How Embracing Vulnerability Changed My Life (And Why I am Still Working on It)

Needing to Be Right

Once upon a time it was incredibly important for me to be right. About everything. I have a vivid memory of arguing with my little brother when I was about ten years old. I do not remember exactly what we were arguing about, but I do remember being furious with him. I was right about the issue we were discussing. I knew it. I could tell he knew it, but he refused to acknowledge it. This infuriated me. I needed to be right.

Some might say that my need to be right stemmed from the fact that I was the oldest child and that I wanted to be the boss, but I think it ran much deeper than that. My need to be right pervaded all areas of my life. I needed to be right about grades, and I did not deal well with academic failure, which unfortunately for me was anything less than and “A”.  I needed to be right in piano lessons and demanded of myself that I play each song perfectly. It is no wonder that I ended up hating playing piano.  I needed to be right about nutrition and invested hours researching the right diet. When I “found” it, I stuck religiously to the plan and often drove myself and other people crazy with my nutritional zeal.  I needed to be right about religion.  I read, I searched, I prayed. I often found answers that I thought were right. When I did, it was extremely difficult for me to consider anyone else’s views on the issue.

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All photos in this post are courtesy of Unsplash.

Needing to Be in Control

My need to be right certainly encouraged some positive traits like curiosity, hard work, and the pursuit of excellence. It also inspired negative traits like workaholism, perfectionism, self-loathing, and occasionally an acute intolerance of other people’s views. My need to be right stemmed from a deep need to be in control of my life.  I wanted to know the right thing to think and the right thing to do in all circumstances. I thought if I did, I could control my life. I would not have to face uncertainty, struggle, pain, failure, mistakes. Vulnerability.

Vulnerability. In retrospect, I realized that my need to be right was born out of a profound fear of vulnerability. Our word vulnerable comes from the Latin word, vulnus, which means wound. This is one of the most enlightening etymologies of any word in the English language. Human beings are, by their very nature, vulnerable, and we often experience this vulnerability as a great wound. To be human is to be limited, to be finite. It is to live an existence of precariousness, of impermanence, of seeing “through a glass darkly”.[1]  We are always beginners.

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Our Great Wound

We are vulnerable because no one has lived our individual life before. No one has ever faced our exact circumstances. So while people can give us general guidelines for living, they can never tell us exactly how to live. We have to figure it out, and this entails mistakes, failure, wrong turns, hurting ourselves, hurting others, sometimes suffering harm from others. We regularly experience, as Hamlet calls it, “The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”[2].This is our great wound.

I have always been fascinated with tragedy. I think it is because that genre does such an amazing job of exploring human vulnerability. I think of Oedipus. At the beginning of Sophocles’ play[3], we meet the young man Oedipus who hears a prophecy that one day he will murder his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus runs away from his home. He loves his parents and refuses to bring any harm to them. On his journey, Oedipus ends up killing a man in self-defense. Later he visits a city and falls in love with the queen there. He marries her. Eventually the town prophet reveals to Oedipus that the parents he ran away from were actually his adopted parents. To his horror, Oedipus learns that the man he killed on the road was his father, and the queen he married was his mother. In despair, Oedipus gouges out his eyes.

Few of us will ever face the magnitude of tragedy Oedipus experienced, but we feel the deep pain of human existence. We know what it is like to have good intentions and to be swept up in forces beyond our control. We know what it is like to look back in the end and realize we have unintentionally hurt people we loved. We know what it is like to mean so well, to do the best we can, and then to realize in hindsight that we failed miserably. To be human is to enter any situation we face with blinders on and very few tricks in our bag. Sometimes it turns out really well, and sometimes it turns out horribly. This is our wound, our vulnerability.

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Making the Pain Worse

Pain and grieving are a common response to vulnerability, but people can make our vulnerability more painful by acting as though we are supposed to be invulnerable. People often act as though confusion, ignorance, uncertainty, and profound grief are signs of weakness. Perhaps our vulnerability is a reminder of their own vulnerability, and they are afraid. But in their intolerance of vulnerability, we learn to blame and even hate ourselves for our human wound, and this deepens our pain. We try to escape our vulnerability. We avoid new situations as much a possible. We self-medicate to push down feelings of fear, confusion, and grief associated with our own vulnerability. We experience depression, self-loathing, rage, constant anxiety. We look for love in all the wrong places. We try to control people and things. We are workaholics. We are perfectionists. We become know-it-alls or dogmatists. We become critical of everyone else. We act out in violence so that we do not have to face our dark and ambiguous places.

