what if i told you vulnerability wasn’t a weakness but one of your greatest strengths?

The following is a talk I gave on 02/10/2014 at a woman’s book study at Northland Church in Longwood, Fl. Much of what was discussed drew heavily on Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. Enjoy!

I find Vulnerability to be a really great and fun topic but a really hard one, too. Even as I was preparing for this, I felt at different points over the last few weeks…“oh my gosh, I can’t do this. Oh my gosh, what am I doing?” You know, that shame of “no, no, no, you don’t have anything special to say.” So, I feel quite vulnerable giving a talk on vulnerability in a very ironic kind of way. But, in an effort to be even more vulnerable and to feel reallllyyy naked in front of y’all…I want to talk about a particular time in my life that is one of the most vulnerable pieces of who I am. I really believe that our lives are comprised of vulnerable moments…to be human is to be vulnerable.

So, flash back a couple of years to my freshmen year of college. To paint the picture, I grew up in a loving conservative TEXAS Christian home and was quite naive to the “things of this world.” The life philosophy of, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ran continuously through my mind…emotions are “bad” especially growing up as a tom-boy. So, I went to play college Basketball at a private liberal arts college in Georgia. During those first few weeks, I met a friend, who played volleyball, and long story short…since I’ve been in therapy, I can give y’all the cliff notes. I got into a codependent friendship with her. I would not have used that term THEN and in fact, my therapist first “named” what I was experiencing and my response was, “I’m sorry but…NO.” But it was, it really was a codependent friendship that blossomed into areas of sexuality. You can imagine with me being a straight, Christian girl having experienced some of these same-sex attractions–that bled out of a codependent friendship–how…awkward…vulnerable..uncomfortable and very much felt like I was walking around with a scarlet letter and a label that was visible to everyone, “major sinner.” I felt so exposed and “out there” but in reality, many people didn’t know the shame I was carrying around.

Freshmen year ended, I worked at a Christian athletic sports camp–Kanakuk Kamps–where I found a lot of healing in many ways but I didn’t tell anyone what had happened in my freshmen year. We talked about freshmen year in vague terms but I couldn’t talk about that ONE thing in my life because I knew that the moment I did, people would leave me. People would run away from me. This feeling of shame was so overpowering that I had, in many ways, wrapped myself in Shame. Which, at the very core of Shame, according to Brene Brown, blame, disconnection and fear. That is EXACTLY what I felt and had even adopted that into my very identity.

As I went into my Sophomore year, I felt like the Lord was telling me, “Olivia, you have to tell Sheryce and you have to tell Lindsey about what happened with that friendship.” I was veeerryy resistant, “no, no, no…I don’t need to tell anyone…the shame isn’t THAT bad….right?” The sense of needing to tell those 2 girls–who were very dear and close friends–only grew. To the point where I felt nauseous so I figured at that point, “yeah, this needs to happen.” I vividly remember where we were, what time of day it was, what was happening around me when I told Sheryce–shaking–with tears in my eyes, explaining to who what had happened with that friendship. Sheryce knew. Sheryce knew the whole time everything that had happened despite my secrecy and shame. I had literally reached the point, though, in my shame where she couldn’t say anything negatively or shame-inducing to me that I hadn’t already told myself. At that point, I was already hurt so deeply that I was anticipating her to respond with, “uh, that’s disgusting. That’s gross.” To which I would have completely agreed.

She didn’t say that. At all. As I was sharing my story, through the sobs and I’m not a cute cryer so you can imagine the tears, the snot…it wasn’t cute. She just sat there. Crying. For me. With me. She literally, leaned in and looked me right in the eyes and said, “Olivia, Jesus loves you and so do I.” I lost it. In that moment, she had the opportunity to respond to my vulnerability by either affirming the shame that I was already feeling through the “uh, that’s gross.” I almost wanted her to say it because I had already believed the lies that I was unworthy, unlovable, unacceptable and that I was too far outside of God’s graces to ever be let back in. Instead, though, she chose to open the door, lean in, and to connect to me in a really beautiful way. This story, in many ways, was the pinnacle of my vulnerability and what was birthed out of that moment was joy, life, belonging, acceptance, creativity. All of these things were birthed out of what I had feared the most…

That’s one of–many–vulnerable stories for me and perhaps the one that is charged the most. To help you all figure out your vulnerable stories, though, fill in the blank…“To be vulnerable is_________.”

