The Value of Vulnerability

Recently, a number of people have expressed appreciation for my willingness to be “real” about life, to be vulnerable. I have had had two reactions to this feedback. On the one hand, I want to say “Of course, there is no other rational way to live”. On the other hand, I want to say “Really? I am doing that? That’s great!” I didn’t used to live this way, but I guess it’s become a habit that I don’t think about.

This past week I have been reflecting on how I came to choose to be vulnerable… and yes, it’s a choice. Early in my marriage with my late wife Libby we had some big problems. At the time I was sure 99% of our marital problems, ok, maybe 90% of our problems were due to Libby. Of course this wasn’t the case. We started marriage counseling with Louie Basso. At the time, Libby was struggling with severe clinical depression. Louie referred Libby to a physician for anti-depressants which made a huge difference in her life, but Louie knew that Libby’s depression wasn’t the sole issue in our marital struggles. It didn’t take him long to get “my number” which was scary. I thought was pretty good at keeping people at a safe distance and keeping my weaknesses hidden. I most likely was, but Louie was very good a cutting through that sort of crap. I was the opposite of someone who was vulnerable. I lived a very controlled, self protected life. I could never show weakness. I could never fail to accomplish something. I always needed to be the best, or at least in the top 5%. Louie challenged me to be honest and open. I still remember when his words started to penetrate.  He said:

You are pretending to be stronger than you are, thinking that is what people want.
When you do this, you are lying. You are hurting yourself and those you love.
The people who love you will not be driven away by your weakness.
In fact, being authentic, showing your weaknesses is attractive.

In my heart, I knew he was right, but that didn’t mean change was easy. Louie’s continued encouragement / counsel, Libby and several of my closest friends showed me love, acceptance, and tried to help me stay aware of my tendency to hide my weaknesses, to pretend like I had infinite resources to handle anything. They would call me “Super Mark”. They would ask if I was wearing my costume with the giant “S” under my flannel shirt. Sometimes they would joke about phone booths.

As I  reflected on the topic of vulnerability this past week a pair of TED talks given by Brene Brown came up in my podcast queue. I would highly recommend these videos, well worth the 35 minutes it would take to watch them. [While I normally don’t refer to someone I don’t know by their first name, that seems overly familiar, I will in the rest of this post for brevity.] Brene’s first talk was call the Power of Vulnerability. I found myself laughing through the whole talk… that nervous sort of laugh when you realize that someone might as well be talking about you. I saw so much of my past self in her talk. Her second talk, Listening to Shame continues her story… how she had to deal the consequences of 4 million people having watched the first TED talk in which she talked very openly about her struggles to be vulnerable.

In Brene’s first TED talk she shared that one of the most important things for people is to have a sense of connection with others, and that when she examined thousands of data points she had collected, she realized that the people who experienced connection with others were whole hearted. People who had the courage to be vulnerable. They knew they were imperfect, but they could deal with themselves and others with compassion. They embraced vulnerability, and that made them beautiful. They didn’t see vulnerability as something awful or something wonderful, it was just something that is necessary. They understand that there are no guarantees, that sometimes being vulnerable would result in pain,  hurt, lose, but it was worth the risk because they believed that in spite of their imperfections, they were worthy of connection. Brene went on to describe how this research brought her to the point of a breakdown, or more euphemistically, a spiritual awakening. She spend a year working with a counselor wrestling with the implication of her research. She described how she lost the battle against vulnerability but in the process won her life back.

My process of learning to be vulnerable was not as quick. I wish I could say it was weeks or months. I would be happy if it was just the year that Brene described in her TED talk. It took me several years to make significant progress, with constant encouragement from those who loved me. I guess I was more willing than Brene to continue to fight against vulnerability, even though it was a foolish fight. Eventually though, I came to understand that without vulnerability, there couldn’t be deep joy, belonging, or authentic love. I came to realize that I was living my life in constant fear. I was sure that if people really knew me, that they would reject me. This fear created as much separation and alienation as real rejection.

