Some books change our lives. Daring Greatly was that kind of book for me. In the midst of an internal crisis this summer, I came across this book by Brene Brown, renowned researcher and author on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.
One of Brown’s key points is that, in order to do great things, we have to embrace vulnerability. That feeling of exposing yourself is scary, but it’s necessary because only by really reaching outside our comfort zones, by risking real pain or loss, can we achieve something really worth striving for.
Basically, if you risk little, you’ll gain little, and if you want to achieve or experience great things, you’re going to have to put yourself on the line.
What does this look like for those of us who aren’t leading armies or starting revolutions?
One example in the book involved a young man telling his date that he loved her, even though she didn’t feel the same way. She said so, and that ended the relationship. But what is important is that the guy wanted something more than a casual relationship, and he was willing to put his heart on the line to reach for it. Sure he got hurt, but that’s the kind of action that leads to fully realized living.
It takes courage to live fully.
For my part, the book taught me that if I wanted the relationship I said I wanted with my now-fiancé, I needed to be willing to be vulnerable instead of keeping my feelings one step removed. Always afraid of losing her, I had not allowed myself to really dive in.
This of course, had led to a lukewarm relationship that was at that point unraveling.
So, I finally let myself really care, right at the point when it would have been most likely to fall apart.
Vulnerability vs. Weakness
One reason we are afraid to be vulnerable is because we confuse it with weakness. When you are vulnerable, you are open to being hurt, but when you are weak, you are actually unable to defend yourself.
Vulnerability is a choice. Weakness is not.
It’s also important to realize that being capable of being hurt doesn’t mean you are not resilient. Being open to attack doesn’t mean you will necessarily crumble.
And in fact, from a social psychology standpoint, the willingness to be vulnerable denotes strength. Humans and other mammals use overt displays of physical vulnerability to show dominance. Alpha males walk or sit with their legs spread wide, exposing their genitals. Men sitting can appear more confident by putting their arms behind their heads, which is a terrible position for protecting your face but sends a clear message that you are not afraid, even when you are totally exposed.
Similarly, a willingness to be emotionally vulnerable shows strength of character. It tells people you aren’t afraid to be yourself or have your ego bruised…because you’re THAT self-assured and resilient.
It is the most insecure among us who are least willing to be vulnerable. And we take that unwillingness as a cue of insecurity and weakness.
Vulnerability as a Path to Strength
One lesson I’ve learned from martial arts is that you can’t win fights, or even avoid them, by balling up and simply trying to protect yourself. You have to at some point strike out, which does make you vulnerable because it is hard to defend and attack at the same time.
In a similar way, living life in a protectionist mindset, avoiding risk and trying to avoid notice, will inevitably lead to a life of reacting, struggling to stay afloat. At best, you’ll get by. At worst, you’ll be assailed by others and a system that takes advantage of those who can be cowed by fear into submission.
The ideal state is to take (calculated) risks that make you vulnerable for the sake of attaining something greater.
One thing I’ve learned is that life rewards those who demonstrate a full commitment. Choose a course and see it out, or don’t even start. Maybe halfhearted attempts work for some people, but they haven’t paid off in my life.
Are you vulnerable, or do you stay closed off to protect yourself? Does this limit your reach or your capabilities?