“What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.” ~Brene Brown
Vulnerability has never been my strong suit. It’s no wonder. In order to be vulnerable, you have to be okay with all of you. That’s the thing about vulnerability that no one tells you about.
Being vulnerable is not just about showing the parts of you that are shiny and pretty and fun. It’s about revealing what you deny or keep hidden from other people. We all do this to some extent. I bet you’ve never said to a friend, “Oh my god, I just love that I’m insecure.”
But that’s the point, isn’t it? You’ve got to love everything, if you want to be vulnerable by choice.
Most of us have probably experienced vulnerability through default. More often than not, we are either forced into that state through conflict, or we are surprised by it after our circumstances feel more comfortable.
Few of us consciously choose vulnerability. Why? The stakes are too high.
If we reveal our authentic selves, there is the great possibility that we will be misunderstood, labeled, or worst of all, rejected. The fear of rejection can be so powerful that some wear it like armor.
My first real experience with vulnerability came when I was twenty-five.
I had just accepted a position as a literature teacher of juniors and seniors at a local high school. This was quite possibly the most intimidating situation I had ever gotten myself into thus far. We’re talking teenagers here, the most extraterrestrial of all age groups!
To make matters worse, I asked my parents for advice. Being longtime elementary school teachers, my parents had a plethora of horror stories to share about unruly students, unreasonable parents, and teachers who could not control their classrooms.
Each story ended with, “And that’s why she quit and ended up going into retail.”
I didn’t want to be a quitter, so I listened well when they told me that I needed to be strong from the get-go, that I needed to show my students who was boss.
In the words of my father, “You can be a bitch and work your way down to nice, but you can’t be nice and work your way up to being strong.”
I took my parents’ advice to heart. In the first week, I flunked seventy-five percent of my students on the summer reading exam. I yelled a lot to control the classroom environment.
And when my students would complain about an assignment, I would say to them, “Remember, this class is not a democracy, it’s a monarchy and guess who’s queen?”
When I read those words now, I can’t help but cringe.
But at the time, I believed vulnerability was a liability. I was okay with being the dragon lady. It was safe.
And under that façade, no one knew how terrified I actually was. So I wore that armor as if my life depended on it.
If I had my way, I would have kept my guard up for the rest of that year. But my students were much smarter than me. They must have known on some level that, in the presence of true vulnerability, no one could remain closed off.
Perhaps no event demonstrated this better than when the senior honors project was in jeopardy.
It was not traditional curriculum, and thus it came under scrutiny. My seniors were visibly upset because they had worked so hard on their group papers, and they were looking forward to their presentations in which faculty from the school as well as from the university would be present.
When they expressed their feelings so honestly and openly, I could not turn away. Now, I wanted to fight not only for the project but for the students themselves.
When I thought we would have no choice but to abandon the whole thing, I remember telling my students that I wanted to quit. For the first time, I was very honest with them about how I was feeling and what I wanted for them.
I was, perhaps, the most vulnerable I had been all year. And that moment of vulnerability paid off big time.
When I left the school at the end of the year, I received many letters from my students. In them, I discovered that they were touched by the fact that I had fought so hard for them, that I was honest with them, and that I believed in them so passionately.
At the time, I probably said to the universe something like, “Ah! You tricked me! This was supposed to be just a temporary job until my real life began. I wasn’t supposed to invest in anyone or be committed to anything or care about anyone.”
But I was very connected to these students long before I even knew I was. Needless to say, they got their senior project. But I received something so much greater. I learned what vulnerability looked like and felt like. And I was the recipient of all its rewards.
Over the years, I have continued to experience that place of vulnerability. I cannot say that all my experiences have come through choice, but I do try to enter that state as much as I can.
While I am far from being an expert on this subject, I have come to some conclusions that I hope will be meaningful to those who want to choose vulnerability:
1. Vulnerability is so much easier when you love yourself.
Think about it. When you don’t love all of you and are afraid to show people the less than stellar parts, the space between you and vulnerability is like the Grand Canyon. You will need all the courage you can get to make the leap across.
But when you love yourself, and I mean all of you, you don’t worry so much if someone else doesn’t. And when you’re less afraid of rejection, you step right into that place of openness.
2. Vulnerability takes practice.
You don’t just learn it once and then—ta-dah!—you’re easily open to everything and everyone. My experience at the high school was very profound, but even now, many years later, I still have moments where I’m more guarded and less willing to share the real me.
Thank goodness life continues to give me opportunities to consciously choose openness. And most times, I do.
3. The rewards of vulnerability are immeasurable.
When I have chosen to be open, to show my authentic self, my students have met me there. And when they’ve met me there and formed that connection, there’s nothing they can’t accomplish.
With vulnerability, you experience true connection—true love for yourself—and you begin to attract people to you who are inspired by your openness.
While it’s not easy to be vulnerable, you’d be surprised how loving all of you and then sharing it with another can help you to connect with anyone. In my own life, I’m continuing to open up to my students.
I’ve been showing them a little more of the complexity that is me. They now know the ugly truth that I don’t do math. They know that whenever I need to half a recipe, my twelve-year-old nephew does the fractions for me.
Shameful? Perhaps. But you know what? I like that girl and in the end, so do my students.
Photo by mikebaird.