I had one of those “aha” moments recently while reflecting on a few of my close relationships that have really flourished over the past year. These are several very different relationships with one very strong common denominator — vulnerability. A willingness to share our vulnerability with each other has fostered our personal growth and mutual respect.
In those moments when experiences in our life are scary, dark or painful, when we are feeling most alone, confused or terrified — that is where is the greatest opportunity for true connection lies.
The really good stuff of relationships is often found in the murky, messy heartaches. If you can be the one who shows up and walks into that dark space with your friend or loved one – and you just sit and listen, you will be a tremendous source of comfort. What we need most when we are struggling or hurting is a safe place to show our vulnerability without judgment, criticism or even rescuing.
Brene Brown reminds us that vulnerability is not weakness. When we are wiling to share our vulnerability, we face emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. She says it is our most accurate measure of courage — to let ourselves be seen and to be honest.
So, when someone comes to you and shares their pain, just know that it took a tremendous amount of courage for that person to open up like that. Most of the time, we are only going to turn to someone we wholeheartedly trust when we are feeling vulnerable. Occasionally we just might open up to a stranger believing that if they don’t know us, they can’t judge us. In the midst of conflict or struggle, all those emotions and feelings are bound to erupt somewhere. If you are the person someone turns to, then you have an incredible opportunity to forge a deeper connection and provide genuine support to someone in their moment of need.
This is where the second component of vulnerability comes into play and it is of paramount significance. Brene Brown’s research revealed that at the core of vulnerability are shame, fear and our struggle for worthiness. And even more importantly, it is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love.
Understanding this full spectrum of vulnerability enables us to be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and ultimately to our friends and loved ones too.
Unfortunately we often hijack the process of working through our tough emotions. We may want to avoid those negative emotions so we look for ways to numb the pain. The solution might be a couple of drinks or a pint of ice cream. Another numbing technique is blaming — offload that pain and discomfort onto someone else. Or we might choose to avoid them by stuffing them deep inside.
The downside of all this numbing of the negative emotions is that we simultaneously numb the good stuff — joy, gratitude and happiness. Brene wisely points out that we cannot selectively numb only the tough emotions.
When we lose sight of gratitude, joy and happiness, it is really. hard to pull ourselves out of despair. When life throws us for a loop, one of the greatest tools we possess to help us get back on track is gratitude. Gratitude will ground us — reminding us of our strengths, our resources and those who support us. Gratitude can be a huge calming factor in the face of chaos. And it most definitely is a springboard for problem resolution.
It takes time and lots of it to fully process a hurtful or stressful experience. We have to work through the tough emotions to get to the other side where we can restore our happiness and peace. Recognizing that our vulnerability is truly courage and a source of strength can shift us from feeling inadequate to a deep sense of worthiness.
Many times when someone reaches out to us, they are struggling not only with a painful situation but also the feeling of disconnection. It hits hard and magnifies the tough emotions when we feel isolated. It is in those moments that we make the most significant impact for another human being. When we give our time — to sit and listen, to be genuinely empathic and kind — we are giving connection.
It’s ironic that in the past I thought I had to be a problem solver for others in order to ease their pain. I hate to see people hurting and I’d do just about anything to dry the tears, right the wrong (even if it wasn’t my wrong to right), and bolster self-esteem. Truth be told, it was merely temporary comfort (maybe even a soft form of numbing) and in the long run was not all that helpful.
The best thing we can do to help another when they are facing challenges and struggles is to help them empower themselves. Well-meaning friends and relatives may have different opinions about what we should do, but ultimately we must make our own decisions.
As I reflect on the relationships that have flourished over this past year thanks to vulnerability, I realize that there is a strong sense of self-worth and satisfaction in each of us for what we have overcome. We’ve had the courage to be completely honest with each other and have shared our life stories with our whole heart.
We have a true sense of belonging and acceptance — and not in spite of our life stories — but because of them. Our friendships are deeper and we share a lot more laughter these days. We also know without a doubt that when the next struggle shows up, we will be there for each other. It’s hard for us to imagine that we cannot survive whatever life has to throw at us considering all the things we’ve collectively experienced. Best of all, we are our authentic selves.
For More Information on Vulnerability and Connection, check out Brene Brown’s TED talks on You Tube and her books, including I Thought It was Just Me. Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. Check her out on brenebrown.com and on Facebook.