In Brene’s book, Daring Greatly, she worked over 10+ years researching shame–fun topic, right?–so this book is a type of compilation of all that work. With the question I just asked, the answers that people gave were incredible….”to be vulnerable is…” sharing an unpopular opinion, saying no, initiating sex with my husband, calling a friend whose child has just died, signing up my mom for hospice care, the first date after my divorce, getting pregnant after 3 miscarriages, waiting for the biospy to come back, having faith…

So, if that is what vulnerability IS and we’re externalizing vulnerability we have to figure out what it FEELS like. The data came back with this…vulnerability FEELS like: where courage and fear meet, it’s scary and exciting, terrifying and hopeful, it’s a lump in my throat and a knot in my chest, it feels like fear every single time, it’s infinitely terrifying and achingly necessary (unfortunately), i know it’s happening when I feel the need to strike first before I’m even struck (that sense of defensiveness), it feels like free falling and this one in particular resonates with me…vulnerability feels like letting go of control. That sense of surrendering yourself to something beyond you. This is interesting, the most common response to “what does vulnerability feel like?” was: nakedness. It’s true. Standing up here, right now, in front of you causes me to think, “oh.my.gosh.” It’s that idea of feeling completely naked on a stage and praying that people applaud instead of laugh.

So, if that’s what vulnerability IS and what vulnerability FEELS like then how do we define IT?

Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “risk, uncertainty, and emotionally exposed.” Pretty good way of putting it, honestly. The dictionary tells us that going all the way back to the Latin–which I won’t attempt to pronounce, it’ll just be embarrassing–it gets at the idea of the ability to be wounded or to be attacked. So, in essence, you’re opening yourself up to attack…you’re creating a space for someone or something to “get you.” Which is why none of us like it very much because it’s painful. Weakness, though, the definition of it is the inability to withstand an attack. So, if vulnerability is opening yourself up to possibly be attacked and weakness is the inability to withstand such an attack, what if we knew the areas we were vulnerable? Wouldn’t that mean that we couldn’t be easily attacked or surprised?

There are 4 big “myths” to vulnerability that Brene talks about exclusively in this book (Daring Greatly).

The first we could all guess it because a ton of us believe it’s actually true…it’s the belief that vulnerability is actually a weakness. I’ve already given you the definition of vulnerability and weakness. What if instead of believing that vulnerability is “weak” we actually shifted our thinking to believing that vulnerability is actually a strength. If you think about it, honestly, the areas that you’re vulnerable in…If I think about those areas that I’m most prone to being wounded…those areas that if you go there it’s gonna get real, real fast…If I know what they are, couldn’t I use them as a strength rather than being a victim or continuously identifying as “wounded?” In essence, If I already know what those areas are, how could I be surprised and thus hurt when someone goes there? I wouldn’t be. I would have acknowledged then. Own them. Processed/processing through them. Vulnerability is really only a weakness–being surprised and unable to withstand an attack–when I don’t even know what they are.

I do a lot of talking, when I work with people, about being integrated people. This really gets to the idea that someone knows their WHOLE self, all parts of what comprises them–their emotional self, physical self, spiritual self, sexual self and how all of these work together in unison-=integrated–not in fragments. So, in knowing the areas that we’re vulnerable in, how they make me feel when they’re exposed, what I do to deal with shame…wouldn’t that be perceived as a strength? To believe that vulnerability is a weakness is, essentially, to say that “feeling is failing and emotions are liabilities.”

My story, my vulnerable story and being able to share with you, extending myself to you…I know, recognize and acknowledge that that’s an area of vulnerability. The Lord’s redeemed it in such a way that now it’s one of my greatest strengths. It’s one of the things that makes me so unique in that I can extend to other people with the hope of helping them in their particular journey. This is the first thing that we have to do…we have to reorient our minds to believe that vulnerability is a STRENGTH. It’s going to take a whole lot more than me talking in front of y’all for 30minutes and saying, “just believe. it’s not weakness.” Honestly, I’ve been studying this kind of stuff for a while and I still struggle to actually believe that vulnerability ISN’T a weakness every.single.day. Society, families, culture tells us that we’re suppose to be this ONE way and if we’re not then we’re weak, we’re this, we’re that. But if you know the areas that are sensitive for you, your vulnerabilities, think about how they could be portrayed as strengths rather than weaknesses…always being victimized. Those stories of what vulnerability is–initiating sex with my husband, getting pregnant after 3 miscarriages–those didn’t sound weak to me. It sounds a lot like courage. Brene talks about courage as the ability to tell your story with your WHOLE heart. Your whole BEING. Your whole PERSONHOOD. So, if we view vulnerability in others as a strength, why is it so hard to see it as a strength in ourselves? Can you view your vulnerability as a strength just as much as you do in others? If you don’t, why? That’s a great question to ask. There’s something there in the way of you accepting that for yourself….what is it?!

