“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”— Brené Brown, “Daring Greatly”
Six months ago, in July 2019, I wrote this blog post on the bright red, coarse pages of my then-journal. I was at the LAX airport, on my way to visit a friend in San Francisco. My flight had been delayed by two hours and I was struggling to find a way to spend the time while waiting to board my plane. The thing is, I was doing “The Artist Way” and my assignment for the week was to not consume any book, movie, or music. I had to just be with myself and see what would come up out of it. Deprived from the ability to read the book I was reading at the time, I was imagining that my time at the airport was going to be excruciating. I had too much time on my hands and not enough distractions. I had too many thoughts in my head and too many feelings in my heart, and I didn’t really want to deal with either. Then, I remembered that I could always write something on my journal (this was not only allowed, but encouraged by the assignment). The week before, also as part of The Artist Way, I had jotted down a list of topics that I wanted to write about, with the idea of finally opening up the blog that had been sitting inside of me in the form of a little seed for some time. It was time to let the seed see the light and finally sprout, and I felt like the Universe was conjuring up against me in order to encourage me to write.
But honestly, I had no idea where to start. I remember feeling terrified at that moment. I felt blocked, or I was telling myself that I was blocked so that I could have an excuse not to write. But I knew that I couldn’t keep making excuses, not forever anyway… I had to try. I owed it to myself to at least try and worst for worst, deal with a result that was maybe not perfect, but was at least something. So I decided to write about the topic that was most dear to me at the moment, probably also thanks to how raw and fragile I felt right then: VULNERABILITY. Here it goes.
I have probably read, heard, and pronounced this word more times in the past year and a half than in all my life put together: vulnerability. It has come up in my classes, conversations, personal fights, authentic relating circles, audiobooks, books. Most of all, it has become a life-long goal. It’s one of those things I know I will always strive to achieve, getting only half-way through each time, never quite satisfied with the level of vulnerability obtained in a given day or situation.
But what is, really, vulnerability? In my own words, from my own perspective, vulnerability is the capacity to crack our hearts open in front of other people. The conscious, or perhaps spontaneous (as human beings, we all have this urge from time to time, even without realizing it) act of letting the people in front of us see right through our personas, past all the tricks we utilize daily in order to appear strong, capable, knowledgeable, serious, competent, stable – in other words, “perfect”. It is the gesture of sharing with trusted and loved ones our deepest hopes, fears, nightmares, anxieties, spiteful feelings in a way that it is the most authentic possible. It is admitting to a work colleague or a job interviewer that we don’t know the answer to a question, or to a group of friends who are talking about a popular topic, that we are not informed about that subject even if everyone else seems to know about it. It is letting our friends or mentors know that we need help, even when society passes us the message that we are supposed to be able to do it alone. It is showing our emotions to someone else (or even to ourselves, especially to ourselves!!) even when we are deeply ashamed by those emotions, and we are terrified of the other person’s rejection. Actually, vulnerability is also keeping on showing those emotions even if the other person does reject us!
If this sounds scary just by reading it, well, it is, and it’s even scarier to practice it in life.
I have familiarized myself with the concept of vulnerability step by step, as if someone had slowly opened a door for me and I was led into a garden so beautiful that it was hard to believe it even existed. The first time this topic came into my radar was around one and a half year ago, in the Fall of 2018. It happened during a session of the Group Counseling class I was taking at the time, while pursuing my MA in Guidance and Counseling. That particular day, our professor was facilitating a group therapy session with us, the students, as mock counseling clients. As in a typical “process group”, we were allowed to discuss any topic we wanted, and the choice fell into talking about our professional future as counselors. I prepared myself to buckle up and show my best knowledge of the counseling field as a career. However, the conversation took a different turn from the very beginning. A couple of my classmates began by sharing how much pressure they had been feeling, carrying on their full-time jobs, pursuing the Counseling degree, and starting to look for a job after graduation all at the same time. Another classmate admitted that she was not feeling ready at all to be put out there in the workforce as a counselor! Yet another one, her eyes low and her voice cracked, said that not only she didn’t feel ready, but furthermore, she was afraid she was going to be a terrible counselor. More classmates raised their hands and said that they felt exactly the same. To my dismay, that evening I found out that in that classroom, we were all in the same boat: we all felt scared, inadequate, unprepared, anxious. People whom I imagined in my head as being super confident in themselves, were now saying they weren’t feeling as such, at all. Peers whom I considered having an already successful career (and whom I envied, because at that time I didn’t have a work permit yet and I could not work in the US, and so having a job at all was like a dream to me) were saying how exhausted they were and shared that they would have preferred just being full-time students If only they could afford it financially. So, our desires and inner fears were suddenly swapped. I was at a loss. I would not have bet a dime that all of that was going on in my classmates’ lives behind the curtains (and behind the “persona” that I had pictured of them in my mind). Then, our professor finally named it: “It looks like many of you have decided to be vulnerable with each other tonight”. There it was, the elephant in the room: vulnerability.
Over the following months, I would have heard that word again and again, and it would have become part of my preferred vocabulary. I would have learned its traits and shapes, I would have studied it, practiced it, failed at it, and be absolutely, utterly terrified to try it again. However, I didn’t know that at that time. In that moment, all I knew is that I was feeling a newfound warmth in my heart. That I felt so much more connected to my classmates. That for once, I wasn’t scared of them like I usually was. I didn’t see them as superheroes who had everything figured out. I simply saw them as humans, imperfect and scared exactly as I was. I felt compassion for them, empathy and love. And because I was going through something similar than they were, I was able to feel compassion and empathy towards myself as well. I felt less alone. I remember thinking, why in the whole world we don’t do this more often? Why don’t we share with each other our struggles and fears so that we could dismantle, piece by piece, the personas we carried around with us at all times? Why, as counselors and therapists, were we expected to eventually be paid to allow people to be vulnerable with us, but we didn’t feel like we could be vulnerable with each other?
