When Vulnerability Becomes Too Much of a Good Thing
A few days ago, I was updating a friend on how things were going in the yoga teacher’s training curriculum I’m currently enrolled in— how during our third weekend of a ten weekend course, things had gotten intense, weird even, when we dove into the world of Kundalini yoga and Dynamic Meditation.
The intensity, and weirdness, only escalated in an afternoon session, when the majority of the class — men and women, young and old, gay and straight — found ourselves crying, wailing, sobbing or teary-eyed throughout an hour of strenuous yogic training where we were pushed to the brink physically, mentally and spiritually.
In this moment of total defeat, fatigue and vulnerability, we were asked to come together in a circle, so each of us could, one-by-one, step into the middle of the circle and share one thing about ourselves that most others don’t know. This led to a wide-range of deeply saddening and tragic shares — people who had inflicted self-harm or experienced sexual abuse, rape, depression, crippling anxieties, loss, heartbreak, self-doubt, the list goes on.
I told my friend I’d participated as fully as I could. I’d teared up upon hearing others’ stories and even shared a piece of my past usually reserved for my closest friends and family. But I was taken aback by the whole experience — the exercise, the shares, the overwhelming amount of tears and feelings. It wasn’t the stories, the emotions, or the amount of vulnerability that made me hesitant, it was the “publicity” of it all — of doing so with a group of 40 near-strangers I’d just met two weekends ago, of being assured this was a “safe” and “trustworthy” space when not enough time had yet gone by to attest to this “safeness” or “trustworthiness.”
I told my friend all of this and he replied, “You gotta get comfortable with vulnerability in group settings, Renee.”
“But why?” I asked.
He didn’t press further, but his comment nagged at me. I pondered this for the next several days wondering if it maybe was indeed my own issue, that somewhere deep down, I was harboring shame, fear and unworthiness of love and connection — all of the things that Brené Brown, a research professor and author celebrated for her work on vulnerability and shame, has brought to the forefront of mainstream consciousness in the past several years. Maybe this was my own fear, my version of “what will they think of me?” offering itself as resistance.
A few days of contemplation later, I decided it was partly me. After all, I am human, I don’t live under a rock, my feelings and thoughts are influenced by culture, media, the people and ideologies around me, and tragically human feelings and thoughts (i.e — body image issues, doubts about self-worth, feeling unlovable, etc.) crash onto me like waves from time to time. But they do subside.
I have no qualms with being vulnerable in an intimate setting, with people I know and trust. I stand alongside Brené Brown on this, but what makes me reluctant is when the act of “being vulnerable” has become so publicized and accepted, so mainstream and “cool,” it starts to take on a certain form and shape and expectation that strips it of its authenticity. It starts to feel “forced” and sometimes, fake. It becomes something we now capitalize on so we can announce to the world, “I’m sharing something private and imperfect about myself. I’m being vulnerable. See how courageous I am?”
An act that is meant to diminish our ego can so easily become something that strengthens it if we’re not aware and mindful.
In our yoga circle, I didn’t want to share some tragic thing from my life simply for the sake of sharing it, but given the heaviness and weight of what people were sharing, it also didn’t seem appropriate for me to walk into the middle of the circle, after having heard all of these heartbreaking stories, and say, “One thing most people don’t know about me is my favorite color is sage.” (It’s true, and very few people know this.)
This is where the human part of me kicks in — I want to belong, I want to be accepted, so instead I talked about how I’d undergone some traumatic stuff as a kid and teenager, how it had impacted me and how it took me a long time to come to terms with it, work through it and find forgiveness. (While this is also true, more people know this about me than they do my favorite color.)
What I struggle against is this new-age movement of imposed vulnerability onto each other in groups and somewhat public settings, often with complete strangers or people we’d just met. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s hard to imagine our ancestors venturing out of their own tribe, to seek out a foreign tribe with whom they’d immediately share their deepest, darkest secrets. That probably would have gotten them killed, and then we wouldn’t be here today. Sure, there’s a bit of you get what you give at play — the idea that if you’re open and vulnerable, it’s more likely the other person will reciprocate. That said, per Brené Brown:
“If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”
Knowing whether someone is the “right” or “wrong” person with whom to be vulnerable takes trust, and that, takes experience and time.
Seneca, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, writes in Epistle III:
There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.