We often try to avoid vulnerability in our personal lives, but we also do it in our political life as well. In her book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, Judith Butler writes about the vulnerability the United States, as a nation, experienced after the 9/11 attacks. She writes, “That U.S. boundaries were breached, that an unbearable vulnerability was exposed, that a terrible toll on human life was taken, were, and are, the cause for fear and mourning; they are also the instigations of patient political reflection.”[4] Butler goes on to note that the 9/11 attack precipitated a nation-wide reflection on our vulnerability and the appropriate response to it.[5] Certainly, Butler suggests, grief and mourning are appropriate, but she questions whether some of the other responses such as the violence and war that followed were the needed response to our heightened awareness of our vulnerability.

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She writes, “If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war.”[6] We are, I believe, still struggling today to understand how we can best respond to our shared vulnerability. Too often we try politically, as well as individually, to deny or escape it. Vulnerability cannot be escaped. It is inherent in the human condition. Escaping it is like walking around with an untreated wound. You can hide it for a while. You might be able to numb the pain temporarily. Left unacknowledged and untreated, however, it begins to fester and smell. It cannot be hidden. It cannot be numbed. It cannot be bombed away.

Facing My Own Vulnerability 

During one of the most difficult times of my life, I finally came face to face with my own vulnerability. Years ago, I was working in a job I loved, and in which I had done well. I was eventually promoted into a position for which I was most certainly prepared and also for which I was totally unprepared.[7]  Immediately when I took the new position, several completely unexpected and very difficult crises occurred that I had to deal with. I really cared about my job and wanted to do the right thing—not just because I wanted to get it right for myself but because I wanted to get it right for my colleagues. I responded to the crises as best I could. I made some good decisions, and I also had some major failures, which were very public failures because of the nature of my job.

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Failures and mistakes are completely to be expected. They are actually how we learn and grow, but at that time in my life, in my need to be right, I had an extremely low tolerance for failure—especially very public failures. I had a profound emotional crisis (read breakdown) and fell into a depression that lasted several years. My depression stemmed from my realization that no matter how hard I worked and no matter how I tried, I could not escape vulnerability. I could not know everything. I could not be prepared for everything. I could not be right all the time. I realized vividly for the first time that living necessarily entailed mistakes, failure, error, pain, hurting other people inadvertently. It also entailed angering people who were judgmental and intolerant of vulnerability.  I felt exposed and out of control.

The Gifts of Vulnerability

At first I was devastated, but then something unexpected happened. As I accepted vulnerability, I began to realize the gifts that it brought me. Accepting vulnerability helped me to cultivate compassion for myself, and in the space of compassion, I recognized that mistakes and failure are part of being human. When I allow myself to fail, I give myself permission to try new things and to learn from my mistakes. This develops confidence and ability. It also allows me to become a nurturing and kind friend to myself. When I accepted my vulnerability, I suddenly realized that for most of my life, I had been a harsh, judgmental enemy to myself. In befriending myself, I felt more whole and integrated than I ever had before.

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Accepting my vulnerability also helped me cultivate compassion for other people. Before I accepted vulnerability, I was often intolerant with other people’s failure. To be honest, I was frequently one of the people who viewed vulnerability as a some sign of failure, and I wondered why people didn’t just work harder or care a little more. Not surprisingly, this intolerance made it difficult for me to show authentic compassion to others. I found myself trying to fix people rather than listen to them, or I would distance myself from them as their vulnerability unconsciously reminded me of my own vulnerability. This made it difficult for me to form deep and authentic relationships with other people.

When I accepted vulnerability, I realized that people were almost always trying the best they could and that the mistakes and suffering were an expression of our shared human condition. This allowed me to forgive people, even when they treated me badly. It allowed me to be present with friends and to comfort them, even when neither of us knew the right answer. It allowed me to be gentle and understanding when people made mistakes and failed. I could be gentle with them because I knew how much my own gentleness meant to me when I made mistakes. My newfound compassion made me a better friend, and I began developing authentic friendships.

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The Buddha says that enlightenment comes through acknowledging the pain that comes from our vulnerability and by recognizing that there is a way to respond to our pain so that we do not turn it into more suffering .[8] I certainly do not consider myself a bodhisattva[9], but I do know that when I accepted vulnerability, I ended a great deal of suffering in my life, and my life felt illuminated with the light of compassion. Instead of trying to hide and cover the great wound of my existence, I learned to acknowledge it fully for the first time and to shower it with the healing attention it needed. This is still something I am working to do each day, and I am always learning new lessons in vulnerability.

