Discover more from Sarah Fay
Is Vulnerability Really Necessary?
Reading time: 10 min.
I’ll admit to not understanding the fascination with vulnerability. The idea is that “being vulnerable”—embracing uncertainty, taking risks, and revealing our inner thoughts and emotions to others—is the key to success and having a full life. Not being vulnerable presumes that we are closed off, don’t try new things, don’t embrace our true selves, can’t feel intimacy in a relationship. Herein lies the crux of the vulnerability paradox: those who visibly embrace their weaknesses, particularly at work and in relationships, are strong whereas those who don’t are weak because they don’t expose their weaknesses.
The cult of vulnerability stems from one person: Brené Brown. She’s a phenomenon. People love her. Ever since her 2011 TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” went viral, she’s been the vulnerability expert. Brown also studies and is seen as an authority on shame, connection, leadership, courage, and excellence. In Daring Greatly and her other books and on her two podcasts, the points she makes are often obvious and important: Don’t strive for perfection, be yourself, face your fears, don’t concern yourself with what others think, take responsibility, see people’s potential. But vulnerability catapulted her to fame.
To Brown, vulnerability isn’t just necessary for personal growth; it’s the key to professional growth as well. At the University of Texas Austin, where she’s a research professor of social work, she teaches that it’s crucial to getting ahead in one’s career. In her role as a high-powered consultant to corporations like Microsoft, she says that it’s fundamental to becoming a great CEO, one who “leads with courage and empathy.”
I first heard about Brené Brown while in a partial hospitalization program (PHP) for suicidal ideations. In the PHP, we’d sit in a circle in a frigidly air-conditioned therapy room and learn “skills” to deal with our respective issues or mental illnesses: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The staff often recommended books by self-help gurus, psychologists, and researchers. Brené Brown was the second most frequently referenced person. (First was Dr. Kristin Neff, the self-compassion researcher who always seemed to be referred to by her full title.)
One night, I watched Brown’s TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” (It’s now had over 57 million views and is one of the top five most-watched TED Talks of all time.) In it, she’s wry and self-deprecating and immensely likable. Vulnerability means “showing up” and exposing ourselves as the messes we are. To experience joy and not shame we have to “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen.” We have to feel our emotions deeply, not guard against them. Vulnerability, she insists, is vital to “speaking our truth” (a cliché that might be worth abandoning), being our “authentic” selves (I’ve never really known what that means), and “finding belonging” (another cliché possibly worth abandoning).
Brown’s advice not to be afraid to “look weak” struck me as both reckless and potentially dangerous. As someone with serious mental illness who was in crisis, as a member of what’s often referred to as a “vulnerable population” (others include the economically disadvantaged, the elderly, the homeless, those with chronic health conditions, racial and ethnic minorities), I was vulnerable enough. My emotions were overwhelming and my thoughts relentless. I was already brittlely weak under the weight and impact of them. It seemed strange to recommend that I take risks, embrace uncertainty, and delve into my thoughts and emotions. With mental illness comes a profound sense of being both submerged and out of control. I needed safety, security, and a certain distance from my thoughts and emotions.
Using weakness to get ahead in one’s career didn’t make sense to me. It seemed so mercenary and calculating. Pushing vulnerability on people in the privacy of their own homes was one thing but showcasing it for personal gain felt manipulative.
Of course, mental illness is extreme, and Brown is speaking to people with, as she puts it, “comfortable lives.” Brown advises her readers, viewers, students, and clients to choose courage over comfort knowing that they can go back to their comfortable lives. My reality was harrowing, not a place I could leave and return to at will. Mental illness—and economic inequality and homelessness and growing old and racism—can’t be turned on and off.
To be fair, although vulnerability is often equated with self-disclosure, Brown explains that it doesn’t necessarily mean over-sharing with partners and colleagues and friends. It’s about not hardening to emotions or situations—not, as Brown puts it, Transformering up—a reference to the Transformers media franchise that centers on robots that can transform into weapons, among other things.
There’s something to be said for feeling negative and uncomfortable emotions like sadness, anxiety, fear, grief, and uncertainty but to fully heal from mental illness (and I have fully recovered though we’re incorrectly told and led to believe it’s chronic), I had to reject vulnerability. I toughened up. When a black wave of depression came over me, I hardened against it. No, I said. Not happening. When anxiety seized me, sending sweaty, sickening rushes of panic through my body, I did the same. No, I said. Not happening. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t. But I said it every time until it worked more often. When my thoughts and emotions enveloped me, I didn’t stop to show myself compassion. I definitely didn’t “turn towards them.” When I felt afraid, I didn’t “lean into it” (another cliché that might be abolished); I steeled myself and moved on.
I recently watched Brené Brown’s new Netflix special. In it, she takes a slight turn in her instructions on how to live a fully vulnerable life. She cautions her audience against being vulnerable with just anyone, especially online. Instead, we should only share ourselves with and ask for feedback from people who “like us” with all our messiness on display.
Once I had my emotional and mental footing again, I started to feel my emotions. It wasn’t so much about embracing vulnerability as taking baby steps to try to understand what thoughts and emotions are. What was the difference between grief and sadness? What did they feel like in my body? What thoughts caused one or the other? What actions did I take when I felt them? What results did I produce?
It could be said that I joined the cult of vulnerability by writing my memoir Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses. Yes, I told of a difficult time in my life but doing so was my choice. I’m still closed off, don’t try new things, don’t embrace my true self (whatever that is), and can’t feel intimacy in relationships. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
What does vulnerability mean to you and is it necessary?
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