I get so invigorated when a breakthrough discovery upends old paradigms and carves a brand new path for us to take on this life journey. Recently I shared how we missed the necessary life lessons embedded in regret. Today, it’s a big one — it’s vulnerability.
Just like the impassioned enthusiasm that author Dan Pink has about reframing regret for its value, this same passion and high energy exudes from author and activist, Dr. Shawn Ginwright, about the multitude of benefits gained from embracing vulnerability in a whole new way.
In his recent conversation with Brene Brown on Unlocking Us, Dr. Shawn Ginwright spoke with conviction about the role vulnerability plays in our most meaningful relationships. Especially, transformative relationships — those rare and invaluable relationships where we are lifted up and given the scaffolding we need to grow and flourish.
When Dr. Ginwright proclaimed “vulnerability is the portal for deep connection with another” I stopped the podcast and let that soak in. Then I rewound it and listened two more times.
As an ardent student of Brene’s work on courage and vulnerability, this concept of a portal gave me an unforgettable image to reframe the role that vulnerability plays in meaningful relationship connections. A portal is a doorway, a gate, an opening — sometimes, a large and impressive one.
When someone is courageous enough to be vulnerable with us, they are literally dropping their innermost drawbridge and revealing the “portal” into a deeper understanding of who they are, what matters most and what they are experiencing.
Dr. Ginwright calls our response to these moments of vulnerability “the exchange of humanity”.
If we peek through that portal and look closely, we can see, and feel, another’s anguish through our own eyes and heart.
Brene Brown explains that this “exchange of humanity” creates a connective energy between people and provides the emotional support for healing and growth.
All we really have to do is reflect on a past vulnerable moment of our own to intuitively know what we would have found comforting. This is where “meaningful connection” takes root – in our shared humanity. Our experiences may be quite different, but those deep feelings and painful emotions are similar.
Vulnerability has been a rich topic of conversation very recently in my book club and with my close friend since we are all reading and digesting Atlas of the Heart. As we shared stories with each other, we began to reframe how we think about — and respond to — vulnerability.
It made me realize that we were actually experiencing what Dr. Ginwright is teaching — our connections were deepening as we leaned in to each other’s stories where they took a leap of faith and bared their vulnerabilities to others.
Brene writes that across cultures, most of us were raised to believe that being vulnerable is being weak and that this belief sets up an unresolvable tension because we were also taught to be “brave.” But being brave implies having courage — and vulnerability is the most accurate way to measure courage.
Real courage means taking that risk, sharing our truth and who we really are, without any guarantee of the outcome.
“Courage requires the willingness to lean into uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” (excerpt from Atlas of the Heart).
We are “all in” for courage when we cheer on the protagonist in our favorite book or movie. That kind of courage seems fearless and heroic.
We are far less comfortable with courage when it comes to ourselves. Our fear — of being judged, labeled, diminished or worse yet — cast out from the groups we want to belong to — keeps us armored up and silent.
And here is our conundrum — we want deeper connections in our relationships, but we mistakenly believe that by being vulnerable and opening up to others, we will be perceived as weak. There’s a lot of shame, fear and insecurity wrapped up in this old belief system. We build walls and don protective emotional armor to keep us safe — but it is a false sense of security and a major roadblock to meaningful connection.
That old belief system also set us up for failure when it comes to responding to those who take that risk and share their vulnerabilities with us. If we believe that being vulnerable is weakness, we can easily fall back on old unhealthy patterns of relating to weakness as something to avoid. Like it or not, our first unconscious responses probably are to judge, diminish, recoil and withdraw.
We’d be operating on auto pilot with a harmful belief system that predisposes us to respond to perceived weakness as undesirable.
This is where I find the work of Brene Brown, Dr. Shawn Ginwright and their peers to be game-changing. Shattering these old myths and reframing vulnerability as the portal for connection is a very profound, healthy step in the right direction. As Brene shares in Atlas of the Heart, we have been using perfectionism, people-pleasing and proving to mask vulnerability. No wonder we find it so challenging to really be our authentic selves.
