Let's say that after reading a few articles about the benefits of yoga, you decide to try it yourself. You buy a mat, find a nearby class, and put on some stretchy pants. But when you get to the studio and see other students walking confidently in, their mats slung over their shoulders, you begin to feel strange. Your heart rate speeds up, your palms grow sweaty, and you think, Why in the world did I ever think I could do this?
This shaky feeling is vulnerability, and it makes you want to turn around and go home, where you can escape the potential judgment of others and your own fear of the unfamiliar.
But by pushing through those doors, you are doing something far more healthy and transformative, according to Brené Brown, a professor and vulnerability researcher at the University of Houston. In fact, "vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences," she says.
Dr. Brown recently visited the University of Minnesota as a speaker for the Center for Spirituality and Healing's Wellbeing Series and shared some of the insights that come from her research. After twelve years studying vulnerability and shame, she has arrived at a surprising conclusion: what scares us is sometimes actually good for us, and if we can stomach sitting with it, vulnerability has the potential to transform itself into joy.
What vulnerability is and why it's good for us
In her new book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes vulnerability as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." It's that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.
Dr. Brown's book debunks some myths about vulnerability, the most popular being that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. When we think of times that we have felt vulnerable or emotionally exposed, we are actually recalling times of great courage. These may be huge life events, like deciding to put an ailing parent in hospice care, but it's just as present in those small moments of fear that pop up when we share our feelings with another person or ask for forgiveness.
"What most of us fail to understand...is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave," says Dr. Brown. "Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity." So while going to that new yoga class may feel uncomfortable, you're also opening yourself up to the opportunity to make new friends and learn a new, healthy habit. But if you run away the second those shaky feelings arise, you're just reinforcing the voice in your head that says I'm not good enough.
What we do to avoid vulnerability
That insecurity is present in all of us, and it's so strong that we often go out of our way to avoid situations that might make us feel fragile. In Dr. Brown's talk at the University of Minnesota, she described the ways we try to sidestep the shaky feeling of vulnerability. We emotionally "armor up" each morning when we face the day to avoid feeling shame, anxiety, uncertainty, and fear. The particular armor changes from person to person, but it usually revolves around one of three methods: striving for perfection, numbing out, or disrupting joyful moments by "dress rehearsing tragedy" and imagining all the ways that things could go wrong. Do any of these sound familiar?
All of these types of armor can make us feel safe and "in control" in the moment, but they're really doing us more harm than good. "Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield-we think it will protect us but it keeps us from being seen," notes Dr. Brown. Numbing our emotions is damaging because it has a widespread effect-you can't numb fear without numbing joy at the same time.
The urge to imagine the worst-case scenario in moments of joy (such as not being able to enjoy a hug with your child without worrying about something bad happening to him) is an amazingly common phenomenon, according to Brené Brown's research. And why is it so hard for us to soften into joy? "Because we're trying to beat vulnerability to the punch," says Dr. Brown. But this has a negative impact, for without vulnerability, there is no love, no belonging, and no joy.
Getting comfortable with vulnerability
It's important to begin to recognize those fragile moments of vulnerability and work with them. Mindfulness is a good place to start. Adopting a practice of openness and awareness of your environment as well as your own thoughts, feelings, and triggers will help you recognize when you're disengaging because you're afraid.
After you become aware of where you are, you will be more certain about what changes you would like to see in your life. In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown describes this attentiveness as "pay[ing] attention to the space between where we're actually standing and where we want to be."
Here are some things to keep in mind as you practice "daring greatly" in your own life:
- Recognize that facing vulnerability takes enormous courage. Take small steps (like asking someone what they are thinking) and be proud of your bravery when you do.
- Let go of the constant worry about what other people think of you. Most people are focused on their own internal struggles, not you.
- Feeling overwhelmed? Focus your attention gently on your breath and the sensations in your body for a few moments before returning your attention back to the task at hand.
- Don't worry about being perfect-in fact, don't even consider it. No one is perfect, and the more you hold yourself to an impossible ideal, the more easily you will give up.