Brene describes this fear as shame. Shame is the voice that tells us that it is too risky to be vulnerable. It started by saying “you aren’t good enough”, and if that fails, it tries “who do you think you are”. Ironically, this sense of shame, this fear, produces as much separation as real rejection. In fact, it’s maybe worse because when you choose to be vulnerable, and you are rejected, there is an opportunity to learn, to change, to grow, and try again. If you don’t expose yourself, you will never know. There is no chance for it to get better. When I came to understand that I had nothing to lose, and a lot to possibly gain, I started to slowly, carefully, reveal the person I truly was. I started to practice vulnerability. I thought, worst case, I would learn that my fears were accurate. At least then I would know for certain what I was dealing with. At best, Louie was right, I would find that people accepted my imperfections, and I would know they authentically care for me, that I would experience true community, connection.

I started to lower my guard. I started to be willing to show my weaknesses. The reactions from people was mixed. There were some people who judged me. There were people who moved away from me, clearly troubled or threatened. But there were many more people, especially Libby and my closest friends who showed me the most amazing acceptance and love. I found that rather than being repelled by my weakness, they drew in closer. They stood by me, offered help, support, companionship.  I experienced a life that was much more connected. Life got 1000% better.

A couple of years later we moved to a new city and found ourselves in a new church. We joined a small group and started to build new friendships. After a few months Libby and I noticed a pattern in what couples we were attracted to, and were starting to develop a closeness with. Their lives were messy. We could see that they were struggling with a host of issues. They weren’t always positive… we would hear about pain, heartache, struggles. You know what? It was attractive. We knew who they were. They didn’t live in a self protective bubble that kept everything at a safe distance. We realized that the lessons we had learned before moving were critically important. We didn’t want to forget them, to slip into a pattern of self protection. Together we made a commitment to live as openly and honestly, vulnerably as we knew how.

The first test of this resolve came a few months after we had moved. Libby’s mother passed away. We flew back to Columbus for the funeral. When we came back Libby was struggling with unresolved feelings related to her mom. We decided to talk with Lynne, one of our pastors who specialized in counseling. The first meeting with her was SCARY. It seemed like she saw right into our hearts. Not only did she ask questions about the things we presented and expected to talk about, but she asked questions that touched on things that we weren’t comfortable thinking about, much less letting anyone else know about. We could have decided that she was too scary, too perceptive, too discerning. Instead, we realized that she was a women who loved people, who wanted to come along side and help. We also realized that she was commitment to living honestly, to be vulnerable. Rather than fear exposure,  we decided that we would seek it out, and who better than someone who seemed to see things we weren’t even aware of. After the immediate counseling issue was resolved we continued to seek this dear women out as a friend. Over the years Lynne became one of our most cherished friends. We found her insight liberating, and her vulnerability refreshing.

In Brene’s second talk, “Listening to Shame”, she suggests that shame is focused on self. Shame said “I am bad”. She contracts shame to guilt. Guilt said “I did something bad”, a focus on behavior. Brene went on to say that shame said “I am a mistake” where guilt says “I made a mistake”. Shame destroys the opportunity for connectedness where guilt lets us compare what with did against what we want which is adaptable. While I think she makes a very good point, I think she doesn’t go far enough. Shame is indeed extremely destructive, but guilt can also be quite corrosive. Even the briefest examination of the topic of guilt would more than double this post, so I won’t. I will suggest the most excellent book called  No Condemnation by S. Bruce Narramore which has the subtitle Rethinking Guilt Motivation. The people who taught me the most about vulnerability and wholehearted living, Lynne and Louie, recommended this book to me and often assigned reading from it when they taught classes.

Brene talked about what happens when you put shame in a petrie dish. She observed that if you dose the dish with empathy, shame stands no chance. It can’t grow. If you want to shame to grow, just add secrecy, silence, and judgement. I am committed to a life of vulnerability… to fight against shame, and encourage others to choose to be honest, vulnerable, courage. It is tempting to think “when I get things together, when I am sure things will work, when I am sure I will succeed, then I will let people in, then I will let people see the real me”. There are two problems with this. First, it’s unlikely to ever happen. Second, that’s not what  people want to see. What they want to see is honesty, they want to see people who dare greatly, who take risks. I would encourage everyone to choose to live with authenticity. Live in the light.  My deepest regrets are the times I don’t do this.

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:1-5 ESV

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Philippians 3:12-16 ESV

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