With the rise of social media in recent years, it seems this divide has become ever more extreme. I might sound like a bitch for saying this, but when we practice vulnerability in public or on social media, and are then surprised and shocked by the amount of insensitive jerks out there who respond in a cold and callous way, that’s kind of on us. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be open and vulnerable on social media, what I’m saying is we can’t and shouldn’t expect nor assume our audiences — in particular, total strangers — to respond with empathy and compassion.
To be or not to be publicly vulnerable is an individual choice each of us has the right to make, and while I recognize some of the benefits of being publicly vulnerable — in particular, when celebrities, public figures and seemingly “perfect” people open up about their mistakes, hardships, addictions, flaws, etc., it makes them more attractive and relatable, more human, inspirational even — it becomes questionable when constructive vulnerability turns into gratuitous vulnerability.
Gratuitous vulnerability might be defined as the kind of openness and sharing that goes beyond what’s helpful, for all parties involved. It’s the difference between sharing something because you need help and knowing the people with whom you are sharing can empathize, support and respond compassionately, versus sharing for the sake of sharing, which often leads to oversharing and treating your audience as a dumping ground for your fears, anxieties and hardships. Public and group displays of vulnerability often fall victim to this because they tend to be more one-way, one-directional.
Another reason I’m skeptical about public and group displays of vulnerability is it often isn’t inclusive of people who do not wish to participate, respond, share or open up. In my yoga “vulnerability” circle story from earlier, it didn’t feel “safe” for me to go in there and share my favorite color. People had drudged up some weighty, traumatic shit — it felt like my sharing something lighthearted would have been frivolous and would have discredited their sufferings. Since we now equate being vulnerable with being courageous, I wondered how choosing not to be vulnerable would have been received? If someone doesn’t want to share, or is sanguine, does that mean they are cowardly, insecure, unaware or care too much about what others think of them? Not necessarily.
Yet another danger is when the act of vulnerability becomes a power play to further stroke our own egos. In public and group settings, it’s easy to fall into the traps of “My shame story trumps yours,” or “I’ve experienced more suffering and pain than you,” or “I haven’t gone through any trauma in my life, thus my suffering is groundless and meaningless.” None of these are constructive in any way, shape or form, and it fractures authenticity.
The last scruple I have with public and group displays of vulnerability is when it becomes the only way we know to be vulnerable. In the same way it can be easier to troll people online because an avatar or alias has no face, body, story or humanity attached to it, because the person behind that profile is unknown, distant, it can also be easier to be vulnerable on social media, or amidst a group of strangers or people we don’t know all that well. We have little to no attachments to them, care little of their judgements, their identities aren’t in any way associated or merged with our own, we may never meet or see them again.
It’s one thing to share our vulnerabilities and shame stories with a group of strangers or followers on Instagram with the intention of connecting and relating; it’s another if we’re unable to share those same stories with our friends, families and loved ones.
Shifts and changes in habits, behaviors, thinking, life, society, economics, politics, the environment, swing back and forth much like a pendulum, and often, the pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction and overcorrects. There are examples of this all around us. For a long time, our culture prided itself on reason and logic, on being tough and strong by controlling our emotions. It seems Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability came out at just the right time when people were starting to feel fed up and let down, and has led to a paradigm shift in how we, as a society, view vulnerability.
What appears to be happening now is an upswing or overcorrection in favor of being vulnerable, towards sharing our shame stories, anxieties, fears and insecurities, towards expressing all of those things along with our emotions onto whomever is available and able to receive. If this is where you’re at, great! I’m happy for you. But please, please, please think twice before asking and telling someone else to be vulnerable. Think twice when you equate all displays of vulnerability with courage (in some cases it is, in others, it’s emotional neediness and not having those needs met). Think twice before you judge us for choosing not to participate in this vulnerability movement, especially in public and group settings. It doesn’t mean we can’t be vulnerable, that we’re not open or authentic, nor does it mean we’re harboring some deep-rooted shame that we’re blissfully not aware of.
Maybe we’re in an upswing in life where things are positively divine and we actually don’t have much to share, being vulnerable in this very moment might instead compromise our being authentic. Or perhaps, as difficult as this might be to hear, we simply don’t want to share our stories with you right now, and that’s okay.
There are plenty of people out there who do:
Thank you for taking the time to read these words! Feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, feedback — positive or negative — I welcome them all. I’m open to different perspectives and ways of thinking, so if you disagree with mine, I’d love to hear from you.