Train Hopping, Love, and New Lessons in Vulnerability 

This winter, I have been learning some new lessons. Our recent election has made me feel especially vulnerable, and I also experienced several deaths of loved ones that I mourned deeply. On top of all this, I recently went through a significant transition in my work, which has been good transition, but which has required me to adjust to a new work environment and responsibilities. My life has felt a bit as though I have been trying to keep my balance while walking during an earthquake. The ground underneath has felt unstable and precarious. Sometimes a void opens up before me, and I find myself looking down into the gaping hole wondering, “What happened? The ground was just there.” I have felt extremely vulnerable.

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A friend of mine asked me the other day how I was doing, and I said, “I am really struggling with feeling vulnerable right now.” This was surprising to me because I thought I had already learned this lesson. I wondered why I was still fighting vulnerability in certain aspects of my life, even though I had accepted it so thoroughly in other areas.

Later that week, I happened to be chatting with my friend Colin who has always struck me as being skilled at weathering moments of vulnerability. One of the most interesting things about Colin is that for a few years of his life, he traveled all across the United States hopping trains. Often he would board a dark train car with little more than a few cans of beans and a backpack, and he would ride the rails for days, not knowing exactly what exactly his future held, the people he would meet, or even where his next meal would come from. That is one of the most vulnerable positions you can put yourself in, but Colin thrived in that environment. So I thought I would ask him how he learned to handle vulnerability so well.

Colin said that he had learned on those trips to accept and push through the difficult emotions that came with being vulnerable because when he came out on the other side, he had amazing experiences, and he always learned new things. Colin has been everywhere, and he knows everyone. He is always surprising me with the richness of his life experience, and I suddenly realized that the richness of Colin’s life was in direct proportion to the ways that he had allowed and even invited periods of vulnerability in his life.

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A light went on in my mind as I considered this. I realized that in my own life I accepted vulnerability because it was the only way out of a severe emotional crisis. I viewed my acceptance of vulnerability as something that had been forced upon me. In talking to Colin, I realized that he had learned to embrace vulnerability as a gift. This suddenly made sense to me. I related it to the experienced of love. Loving a partner or a spouse is the most vulnerable position you can put yourself in. You allow yourself to be literally and figuratively naked before your loved one, and you never know exactly what is going to happen. That is the epitome of vulnerability, and the vulnerability we experience in love brings us some of the most beautiful, rewarding, and rich experiences we have.

Three Lessons of Vulnerability

I realized that there are at least two lessons of vulnerability. One lesson, the one I learned first, is that vulnerability is something we must face and accept because it is the human condition. The other lesson is that vulnerability is actually something to be embraced and celebrated because it brings us some of the most valuable gifts in life. When I suggested this to Colin, he agreed. Then he smiled and said, “But there are still some vulnerable situations that I won’t put myself in. I don’t know how to drive, and I haven’t learned how to swim yet.” We laughed at that, and I realized that maybe there is a third lesson of vulnerability: Embracing vulnerability is not something we learn just one time. It is a lesson we learn each day throughout our entire life.

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The lessons of vulnerability teach us that the human experience is bewildering, painful, scary, beautiful, breathtaking. No one knows exactly what we are doing, and we are all trying the best we can. When we try to escape our vulnerability, we increase our suffering. When we respond to it with compassion, we create a safe space for ourselves and for others. It is a space in which we accept our fear and mourn the precariousness of our existence. We embrace our vulnerability. This allows us to make it through to the other side in which we find beauty, wisdom, and adventure. It is in the rich soil of vulnerability that the greatest gifts of our lives flourish.

If you would like to read more about being a good friend to yourself in vulnerable spaces, you might enjoying read more here, here, here, here, here.

[1] 1 Corinthians 13:12, GNV

[2] Act III, Scene 1

[3] You can read about Oedipus Rex in Sophocles’ trilogy Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus. Also, sorry for the above spoilers.

[4] Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso. New York, NY: 2004, pg. XI.

[5] Ibid, pg. XII

[6] Ibid

[7] It was a job that required me to deal with multiple contingencies I could not control but could only manage and hopefully respond to wisely. It was, therefore, a position of constant vulnerability.

[8]  The Saying of the Buddha. Robert Gethin, trans. Oxford University Press. New York: 2008, pgs. 34 and 226.

[9] An enlightened being

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