The power of vulnerability

Metro in Moscow © Natalia Martinez

I am linking here to a video of Bene Brown – qualitative researcher, story-teller – giving a great 20-minute TED talk on a piece of her research that fundamentally expanded her perception. This point is going to seem disjointed because I am essentially just linking and transcribing some of the ideas in her talk, so I strongly recommend listening to her instead!

In research, Brown’s focus has been to try to measure and quantify those things in life that are messy, such as happiness, fulfillment, etc. In doing so, she has found that ‘connection’ is the human mind’s most important neurological need. As a result, she set out to study what this meant…but was surprised to find in her interviews that people qualified things not by what they had, but by what they didn’t. In other words, when she asked interviewees about love, they told her about heartbreak; when she asked about belonging, they told her about exclusion; when she asked about connection, they told her about feeling disconnected.

The single element that unraveled connection turned out to be shame, i.e. the fear of disconnection. What this translates to is questions such as: Is there something about me that makes me less worthy of connection to others? Poignantly, what underpinned this I’m-not-good-enough feeling was vulnerability, the idea that in order for true connection to happen, we have to be completely open and vulnerable with others.

Brown used stories, interviews, focus groups, journal analysis, etc to analyze this and studied it for 6 years. What she uncovered was that the people she interviewed could be divided into two groups: (a) people who had a sense of worthiness and belonging, and (b) people who did not. Most importantly, there was only one variable separating these two groups: those with a sense of love and belonging believed they were worthy of love and belonging.

Brown started to refer to this cohort as “ the wholehearted,” because they lived their lives wholeheartedly, and she set out to study them more carefully. It turned out that they all exhibited several patters of behavior: (a) they had the courage to be imperfect, (b) the had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and, only after, to others,  (c) and they had connection as a result to authenticity (willingness to let go of who they thought they should be and just be who they were).

The wholehearted also fully embraced vulnerability; it was neither comfortable nor excruciating for them, it was just simply necessary as a part of life. Brown’s interviewees discussed the willingness to say “I Love You” first, to take a risk when you don’t know the outcome, to invest in relationships when there are no guarantees….this kind of vulnerability seemed neither positive nor negative, but simply a natural part of life.

Faced with these results, Brown put away her data and started a yearlong journey into therapy because she wasn’t ready to cope with the reality that her search for finite and concrete results, for a way to pin down the messiness of life, had yielded the result that ambiguity is good and vulnerability is desirable!  At the core of her confusion was this: “I know that vulnerability is the core of shame, and fear, and our struggle for worthiness but it appears that it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.”

After a year of therapy, Brown went back into research. Out of this came several important findings. First, she learned is that we tend to NUMB vulnerability out of our lives as a way of avoiding it. To her, this is partly responsible for the unfortunate reality that her generation is the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem (based on her research) is that one cannot selectively numb emotion: when you numb certain affects, you numb all others, including joy, gratitude, happiness. Bottom line, we are essentially numbing ourselves from the world, instead of embracing what would make us feel more connected and fulfilled.

The other thing we tend to do is make everything that is uncertain, certain. As an example, we shy away from ambiguity in religion, politics, decision-making, even though these areas naturally have ambiguity and it is in some ways what moves them forward. Instead, we try to perfect the world around. Poignantly, Brown gives an example of how we raise our children: “We try to perfect our children when we should actually be saying, “You are imperfect but you are still worthy of connection.”

Brown’s solutions to embracing vulnerability are simple:

1.)  To work to be seen deeply and fully by others

2.)  To Love fully even though we have no guarantees

3.)  To practice gratitude and joy

4.)  To believe that we are enough

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One response to “The power of vulnerability

  1. This is a great post, Natalia! You have no idea how it inspired me.

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