Monday, February 11, 2013

The power of vulnerability

“Shame on you.” That’s an expression you don’t hear very often these days. When it came out of the mouth of the lecturer who was teaching us “Human Development,” I was taken aback. She was referring to a discussion that had taken place on the online discussion board for the previous unit of the psychology course I’m doing at the moment.

There had been a very lively exchange about an assessment task, our first lab report. Quite a few people had expressed feeling anxious or overwhelmed (we’re doing a highly intensive course) and asked for help or advice in different ways, which the previous lecturer had provided in generous abundance. Some interesting points had come up, and overall, I’d thought it created a supportive sense of connection and camaraderie in the group, as well as providing a space for at least one person to let the lecturer know that she was really struggling – possibly not just with the assessment task, but with bigger problems as well.

I have to admit, I didn’t read the whole discussion – I got too involved in writing the lab report after a while – but I didn’t see anything wrong with it. So when the new lecturer said, “If you were involved in that discussion, then shame on you,” I was taken by surprise. Given that I had taken part in it, I also felt like I’d been slapped. Where did that come from?

Was she saying that we should feel ashamed of expressing anxiety or asking for help? This was coming from a woman who as well as lecturing, runs a clinical practice, working with teenagers. Surely she wouldn’t endorse the idea that shaming people into silence is a good way of dealing with problems. But it certainly seemed to be an effective way of shutting down activity on the discussion board. Hardly anyone posted about her assessment task.

She had already told us that in her earlier career as a maths teacher she had been very strict: the children in her class worked in complete silence, something that her colleagues had found astonishing. Why did she want her students to be so quiet? In our case, there seemed to be a fairly obvious answer: as well as lecturing and running her practice, she had a huge administrative load. She was sometimes sending more than 500 emails a day. No wonder she didn’t want to have to respond to more messages on the discussion board.

So why didn’t she just explain this, and ask for our understanding and restraint in using the discussion board during her section of the course? Would she have felt ashamed to admit that she was feeling overloaded, and could do with some help from us, or from her colleagues? Was it her own sense of shame that she was trying to shift when she told us, “shame on you”?

Brené Brown
The same week, I had a great conversation with one of my fellow students in the course, Emily. She told me about a TED talk on the power of vulnerability, given by researcher-storyteller Brené Brown. Brown began her career as a researcher by setting out to investigate human connection. But she found that when she asked people about love, they told her about heartbreak; when she asked them about belonging, they talked about experiences of exclusion. What was it that constantly seemed to be unraveling connection? The answer she found was: shame.

Brown defines shame as the fear of disconnection. “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection?” It’s a universal human experience. What underpins it is excruciating feelings of vulnerability. Brown’s initial reaction to this discovery was to see it as a chance to deconstruct shame and conquer vulnerability with reason. As she commented wryly in her talk, you know this wasn’t going to end well. In the boxing match of researcher Brené Brown versus vulnerability, vulnerability won.

But of course, that was a good thing for the researcher who became a researcher-storyteller. In the course of her work, Brown discovered that the people who have a strong sense of connection, love and belonging are the ones who fully embrace vulnerability. They don’t talk about vulnerability as being excruciating, or comfortable; they just see it as necessary. From them, Brown learnt that in order to connect with others, we have to be willing to let go of who we think we should be and be who we are. People who do this are able to connect with others on the basis of authenticity, and live in a wholehearted way.

The final message of Brown’s scholarly story is very simple. You are enough: believe this, and experiences of vulnerability become the basis for connection instead of disconnection, love rather than shame.

How does this apply to the situation with my lecturer? I can see that her words bothered me because of my own susceptibility to shame. They touched on lurking fears that in some sense, possibly many senses, I might not be “enough.” So how do you overcome those fears if you have them, if at some deep, dark level, you don't believe that you’re enough?

Brown says this calls for courage and compassion. You need courage to let yourself feel vulnerable instead of fleeing this experience by “numbing out” (one cost of that strategy is that in avoiding psychological pain, you simultaneously reduce your capacity for more positive feelings). And you need compassion to make the experience of vulnerability bearable and productive, rather than simply excruciating – to let it be something that softens and strengthens you, rather than making you harder and weaker. Brown suggests that to cultivate compassion, you have to begin with yourself. Be kind and accepting towards yourself first, and then you’ll be able to show compassion to others.

But does it necessarily have to go in that order? It seems to me that you might come to feel that you are enough by first making an effort to see that others are.

If I broaden my view out from the three words I quoted at the beginning of this blogpost to consider some of the thousands of others my lecturer spoke over the four days I was learning from her, do I see a person who was constantly trying to shame her students into silence? No, definitely not. Was she “enough”? This might seem like a rather vague question, but the answer is clear to me: yes, she was. From this wider perspective, her words about shame don’t seem nearly so loaded or powerful. In fact, they look more like an ephemeral gift, one that I was attentive and sensitive enough to catch as it flew past me, the small seed that would grow into this reflection.

Now, that’s enough.


Peter said...

When I saw your heading "The power of vulnerability" I thought of Pope Benedict and his resignation yesterday.

Many people found his predecessor's determined continuation of his ministry through chronic frailty inspiring, but for me Bendedict's quiet departure speaks far more about the power of vulnerability.

As I am a liberal protestant and he is a conservative catholic, I agree with few of his views butI find myself deeply moved and impressed by someone in his position who proactively lets go of institutional power.

Indeed it awakens compassion in me for someone whose views for so long I have opposed. The power of vulnerability. What you are describing in your post (in both directions) is in some way going on here ...

Juzzeau said...

That's a nice point, Peter - thanks. Not only is compassion important for making experiences of vulnerability bearable, but letting vulnerability be seen is also one of the most powerful ways of evoking compassion. I guess part of this, as the case of Pope Benedict shows, is that when someone is vulnerable, you can easily see them as an individual, with whom you can connect, rather than as a type with whom you might not identify at all. As an aging man suffering from illness, the Pope is much easier to connect with directly, than he is (or was) as the public face of an institution.