The second myth to vulnerability is–I love this one, I say it to myself all the time–“I don’t do vulnerability.”Olivia, this is nice and all but, um, I’m not emotional. I don’t cry. I’m not vulnerable.” One of my old roommates use to tell me that all the time and recently texted me to say that she had begun to cry a little bit more now…it’s good, it’s healthy. The idea that we don’t DO vulnerability is funny because we don’t really get a choice. To be human is to be vulnerable. I mean, every single day we’re faced with these different moments….how are we going to respond to our vulnerabilities? how are we going to respond to others vulnerabilities? It happens all the time. Vulnerability happens in community, in dialoguing and processing our lives. So, we don’t DO vulnerability…it does us. I’ll prove it.

There are 3 questions that came up throughout her research that depicts how vulnerability DOES us…

1. What do I do when I feel emotionally exposed?

2. How do I behave when I feel very uncomfortable and uncertain?

3. How willing am I to take emotional risks? At home, with your kids, your husband, people at church, people at work?

So, we may not get the choice of doing vulnerability BUT we can choose how we will respond to ourselves and others. Do we respond by connecting to others or do we shame them at the instant we sniff vulnerability? The moment we stop BEING vulnerable and start DOING vulnerability…we risk hurting people. Some people who identify with the latter often use vulnerability as a bat to swat at others which, honestly, screams attention, woundedness and a load of other things that are preventing that person from engaging and living out vulnerability rather than using it as a weapon and thus injecting others with shame. We get to choose how we will respond to ourselves and others. Are we going to open that door and lean in or are we going to back away as fast as we can and say, “uhh, no, no, not me.?” The latter really shows more about your insecurities and unacknowledged vulnerabilities than anything else, unfortunately. Bringing people into your life to help you process how they’ve experienced your response in the past to their vulnerability and how they see you responding to yourself will be incredible…and painful.

The third big myth that, I think, a lot of people believe but it isn’t true at all is that vulnerability is letting it all hang out. It’s that feeling of being emotionally dumped on. You guys know what that’s like, right? I mean, you just introduced yourself to someone and they begin telling you how their marriage is falling apart. Woah. Too much, too fast. That’s what people often think vulnerability is, it’s this reckless spewing of emotions and that is how it is used, at times, but in a very harmful and destructive way, honestly. Vulnerability, when it’s done well, is done within really healthy boundaries. It’s done with people who’ve deserved the right to hear your story. It’s done with people you trust. I mean, I don’t really know you guys so I’m not going to stand here and give you the play by play of some of the most vulnerable moments of my life. That would be so awkward for both of us. If I were to do that, though, with my 3 closest friends and my husband that would be totally normal because I’ve given them the right to know my life. To step in and to criticize the areas I need to be challenged in, the area’s that I’m doing well in…I’ve given them that right and there is a ton of trust that’s been built up over time.

John Gottman, a guru in the world of couples, relationships, marriages, has this awesome metaphor that he refers to as “sliding door moments.” It’s this idea that trust isn’t a one time event. It’s built up over time in little moments, “sliding door moments.” In the article where he discusses this concept, he talks about a time where his wife was in the bathroom, brushing her hair and crying. He had a choice, in that moment, to step in that moment, put his hand on her back and say, “honey, what’s going on?” Or to acknowledge what’s going on, close the door and jump into bed to devour a book he had been looking forward to reading all day. It’s a choice of connection and building trust. Marriages, relationships don’t just happen out of thin air–unless you’re on the bachelor/bachelorette but that’s another discussion. Normal marriages, relationships happen out of small moments–over time–where honesty, loyalty, trust, confidence, affection, communication, safety and love are built up over time. Same idea applies that marriages or relationships that are eroding, there are a series of small moments where dishonesty, disloyalty, little commitment, not truthful, not trustworthy…it happens over time where one or both individuals decided to disengage rather engage, to disconnect rather than connect. I don’t get people who come into my office exclaiming, “oh my gosh, Olivia, yesterday we were great and when we woke up we were talking about divorce.” No no, I get people who come in and say, “6 months ago such and such happened and ever since then we’ve been in a downward spiral. I’m invisible to him, she doesn’t sleep in the same bed, we don’t talk, we’re like two passing ships in the night.” Trust is built in small moments over time. Vulnerability, too, happens in small moments.

If all of this is true, then, how can we tell when someone is trustworthy?! I mean, how can I be guaranteed that they won’t hurt me? Through Brene Brown’s research, she’s come out saying that its kind of like the chicken and the egg ordeal. “We need to feel trust in order to be vulnerable BUT we have to be vulnerable in order to trust.” It’s a “both, and” not an “either, or.” We have to go through the risk, the uncertainty, the emotional exposure in order to determine if there is trust. Vulnerability isn’t just letting it all hang out, it’s done within safe boundaries with people who deserve to hear our story.

