é Brown (her TED talk about the power of vulnerability has had over twenty million views).
This book has been on my radar for
many months. My book club read it over a year ago, but it ended up being
one of the few books I haven't read with them because I knew I wasn't
going to be able to make it to the discussion. A few months later a woman who goes to
our church mentioned it. She's a family therapist and
has talked a great deal about the difference between vulnerability and
shame. Then a blogger listed it as one of her favorite TED talks (so I watched it). And finally, my education group selected it as
our reading material for May. And that's when the stars finally aligned
enough for me to read it.
Brené Brown calls herself "a researcher and a storyteller," and that is a very accurate description. In this book, she talks about vulnerability: what it is, what it isn't, and why it is necessary to become a healthy, vibrant, and wholehearted (my favorite word of hers) adult. She lays out her ideas through both data (her own and others) and stories (her own and others). This combination is extremely effective and makes this an enjoyable, as well as convincing, read.
Ever since finishing this book, I can't get vulnerability off my mind. (If you've read the book, I'm sure that comes as no surprise. It's probably been on your mind, too.) I thought about it when I played the organ at my sister-in-law's funeral. The church was packed to the brim with people I didn't and (worse) did know, and I was nervous and emotional. I thought about it a few weeks ago when my twelve little piano students played in my spring recital. Some of them were confident; some of them were anxious. And I was confident and anxious for them. I thought about it after I talked to someone new at the swimming pool and then realized I add mascara running down my face. I have to work up my courage to strike up a conversation with someone I don't know, but I had forgotten that it was one of the rare occasions when I was actually wearing mascara. Day after day, moment after moment, I choose whether or not I will take the scary road and be vulnerable or hide out in my comfort zone.
While vulnerability is the crux of this book, I still don't know that I'd be able to give a concise definition of it if someone came up to me and asked, "So . . . what is vulnerability?" I know what it feels like (see the above three examples), but when someone who hadn't finished the book posed that exact question at my education group discussion, I found myself scrambling for the right words.
I wish I had remembered Brené Brown's own short, clear definition: "I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." In a slightly longer explanation, she said, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and
courage aren't always comfortable but they're never weakness." She also expanded it this way: "Vulnerability isn't good or bad. It's not what we call a 'dark
emotion,' nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability
is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable." That last sentence might be my favorite: "To feel is to be vulnerable."
I know I'm not alone in my struggling grasp of the concept of vulnerability. I was talking to one of Mike's cousins who had read the book, and she said that when she discussed it at her book club, one of the women said, "So I just don't get vulnerability. I don't understand what it is." And yes, this woman had read the book. But having read the book several weeks ago and now thinking back on it, I think I get why she might have said that. Vulnerability is something we're all inherently familiar with, but, like Brené Brown said, many of us associate it with "dark" feelings (sadness, shame, grief, fear), and so the challenge to "be vulnerable" makes us feel uncomfortable because we're (quite naturally) trying to avoid those feelings.
And I admit that now, weeks later, I'm still not exactly sure how to apply vulnerability to my own life. I know what it is. I know why it's actually a positive thing. I can look back at some of my life experiences and pinpoint what I did that was vulnerable and why it ended up being good for me. But it's hard for me to look at today and tomorrow and the next day and say, "Today I'm going to be vulnerable by doing __________."
One of my favorite parts of the book was actually Brené Brown's discussion about what vulnerability is not. For example, vulnerability is not sharing every personal detail of your life on facebook or in a blog post or in front of a group of strangers. Those things are best kept for family (or close friends) who have earned your trust (slowly and gradually filled the jelly bean jar, as Brené Brown explained it) or shared after you've already worked through your emotions and are no longer looking for validation or help.
However, that doesn't mean when you see a mom with a screaming toddler at the park that you shouldn't give her an empathetic smile and an encouraging word. Of course you should! That's kind of the whole point of vulnerability: it's knowing when and how to put yourself out there in order to build strong and honest connections with people. It's commiserating with that mom instead of casting a judgmental eye on her.
Brené Brown said, "There's a quiet transformation happening that is moving us from turning on each other to turning toward each other." I love that idea. Even though I'm still trying to figure out how to actually practice vulnerability, I know what I want for the end result. And it's this: I want to build meaningful connections with people (close family and friends, casual acquaintances, and total strangers) in appropriate ways. I want to give a little and have you give a little back so that we can learn and grow together. I want to be brave and try new things. While vulnerability is intensely personal, it's one of those things that really only works if it's reciprocated.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on vulnerability. Do you associate it with light or dark feelings? How have you put vulnerability into daily practice?