I also felt a jolt of excitement running through my veins. I felt alive, and I felt hopeful. I felt like… like I had found the recipe to the philosopher’s stone! Like I had grasped a very important secret that I did not want to forget. So, since I know that I am a squirrel and that I forget things easily, I made so that I didn’t forget this one. I took the only piece of paper I had at hand – the back of my name-tag sticker – I and jotted down a few words: “vulnerability”; “sharing”; “openness”; “truth”; “belonging”; “empathy” and a few more. I told myself, I have to remember and write in my journal about this. But maybe just writing for myself wasn’t enough. What I really wanted was for my classmates to know how much it meant for me that they opened up this way. How inspired I felt thanks to their courage to share their deepest fears. Maybe, just maybe I thought…. I will write a blog post about this!
Well, it turns out, I wasn’t exactly ready to write a blog post, not yet. In the following days and weeks, I heard that very familiar voice in my head (a friend of mine calls it “the self-doubt gremlin”, a coach I have worked with, “the inner mean girl”) telling me things like “Oh, so you want to write a blog post? Really? You? Ah, that’s funny, Who do you think you are? How DARE you even thinking about it! You know nothing, you have nothing to share. And English is not even your first language! And anyway, no one will read it. And if they do, they will hate it. Yeah, it will be a disaster.” And blah, blah, blah.
My inner mean girl was on fire. There was enough to keep me entertained for months. I was terrified at the sole idea of admitting to myself that I really wanted to open a blog. But I felt this was too important to let the bad voice in my head have control over this part of my life. So I held on to that piece of paper, because it reminded me of that special moment in which I witnessed my peers open their heart to me, and of the fact that when they did, I didn’t perceive them as weak, needy, wrong or imperfect. I actually perceived them as strong, powerful, and human. This led me to think that perhaps the opposite could be true. That if I opened my heart in a similar way, then it could mean that I wasn’t going to be perceived as weak, needy, wrong or imperfect either! Maybe I was going to be perceived as…. strong as well? Maybe I could perceive myself as strong? The idea was enticing and too powerful to forget about it. And so, the seed was planted.
During the past year and a half, since that class, my entire world (professional and personal work alike) increasingly started to spin around vulnerability. It has become one of my core values. It’s probably the most difficult value to live up to every day. It’s a messy, scary, imperfect, and, well…. vulnerable value to practice! And this is exactly why I love it.
Vulnerability, for me, right now, means admitting that it really took me nine months to listen to my desire to write a blog post about what happened in my classroom that night. That, before starting to write down on my journal, that evening at the airport, I, in order: cried; resisted to desire to write again and again, telling myself it was a stupid idea; went to buy a marshmallow rice crisps bar AND a bag of chocolate covered almonds and I guiltily devoured them, giving myself a belly ache. Vulnerability is also admitting that after I wrote these words on my journal at the airport, six more months passed before I found the courage to type the post on my computer and publish it online. Six months in which I had to fight that nasty voice inside of my head that kept repeating “Oh c’mon, who the f*** do you think you are, really! Again with this stupid idea! You know nothing about vulnerability, you have no idea what you are writing about, just let it go, you are going to make yourself ridiculous, no one will like it” and blah, blah, blah…
Yeah, my inner critic tends to be repetitive, if you hadn’t noticed. It’s like a broken record, and after a while it’s easy to recognize its peculiar tone. By the way, I call her (yeah, she is a she) “Palombina”, little Palomba, after my mom’s last name. In my mind, that is where that voice comes from, from my childhood and me feeling scolded, raw and shameful. That voice is the voice of shame, which is the exact opposite of vulnerability (thank you, Brené Brown, for teaching me this!) and is also the voice of fear – fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of abandonment. Anyway, Palombina in my mind is not only a voice, but she also has a shape, clothes, gestures, a place to live, that are her own. And these traits don’t have much to do with my mom’s real appearance and personality, either – I love my mom, and I hope she will get that when she reads this post. It’s nothing personal against her, it’s just how my inner child previously processed and internalized those feelings. Giving Palombina an identity helps me tremendously in recognizing that shame and fear are a part of me, but are not ME – if they would be ME, I wouldn’t be able to name them, for example. They are just a voice that I can interact with. When I notice that Palombina is acting up, I can talk to her, and ask her what message she is trying to get across. Most of the times, she just wants me to be successful, she just has an anxiety-inducing and terrible way of expressing it! But when I recognize that, she loses most of her negative powers over me. I am in control, and I can transform shame and fear into authenticity and courage.
Vulnerability, for me, right now, means talking openly about Palombina, and hoping that I don’t lose friends or that someone doesn’t lock me up in a psych yard! Perhaps, instead, someone can relate, and if even one person can relate to that, then this will have been worth it.
This was the tale of how I first heard of, started thinking about, began exploring and practicing vulnerability. Even though I wrote quite a bit already about it already, I feel like I eventually want to do a second post where I write more in details my personal struggles in practicing it, what I have learned along the way, how to practice it in a safe way and how to set boundaries around it, and the examples from people around me that keep me going and inspired and motivated. I also want to share some tools so that others can read and practice on their own! Ah, here she goes again: “So you want to share tools? Ah! Who do you think you are to dare to think you can share tools? Do you happen to have a PhD in Psychology? Eh? Eh?”. And so on.
Well, my dear friend, I will one day have that PhD, even though I am sure when I do, you will still be around to try to put me down for some other reason, and I will still be around to tell you to shut the f*** up!
– Julia Cameron, The Artist’ Way
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly