Jacob interrupted me and asked, “Do you want my opinion?” I paused for a moment to consider his query. Although I did not want his opinion, I was curious to know what he had heard over the last thirty minutes during which I was vulnerable and shared one of the most painful parts of my relationship history. It’s not something I talk about often, but Jacob and I are helpers in training and I felt encouraged to risk being vulnerable with him. I gave Jacob the go ahead, and he started with “Your problem is ..." and continued to offer advice, admonishment, and correction. Suffice it to say, I was shocked, appalled, hurt, and angry. I abruptly ended our conversation.
Vulnerability is a Trending Topic
There’s a crisis of empathy in our current times. Many of us are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety which translates to a dangerous brand of selfishness—the kind that makes us keep ourselves hidden. Over the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick in authors, teachers, and thought leaders encouraging us to dare greatly (Brené Brown), live courageously (Elizabeth Gilbert), and trust the universe (Gabby Bernstein). The thesis of their message is to be seen, believe the universe has your back, and most of all, to be vulnerable. They suggest that we embrace the soft and tender parts of ourselves and share them with others.
I did that with my colleague Jacob when I told him the story about my failed relationship. Usually, I protect this part of myself like a fierce mother lion guarding her cubs because it feels like a wound. If I make it about self-preservation and avoid exposing the experience of shame, denial, fear, sadness and how that created new dimensions of self-awareness, I'm making the declaration, "No, life, I certainly cannot and do not trust you!" In choosing not to trust life, I shut out the possibility of making sincere and genuine connections with others. I think that’s why I’m drawn to the Brené’s, Liz’s, and Gabby’s in our world—because they are inviting me to act as if I can trust life and be vulnerable with other people. Their words and stories promise a deeper lived life experience enrobed with profound meaning, and isn't that what being human is about?
Two Ways of Being Vulnerable
There are two parts of vulnerability. First, there is being vulnerable with others which looks like sharing myself authentically with people—the pretty and the not-so-pretty, the tough and the tender. The second, and often overlooked part is being vulnerable for others which looks like holding space for their expression of vulnerability—in a sense, temporarily making myself open to feeling wounded by them.
All relationships, regardless of quality or depth, consists of at least two people striving for the mutual goal of connection. Whether these connections last a minute, a year, or a lifetime, they demand of all participants the capacity to give and to also receive on many levels, not the least of which is vulnerability. Despite all the encouragement to be vulnerable with others, I fear that we may forget to also cultivate the capacity to be vulnerable for others. It’s more difficult to master this side of the equation because it means I need to have a high degree of self awareness that enables me to receive input from another (such as their act of being vulnerable) while simultaneously observing my inner experience, and then, discerning the next right step.
The only way meaningful connection can happen is if being vulnerable is a two way street. I shortchange relationships if I stop at being vulnerable with another, I also have to close the loop and be vulnerable for them. There’s a wholeness in this perspective that is often missing in some of the louder voices on the topic of vulnerability. It feels great to be open with one another, especially if the connection is grounded in mutual trust. It can also feel pretty bad if those conditions aren’t present.
Jake the Jerk
I RSVP'd to the invitation of being vulnerable with my colleague Jacob and things got ugly really fast. In the week after that dreadful conversation, I sought the counsel of trusted friends and advisors, wrote through my feelings in a journal, and shook my fists at the heavens in disdain. The final verdict was that Jake was a jerk and would be permanently exiled to the list of people I could never trust. I tried my hand at the vulnerability game and it failed miserably.
The following week, Jacob asked to talk. I braced myself for another round of "here's your problem" and listened as he spoke. "I've been thinking a lot about our conversation and I have to tell you, it really bothered me that you were so upset. I realize that there are some things I need to work on and I want to thank you for helping me see that."
Say what now?
Practicing Being Vulnerable For Others
Real connection with others based on mutual trust goes a lot slower than I'd like. It takes more time to receive, discern, and respond thoughtfully than it does to receive half-way, leap to conclusions, and instantly react. Connecting consciously with others sometimes feels like I'm wading through knee-deep molasses and my words, when I finally find and say them, sound like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. It's disorienting and it feels bizarre as I begin to practice this kind of presence with others.
The exchange with Jacob occurred over a period of a week! We both had a lot of time to reflect, ponder, and make sense of that first conversation. Initially, we both demonstrated that we could not be vulnerable for one another— his reception of my vulnerability was less than stellar and my response was to shut it down as quickly as possible to avoid further perceived injury.
When Jacob asked to talk, he was being vulnerable with me by admitting he was wrong, felt bad, and could see that he could work on changing. My mind raced with habitual responses like, good to know you see the error of your ways, and, there's more you need to learn let me show you where to start. I didn't say those words to him, though. Instead, I set aside my need to fix things, offer solutions, or seek vengeance in order to create space for the both of us to embrace our individual and shared experience.
In the pause after he spoke, I sorted through what was going on for me—the shock of him demonstrating a willingness and capacity to reflect (he's not a jerk after all), the awareness that my being vulnerable with him in the first place wasn't a mistake or failure, and most importantly, the recognition that Jacob was being vulnerable with me and I had a responsibility to receive it with honor, respect, and compassion—to be vulnerable for him.
I thanked Jacob for having the courage to share his self-reflections with me because it helped me see him and myself much more clearly. We said our goodbyes and as I walked to my car, I winked at the evening sky as if to say, "Yes, life. I can and do trust you."