“Trying to schedule when you’ll cry at a funeral will disrupt your ability to have genuine feeling afterward.“– Steven Brownlow, PhD
Years ago when my mentor uttered the phrase “your vulnerability is your power,” I knew it would take some time before I truly understood what he meant. Like many, I associated vulnerability with weakness, although in acting school vulnerability was prized and interchangeable with the ability to show emotion. Today I define vulnerability as “mindfully open,” (more on that later), and I believe it to be a very valuable substance. In fact, I read somewhere – Lawd help me if I can remember where (or did I dream it?) — that vulnerability is the new currency.
It makes sense. In this age of public soul bearing I have been bowled over by people’s courage. Raw admissions have startled me with an “Oh no s/he didn’t really just say that!” gasp, and often leave me feeling inspired, connected and flooded with compassion and recognition all at once. The gift that certain writers and speakers give through their honesty inspires loyalty and a desire to reciprocate. Therein lies its economic power.
To the extent that I have been moved by what people are calling vulnerability, I have also been slimed by counterfeit attempts. On a recent phone call, a well-respected thought leader broke into tears of gratitude as she offered us her exorbitantly priced premium program at a discount. That show of emotion did not move me; rather, I felt trapped in goo. I have clicked on and into rants about people’s outrage with faulty customer service (I don’t even want to hear myself talk about my own experiences, thank you) and cringed at videos that led me into the den of people’s hearts and homes, where I was privy to more tears and deepest fears without clear purpose.
There are many ways I experience being vulnerable, but for me Emotional vulnerability is Premium Intimacy, so as a valuable commodity I like to reserve it for a select few. It takes a large investment of time and effort to build the trust and the type of relationship that can withstand and contain raw displays of emotion. When my best friend calls me in her emotional vulnerability there is a sacredness to it. I feel honored at being let in that deeply, and grateful and valued. Naturally it goes both ways.
In order to maintain how priceless this type of sharing is, I honor that it is rare and hard to come by. Although vulnerability clearly has incredible value, I am not sure I like it as currency. Especially when it’s counterfeit.
Everything of high value needs protection: Your sentimental objects, your iPhone, your children, your health, your IRA. So why not your dear, dear heart? Counter to popular new age philosophy that being open with and about everything is the key to living well, I am going to counsel you to
That doesn’t mean sit at home on the couch, isolate, keep your mouth shut and don’t take risks. It just means, spend it wisely. Here are some tips to guide you in that process.
1) TMI is not vulnerability: Brene Brown at a recent conference did a great service when she made this distinction: TMI (Too Much Information just in case there is a soul out there in the dark) is not the same as vulnerability. She went on to say that the stories she shares may reveal personal information, but they are calculated to illustrate a message. She does not publicly share raw feelings or stories about herself or her family that would infringe on their privacy. Broadcasting your innermost secrets to everyone and their mother is akin to carelessly flinging your social security number about the interwebs.
2) Your vulnerability must match your task: In other words, your sharing must have purpose. Be mindful about whether or not your emotional vulnerability adds value to your message. Great bloggers and memoirists connect with us through their humanity and remind us that we are not alone. You wanna be a great memoir writer? Bring those heart-wrenching and embarrassingly comical moments to the page. Want to be a brain surgeon? Better to leave them off. The function of vulnerability in my private life is to be known and to increase intimacy. In my public life it is to teach and lead. In each case they look a little different.
3) Know Your Audience: I once did a one-woman show about my struggles in intimate relationships with men to illustrate a point about default roles in intimacy. It revealed key moments from my private life in vivid detail in order to show how blind spots can lead in love, so I thought a group of therapists I mostly knew at a drama therapy conference would be an ideal place to try it out. In addition, one-person shows were becoming a popular antithesis to dull academic presentations. Boy did I get that one wrong. Afterwards, the deafening silence went on a little too long, beyond the “we’re-speechless-because-it-was-moving” timeline. I was temporarily relieved of extreme exposure discomfort when someone finally raised her hand for discussion, until she said with a hint of disgust, “Why did you share this?” Although many were moved deeply and not everyone was hostile, this was a lesson: Colleagues in this setting were not really the right audience for that vulnerability. With the wrong audience, your vulnerability can be devalued. Choose wisely.
4) Watermark: If you do not respect your vulnerability, its value and sacredness are at risk. Sometimes in an effort to break out of our defensive shells we become more vulnerable and we force it a little, and that is okay for a limited amount of time if it is part of a larger personal authentication process. Vulnerability planned is not at all vulnerability. Beware. If you use counterfeit bills, you will taint your world.
We all have weakness and secrets and shame. That is not always what is most interesting about us. In the new era of vulnerability, let’s preserve its value. Please make sure your bills are watermarked.