God. My family. Brené Brown. In that order. Anyone that knows me personally knows my love for Brené. I love what she stands for, I love her books, I love her down-to-earth vibe, and her podcast is great. All of it. She’s phenomenal. She’s a Ph.D., LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) that has spent years researching vulnerability, shame, worthiness, and courage. I don’t think anyone even knows the true definition of such until you’ve seen her explain it to you and you’ve read her research. I first heard of Brené Brown during management training with an old boss. Apparently she and my staff felt that I was not vulnerable enough and she suggested I read Brené’s book “Daring Greatly”. I’m not even going to pretend like I was remotely interested. I hate the entire idea of vulnerability and the word itself made me cringe. I thought, “this is work, I don’t need to be vulnerable with these people, they’re crazy.” I skimmed through a few pages, kind of wrote a journal for about a week and put it on the shelf. It wasn’t until my divorce in 2016 that I really began to look at myself in the mirror and deal with my issues with being vulnerable and why it terrified me so badly. I hated apologizing (still a love-hate relationship), I hated talking about my feelings, and I hated having crucial conversations.
This is something that I struggled with for a long time both professionally and personally. I used to tell people I never cry as a testament to the strength I had and the storms I could endure. I thought I had it figured out and that I had no need for the vulnerability BS. By dictionary vulnerability is defined as the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Who in their right mind wants to leave themselves open to attack?? By Brené’s account it is defined as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure” (pg. 34, para. 2). When we decide to be vulnerable we are opening ourselves to the potential of being hurt or being let down. This is scary and as it’s explained in Daring Greatly, this is why so many confuse vulnerability with weakness. Feelings are not weakness. Allowing yourself to feel all of the things and be able to express them is not weakness, it is a braveness like no other. For me personally, I compare being vulnerable to being naked. It’s all out in the open, I can’t find a towel, I am fully exposed. Expressing my feelings has never been an easy thing for me. Being a mother and being in a relationship I have had to learn to do that. Relationships and motherhood thrive on vulnerability.
Let me start with relationships. I’m going to lead by pointing out that your willingness to be vulnerable should be spared. Brown (2012) clarifies that, “vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process” (pg. 45, para. 4). Let me say that again: with people who have EARNED the right. Your vulnerability is not free. In my current relationship what I lacked in vulnerability in our early stages he more than made up for. I had been so used to keeping my feelings inside, not saying what needed to be said because of fear of rejection or disapproval, and I somehow lost my ability to really be open and honest about my needs. I became what I call emotionally mute. If it involved my feelings I couldn’t speak. I wanted to tell the man for weeks that I loved him and could not bring myself to do it. We would talk on the phone and before saying goodnight I almost said I love you. I felt a rush of embarrassment run through me and I just said bye and hung up. Was I crazy? He would think I was a nutcase if I had said that. That is what I felt. Fear of rejection. Not long after that night, one day at my house he grabbed me by the arms, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “I’m falling in love with you, I love you, please don’t hurt me.” If I even had a wall left in my heart at that point it was completely shattered. I couldn’t say I love you too fast enough. I felt so free when I finally said it. Like I could breathe again. I was scared as hell, but I was happy as hell too. One thing I will always love this man for is never being afraid to be vulnerable.
I have had to learn how to speak up. I usually keep quiet about what’s bothering me and I just let it simmer. In this relationship I can’t. He knows me too well and sometimes it bothers the hell out of me. Like how does he know? He will look at me and ask what’s wrong. Of course, I say nothing. He literally makes me sit down and makes me talk. He gives me the space to be vulnerable and the opportunity to be heard. Fast forward to today and I’m more open to vulnerability than I ever have been in my life because he earned it. In my friendships with my besties I can tell them my truths. I’m always aware of the emotional exposure but it feels so good afterward. My friend group is composed of mixed friends, white friends, black friends, gay, lesbian, you name it. My mom has nicknamed us The Rainbow Coalition. Last week I reached out to them and let them know that I was hurting and that I was sad. This crazy world is filled with so much hate but they show me constantly that there is love in it too. They took my comments with love and they made me feel safe. They have earned my vulnerability. I feel safe telling my mom friends that I need a damn break and a bottle of wine. There were times when I would feel so guilty for saying this and more than anything heavily judged. My mom friends have earned my vulnerability. I know I’m safe there.