It seems to me that the old belief about vulnerability being equated with weakness also contributed to an erosion of trust. Trust is the bedrock of genuine connection. If we shared our vulnerabilities with someone and their response was to treat us as “weak”, it is only natural that the trust we placed in that person would be compromised.
Brene highlights the importance of discipline and self-awareness when it comes to sharing our vulnerabilities for this very reason. Trust is an essential component of solid relationships. She advises that we mindfully chose those who have earned the right to hear our stories and experiences — those people you deem trustworthy.
On the flip side of this, remember that if someone comes to you to share their stories, you have probably earned their trust. Will you be a good steward of that earned trust?
Reflecting on my life, with this new perspective, I can more clearly see the pivotal “sliding door moments” where both vulnerability and trust were at stake — and the resulting outcomes.
There are moments when I shared my vulnerability with someone I trusted — and they chose to lean in and listen, to be kind and respectful. A warmth washes over me when I recall how it felt to be cared for in such a loving way when I was hurting. And yes, my trust in those people grew exponentially and our relationships have stood the test of time.
There are other “sliding door moments” when others dismissed, diminished or ignored me when I was most vulnerable. These reflections took me back to childhood, marriage, friendships and parenting – where those missed opportunities caused chasms in relationships. These moments feel more like doors closing, my membership card in a group being revoked, and jabs at my self-worth.
I see that now — I did not see it in those moments when it was all unfolding.
My friends and I have long wondered why others respond in ways that amplify someone’s pain, or even inflict more on to them when they are at a low point. Could it be that the old myth of vulnerability being a weakness was the main problem?
The more we are learning, reflecting and sharing, the more we are beginning to understand the root causes of disconnection. It is a complex combination of the belief that vulnerability is weakness; all the ways we employ to keep our vulnerability hidden; the lack of emotional support that we inherently need to help us work through adversities; and our own negative and hurtful responses to others’ vulnerability.
We are “unlearning” what doesn’t work and we are “relearning” a much more beneficial approach for courage, vulnerability and deeper, meaningful connections. It does require that we begin to show up more authentically and not hide our vulnerabilities, that we express our needs and boundaries and that we do our part to build trusting relationships.
Dr. Ginwright encourages us to take all of this “relearning” one giant step further by seeking “transformational” relationships. He defines these relationships as those that help us do the necessary “mirror work” to grow into our better selves. Transformational relationships will help us see where we are stuck, where old behavioral patterns could be problematic, and the hidden potential we possess.
In his newest book The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Yourself, Dr. Ginwright emphasizes that we don’t get “mirror work” without these important transformational relationships — and that we only get into these invaluable relationships by sharing our vulnerability. It is through this exchange of humanity that we become connected in ways that cannot be easily dismissed or disconnected.
When I think of a transformational relationship and “mirror work”, I think of my lifelong friend Judy. Over the past six years she has been an honest, trustworthy, truthful friend. We have forged a strong, flexible and enduring relationship bond as we peeled back the layers of our life experiences and searched for the lessons we missed along the way. Perhaps this is why Dr. Ginwright’s teachings resonated so deeply with me. I have firsthand experience of the transformational power of reframing vulnerability in this whole new light.
It is what inspires me to be a transformative “mirror” friend to others. The gift in paying it forward, is that we continue to gather more stories of humanity — those heart-expanding stories that braid the bond with more texture, more color, more fiber, more compassion.
I hope that this revelational new way to view vulnerability opens your heart and eyes to a better pathway for relationship building — and repairing. I will leave you with one compelling message: Please be gentle with those who show you their vulnerability. Even if you are unable or unwilling to be the rock they need in their hour of despair, don’t make their healing work harder. Be kind and respectful. Reflect on how much courage it took for that person to show you vulnerability.