heart
“In a world where perfectionism, pleasing, and proving are used as armor… it takes a lot of courage to show up and be all in when we can’t control the outcome.”
Choosing faith is letting go of a need for proof or certainty before you move forward. It is facing the people and situations in your life fully, without trying to control or engineer the results, even if past experience has made you skeptical or wary. It is a wholehearted willingness to surrender peacefully to the outcome, knowing that you showed up the best way that you were able. It is Letting Go and Letting God, whether through a formal spiritual practice, or just allowing yourself to be open to the ways the universe works when you finally stop and listen.
Faith is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing connection
– Atlas of the Heart
“Belonging is a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people… it requires us to be who we are.”
Choosing connection with ourselves means approaching our inner dialog with self- compassion and self security. It’s being honest about our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and discovering which parts of our past and present selves have shaped these things. It’s learning to understand and trust the sensation of feelings within our bodies, to allow them to happen without trying to control them or letting them overwhelm us. It’s defining and enforcing our boundaries, and being very clear where we end and others begin. Becoming more secure and vulnerable with our self allows us to extend the same security and vulnerability to others.
Choosing connection with others means reaching out to others as our whole selves, not with armor or shields or other defenses. It’s turning towards them, making a bid for connection even if we aren’t 100% certain of the response. It’s responding to their bids for connection, not pushing away or hiding, not withdrawing or lashing out. It’s being present with others in kindness, even when one or both of us are hurting, not by enmeshing emotions or taking on their pain, but by practicing empathy and compassion. It’s learning to honor their feelings and experiences, hear their stories, and believe them.
Connection is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing love
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”– Atlas of the Heart
“Lowering our armor towards others and letting them into our most vulnerable selves is choosing to stare our fears of abandonment, rejection, or low self worth in the face and say “it’s okay, I am a human and I deserve to give and receive love”
Choosing love is learning to deeply see ourselves so we can allow ourselves to be deeply seen by others. It means doing the work to unwrap the layers of shame and fear and protective behavior that surrounds our core, embracing these raw and sensitive parts of ourselves, and learning to be whole. It means learning who we are, learning our triggers and fears and anxieties, learning our needs and wants and boundaries, and being able to offer our love to others without hiding behind walls or bleeding into each other’s space. It means knowing that I am me, and you are you, so that we can be we together.
Love is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing joy
– Atlas of the Heart
“In the midst of joy, there’s often a quiver, a shudder of vulnerability… the people who lean into joy use the quiver as a reminder to practice gratitude […] When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. No emotion is more frightening than joy, because we believe if we allow ourselves to feel joy, we are inviting disaster. We start dress-rehearsing tragedy in the best moments of our lives in order to stop vulnerability from beating us to the punch… but there’s a huge cost. When we push away joy, we squander the goodness that we need to build resilience, strength, and courage”
Choosing joy means being truly present in the moment, to feel this emotion fully without trying to tamp it down. It means being able to share this emotion freely, without hiding behind cynicism or pessimism or doubt, or dulling your shine out of worry of what other people would think. It means observing the fears that come with the joy without allowing them to consume the experience of joy.
Joy is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing to heal
– Atlas of the Heart
“I’m not sure there’s a braver sentence in the human catalog of brave sentences than ‘my feelings were hurt.’ it’s simple, vulnerable, and honest. but we don’t say it very often. We get pissed off, or we hurt back, or we internalize the hurt until we believe we deserve it and that something is wrong with us.”
Choosing to heal means facing our pain, rather than trying to push it down, minimize it, or deflect it onto others. It means learning to sit with our pain in the present, noticing how it feels in our body, and trusting that even though it hurts, it will pass. It means allowing our bodies and minds to finally process the pent up pain from past hurts and traumas, to go through old anguish and grief and fear and loneliness, to release everything it has been storing from when we were unable to work through the cycle. It means forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, making amends, and doing that all with self-compassion rather than self-berating.
Healing is brave.
vulnerability is… choosing courage
– Atlas of the Heart
“Vulnerability is not weakness. It is our greatest measure of courage.”
In choosing courage over fear, I have chosen to invite vulnerability into my life in the following ways:
- Letting go of control, or more truthfully of the illusion of control, and allowing space for multiple ways of doing and being
- Being willing to learn, grow, and be challenged, even if it gets uncomfortable
- Practicing self-compassion in moments of shame or anxiety by reminding myself that my experience is human
- Turning inward to admit when I am wrong or struggling without believing those things harm my self worth
- Allowing myself to fully experience joy, and not be ruled by fears, assumptions, and catastrophic thinking
- Seeking authentic connection with others and with myself, through continuing my practice of belonging
- Turning towards others with kindness and empathy, rather than putting up walls and armor
- Trusting that the important people in my life are showing up as their best selves
- Joyfully letting the people I care about know the ways they make my life better, and compassionately sharing with them when their actions cause me pain
- Choosing to embrace joy by being present in the moment, rather than dress-rehearse tragedy
- Surrendering to forces and systems greater than myself with peace and wholeheartedness