Been doing lots of thinking about vulnerability lately.
It’s becoming in vogue to talk about embracing vulnerability, but what does that even mean?
Be weak? Of course people are going to push back against that.
There’s some great literature out there on vulnerability (Brene Brown 100% owns that space) but I think there are more conversations to be had regarding the various forms of vulnerability, how it can be both positive and negative and these conversations are especially important for young men.
In this piece I hope to differentiate between positive and negative forms of vulnerability, touch on some of the ways positive-vulnerability can be beneficial and also explore the negative ways vulnerability can impact people.
Some of this was Inspired by a conversation I had with my CrossFit Games judge Lachlan Learg earlier this year. We were chatting about resilience and fragility and we both agreed that vulnerability was one of the best tools for improving resilience.
However vulnerability is often still seen as weakness and it’s kind of hard to argue when the Oxford dictionary defines it as: “the fact of being weak and easily hurt physically or emotionally.”
I believe that definition deters people from exploring the potential benefits of, what I’d like to call “positive-vulnerability,” which I would argue is the cornerstone of any and all positive self-change.
Positive-vulnerability is an exploration and acceptance of one’s faults, flaws and failures and is one of the most powerful and authentic forms of self awareness.
It is also one of the first, crucial steps towards making meaningful changes in your life, building resilience and improving your relationship with yourself and others.
If we can acknowledge and accept that weakness is part of what makes us human, we can dive deeper within ourselves and unpack the darker aspects of ourselves and how they’re impacting our lives. We can’t understand what we won’t explore and we can’t accept what we don’t understand. If we don’t accept where we currently are, how can we figure out how best to move towards where we want to be?
Let me give you an example. I’ve always loved a drink. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’ve always loved getting drunk. On the one hand, I think it’s fine and even heathy to go out and get a bit tipsy and have a few laughs with mates. However from the very first time I got black out drunk at 16 years old (and threw up all through my friend’s parents car and house) I knew I was dancing with the devil every time I hit the piss. I’ve battled anxious voices in my head for as long as I can remember. When I drink, those voices slow down and if I drink more, they stop altogether. I learnt that pretty quickly and whilst getting blackout drunk has produced a ton of funny memories, I’ll look back on fondly for the rest of my life, it’s also caused plenty of pretty shitty ones and is almost always followed days of horrible anxiety and anguish.
This may seem like a pretty straight forward situation. Don’t get black out drunk to try and manage your mental health. However it wasn’t until last year I realised how much this self medicating was actually a negative thing and how much it was impacting my life. Australian culture celebrates drinking. There was a part of me that took pride in my willingness to get absolutely hammered with my mates whenever the occasion arose and I know it was a source of enjoyment to many of them. It was the perfect storm. Partying was a break from the stresses of the real world, an antidote to the anxious inner dialogue I battled day-to-day and a means of connecting with people. Accepting that this was actually a negative thing in my life and a form of weakness took me 13 years. HOWEVER, coming to that realisation and changing my relationship with myself and with alcohol has allowed me to grow so much and enjoy a few drinks and the company of the people I care about on a deeper level, rather than just as a destructive coping mechanism.
Developing that kind of self-awareness and vulnerability is fucking uncomfortable. It flipped a lot of thoughts and feelings I had about myself, some of the people in my life and something I had always seen as a positive upside down. It was confronting and the only way I managed to get through it was by being committed to change.
That’s a scary part of positive-vulnerability. If you acknowledge something as a weakness, it means you are aware it is somehow detrimental to you and therefor there is a level of responsibility to change that. To do the work.
This is where people misconstrue vulnerability for weakness. It’s the opposite. It takes incredible strength to show weakness, WITH THE INTENT OF WORKING ON IT.
When we uncover our own weaknesses and accept them, we create space to work on improving them. By space, I mean mental bandwidth that would otherwise be spent trying to suppress, hide or disguise the things that make us vulnerable.
Second to that, by accepting our vulnerabilities and owning them, we remove their capacity to cause us shame or embarrassment, again allowing more energy for constructive personal development.
This is what separates positive-vulnerability from negative.
Positive-vulnerability is an exploration of our weaknesses with the intent to release ourselves from any power they have over us and our sense of self worth. Positive-vulnerability is about embracing weakness as part of being human and thus feeling more comfortable in our own skin, which allows us to be more productive and committed to working towards our goals.
Negative-vulnerability on the other hand is using weakness as a means of justifying ongoing negative patterns in your life, rather than working to try and change them.
There are parallels between negative-vulnerability and the victim mentality. Society sort of encourages victimhood these days and as such, there’s a sense of identity and belonging that goes with suffering.
It is easy to suffer and let that suffering become a safety net of sorts, allowing you to fall back into the soothing arms of sympathy, rather than face the difficult task of moving on. For many people, suffering is something they’ve received positive reinforcement for. Whether through sympathy, kindness, nurturing or help, this only deepens the bond between the sufferer and their suffering.
It is important to be given space to grieve when you experience trauma and be supported through that grieving process, even if that trauma is self inflicted and surfaces through the process of introspection. We must be allowed to feel negative emotions, rather than be made to suppress them.
However when we become attached to those negative emotions and derive meaning and purpose from experiencing them, that’s what I mean by negative-vulnerability.