Lastly, the biggest myth–that is probably the most American of all–is the idea that we can do vulnerability alone. This concept is hilarious because we’ve already determine that to be vulnerable means it has to happen in a context of community. You can’t be vulnerable with yourself…you know everything about you that there is to know. After all, you are your worst critic. No, no, vulnerability happens when there are 2 or more people present. It happens in small groups, it happens when you and your partner are lying in bed sharing some of the most painful parts of yourself, it happens over coffee, it happens in hospitals, it happens where people are present. We, as human beings, are wired for community. It goes back to Genesis..there wasn’t just Adam or just Eve. There were two. That’s messy…no one can DO vulnerability perfectly. That isn’t what I’m suggesting. I’m simply saying, try it out. Practice it. Maybe you might even have moments where it’s “good.” Where you fall short, lots of “sorry” and confession might be in order. Own it, acknowledge it, process it…in community. I always say, that the people who you surround yourself with should be like mirrors. They should be reflecting back to you your strengths, the things you need to work on, holding you to a high standard, expecting more from you because they believe in you. If you don’t have these kinds of friends, you need new ones. If you have no mirrors in your life then sitting back and figuring out what’s up with that might be really beneficial for you. My most vulnerable moment was the pinnacle of where I felt accepted, loved, belonging whereas prior to owning it and processing it within my community I had felt shame, unworthy, unlovable.

There’s this really great quote in Brown’s book. Right before this, she’s talking about asking herself hard questions about how her fear of vulnerability is keeping her from actual relationships. It’s keeping her from being authentic, genuine. “I did believe that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable. So when it happened–when the phone rang with unimaginable news, when I was scared, when I loved so fiercly that rather than feeling gratitude and joy, I could only prepare for loss. I controlled things. I managed situations and micromanaged the people around me. I performed until there was no energy left. I made what was uncertain, certain…no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and fear could never catch up. I looked brave on the outside and felt scared on the inside. Slowly I realized that this shield was too heavy to lug around and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known. The shield required that I stay small and quiet behind it so as not to draw attention to my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was exhausting.”

I do this all the time and I just wonder how many of y’all do this, too. We hide behind this shield of, “no no, I’m too much of a burden..I’m too much for them. They don’t care…they don’t want to know THAT.” Really, though, what we’re doing though is being selfish, right? We all have amazing gifts despite our brokenness and inadequacies, we have amazing things to hear from one another. Maybe I need to hear from you, and from you and maybe you need to hear from me but if I”m hiding behind this shield then you’ll never fully know me. Because the risk, the uncertainty, the emotinoal exposure is so over powering that there is no way that I could ever be fully known to you. Yet, this is the thing we want SO badly, so desperately. Really, if I took all of the client’s I’ve seen and boiled it down to one thing…guess what it would be? We’re all searching for belonging and to be known. That’s what I want from my spouse…my close friends…my family. I want to be fully known! How liberating is that? To be fully accepted despite the fact that they know all of my junk and STILL enjoy me?! Seriously? That’s what Jesus does for us yet it doesn’t seem like it’s enough, does it? It’s not enough for me most of the time. I have to continually preach the Gospel to myself and have others do the same…the mirrors. We all want to be fully known and to have that sense of acceptance but when we’re hiding behind our shame it won’t happen. When we pretend we have it all together, it won’t happen.

Until we can step in and say, “me too” connection, authenticity won’t happen. We want it so so badly yet it’s the hardest thing to get. In our fast culture, we’re told who we should be, what we should be, how we should be. Shame is organized by gender in society. Men have their own shame points and we, as women, have our own. The biggest one that hits me the most is the idea that “we have to do everything perfectly, be skinny, don’t cry, don’t have a meltdown, don’t let anyone see you sweat.” Are you kidding me?! Inside, when I play that game, I’m crying, dying, and desperately want someone to come alongside of me and say, “you don’t have to pretend anymore.” There’s a connection that’s built…I’ve been found out but so has she and it’s liberating. What if, instead of always trying to do it better than the other woman, we say what we’re really feeling. Being a mom sucks, sometimes. It’s tough. Sometimes you don’t like your kids. Okay. This is connection…this is community…let’s chase after this.

If we can look at other people’s vulnerabilities as strengths, why can’t we see it as such in our lives? If it’s a strength in you why, then, is it a weakness in me? Vulnerability looks a lot like truth and feels a lot like courage.

In the Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen, there’s a great quote by Carl Rogers–“I have found that the very feeling which has seemed to me the most private, most personal hence most incomprehensible by others has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people. It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element, which, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.”

What Rogers is saying is remember that one thing in your life? That one thing that if anyone knew about it, they’d run? No, that’s probably the thing that needs to be shared the most because it creates the most connection…it speaks most deeply to others. How healing is that? Vulnerability is the greatest measurement of courage and strength. If we can reorient our minds to believe this, how different would we be?

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