Vulnerability as a mother is a very humbling pill. Your kids really demand vulnerability from you without even knowing what it really it. In chapter 7 of Daring Greatly, Brown dives into wholehearted parenting. Reading the first paragraph really stuck me in the gut. The last sentence says, “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be” (Brown, 2012 pg. 214)? This has got to be the deepest thing I’ve ever read. If this doesn’t punch you in throat I don’t know what would. Pondering this question takes another level of vulnerability. Being honest with your partner or your best friend is one thing, but checking yourself is a whole other beast. Checking yourself takes practice. It does not happen overnight and it is not easy. One of the things I promised myself when I became a parent was that I would raise children that didn’t need to heal from trauma. Our words, our actions, and our decisions affect our kids for years to come. They remember it all. It is my job to create an environment they grow in peacefully.
I’m going to be a little vulnerable here myself and tell you about a day that I had to be vulnerable with my son. Whew. Here we go. Okay, so one day I had a frustrating day for whatever reason so I was already in a mood. I sent him to his room to find something because he had homework to do. He couldn’t find it, had no idea where to even begin to look. I was aggravated and under by breath (I thought under my breath) I said “Oh my goodness you make me sick”. My heart sank to my stomach as soon as the words left my mouth. He turned and walked to into his room. I could see the sadness in his eyes. Then my stomach fell to my feet. I wanted to vomit. I knew I made a mistake. I had to apologize. I stood there a moment not really knowing if I would. What would I say? Son, mom is an asshole, I’m sorry. I was feeling emotionally open in that moment. I had wanted to cry I was so disappointed in myself. But my feelings didn’t matter, his did. I put my things down on the floor and I walked to his room. I grabbed him by the hands as I got to my knees so that we could be eye level and I apologized. I told him that I was so sorry. I hadn’t meant what I said and that I was wrong for what I said. I told him that I should never speak to him that way and that he did not make me sick. I loved every part of him and that I would help find all the things he needed. He smiled so big and said, “It’s okay mama, I love you so much.” Unconditional love. He deserves all of my vulnerability. On page 219 Brené has a list of things that parents are called to do and the first is to acknowledge that we cannot give our children what we do not have. We have to share with them our growth, our learning, and our change. We owe it to them to be the best version of ourselves.
I want to say that I acknowledge that everyone parents their children differently and there is nothing wrong with that. I will say that I am also an advocate for breaking generational chains. So many adults feel that a child should stay in a child’s place. Children should not speak to adults about certain things. Children do what you say, they have no voice, you’re the parent period. I agree that children should be respectful of their parents and should most definitely be confined to the constructs of childhood. BUT. And a very big BUT from me. I think that we do not give our children enough credit. Although they may not be fully aware of all of the parameters of adulthood they are smart and they have feelings. Do not let your child be voiceless. Allow your child to speak with you about their feelings. Allow them to be vulnerable and show them that it is okay to feel things. This can be done without them having to be seen as disrespectful. Set the tone. For example, there are times when I do fuss at my oldest for misbehaving. I tell him what I feel. And if necessary I will ask him what he is feeling. I’ll ask what made him do this or that, etc. Keep an open dialogue between you and your kids. They are not just kids but they are living, thinking, FEELING, beings, just like us. Emotional exposure does not only pertain to us adults. Children feel emotionally exposed as well. They need to know that vulnerability is a part of life and that it is bravery, not weakness. Most especially, teach your boys this. It is not weakness for a male to feel vulnerable and emotional. But that’s another soap box and another conversation.
“Ordinarily, when we reach out and share ourselves — our fears, hopes, struggles, and joy — we create small sparks of connection. Our shared vulnerability creates light in normally dark places.”
-Brené Brown, Daring Greatly