Dr. Brene Brown opens her book Daring Greatly, which focuses on the topics of vulnerability, shame and empathy, with the following passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech (sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena”):
According to Brene, the first time she read this quote, she understood right away that Roosevelt was speaking about vulnerability.
“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being ALL IN.“
Vulnerability is NOT Weakness
When you think of the word “vulnerability” what thoughts come to mind? If you are like most, you probably have the perception that vulnerability is weakness. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. We spend our lives pushing it away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable.
Yet, as much as we want to avoid it, vulnerability is not optional. In fact, it is neither good nor bad. It is simply an inevitability that lies at the CORE of all emotions and feelings. To FEEL is to be vulnerable, and to feel is the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
We reject vulnerability because we associate it with dark emotions like shame, fear, disappointment, sadness and grief. These are emotions that we want to avoid. Yet, what we fail to understand is that vulnerability is also the birthplace of emotions that we crave – love, courage, belonging, empathy, joy and creativity. If we want more clarity in our purpose and meaning in our lives, we must embrace vulnerability.
The profound danger is when we start to associate feeling as weakness. With the exemption of anger, which is really a secondary emotion that masks deeper more difficult emotions, we are losing tolerance for emotion. Since vulnerability is the core of all feelings, we are losing tolerance for vulnerability as well.
As Brene notes, “We have confused feeling with failing, and emotions with liabilities. If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives, and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it.”
Creating a New Definition
The best place to start is to redefine vulnerability, which Brene defines as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
Every day we are faced with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. That new relationship, that important meeting, that business opportunity, that difficult family conversation, that creative project – they are all calling to us! Is it going to be easy? Probably not. Despite the fear, uncertainty and risk, should we show up, walk into the arena, and be seen? Absolutely.
At the root of it, we all crave love and acceptance. To love is uncertain. It is incredibly risky. Loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. It is scary, leaves us open to being hurt, but how would life be if we avoided love and never knew what it felt like to love or be loved?
Stepping Into the Arena
Roosevelt’s speech refers to an arena, but we can easily refer to modern-day references for comparison. Many of us have experienced what it’s like to be at a sporting event. It is especially special when the crowd is completely plugged into the game. Oh, how they roar when their team scores a point! Listen to the disappointment and frustration when they miss. But here’s a little secret – as much as it may feel like they are sharing in the experience, those in the stands are simply outside observers – they are not a part of the actual game. Their input, cheers, and criticisms will not affect the outcome. The only people who have direct influence on the outcome of the game are the players.
How many of us sit on the sidelines, passing judgment and giving advice, instead of playing in the game? There are probably many reasons we choose to not engage – it feels safer, there’s less risk, we don’t want to be exposed. At the root of it, it is because we feel vulnerable. But here’s another little secret, we cannot expect to grow, create, learn, connect, succeed, and transform, until we are willing to be vulnerable.
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”
Vulnerability is stepping up to the plate after striking out. It is accepting accountability. It is falling in love. It is trying something new. It is standing up for yourself and your friends when someone else is critical or gossiping. It is asking for forgiveness. It is admiting you are afraid. Are these signs of weakness? Definintely not. Vulnerability sounds like truth, and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.
Brene encourages us to own and engage with our vulnerability. If we are waiting until we are perfect or bulletproof, we will be waiting in vain. The truth is, perfect and bulletproof do NOT exist in the human experience. So while we wait for the impossible, we are missing opportunities, sacrificing relationships, and turning our backs on our gifts.
Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly comes highly recommended. It is the product of years of extensive research, her personal experience with “spiritual awakening” and the lived experiences of her research participants.