Traveling Towards Vulnerability

by, Michell Stanley, LICSW, Master Certified Life Coach

Vulnerability awakens our senses. When we feel vulnerable, we tend to pay attention more. This feeling forces us to never go on autopilot. It opens our hearts to what is.”
-Elizabeth Aspen

As children, our identity and self-esteem are formed in response to our material resources (food/housing), environment, and relationships with those who we spend most of our time with, or live near. As an adult, if we continue to rely only on those things, we find that our self-confidence and esteem seem transient.

If self-confidence is a variable instead of fixed, then we can experience diminishing self-worth after suffering events such as loss, life transitions, or significant disappointments.

Although we might feel devalued after experiencing adversity it is only a feeling, and does not constitute who we actually are. De-valuation constitutes our self-perceptions, how we think and feel about who we actually are.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to travel alone to a foreign country. I wanted to see who I would be? How would I define myself when no one knows who I am? I have no career, reputation, or shared interests to stand upon when interacting with people, not even social graces, such as being a witty conversationalist could vouch for me being in a place where I am not fluent in the language.

In daily interactions, we are so set-back, disappointed, sometimes defeated when we make mistakes or our weakness are revealed.

Consistent with this experience, my first response to being exposed as a non-Spanish speaker was wishing to become invisible. I felt ashamed. Who would want to help me, take the time to try to understand me, never mind like me, if I couldn’t speak the language? After a few hours of trying to avoid any interaction where I would be forced to speak Spanish by not: ordering food, getting lost, or making eye contact, I quickly realized the futility of the effort and took on the challenge of finding creative ways to express myself with what small bits of the language I did know.

I soon discovered that making a mistake or revealing that I didn’t understand what was being said (even though I was nodding my head and “si” -ing along at all the appropriate conjectures), didn’t make me inadequate or even ignorant. Surprisingly, what I found in response to my Spanglish was a response of compassion. People generally wanted to help create understanding. Not just for me, but for them too. It’s as if we were playing one of those games where you try to figure out what your partner is trying to convey without being able to actually just say it.

Now, when I meet seemingly fluent bi-lingual speakers (such as those working in the airport), would ask “Hablas Espanol?” ( do you speak Spanish?) Rather than shuddering at the opportunity for a weakness to be revealed, I would answer in the standard “un poquito” ( a little) and then ask them in Spanish if they spoke English. To my surprise, many answered “a little” or “I am learning”. We then had a new place to connect a shared interest a common experience.

The lesson learned is that life is not about getting it right or showing how good we are at (fill in the blank). It’s about connecting through relationships. Second, we cannot connect or learn through relationships without making ourselves vulnerable. Last, it’s important to recognize how we limit our experiences of vulnerability when we stay within the confines of our comfort zone.

This doesn’t mean you have to book your ticket to Malawi tomorrow. You can travel outside of your comfort zone every day:

• Strike up a conversation with a complete stranger
 • Go to a bar and DON’T have a drink
 • Eat at your favorite restaurant alone
 • Try something you’ve never done and try it in front of others
 • Eye gaze 
 • Go somewhere where you will be a minority
 • Ask for help
 • Risk failure
 • Admit when you don’t know something
 • Approach ”not-knowing” as a great opportunity to learn something new
 • Take a full breath before responding to a question
 • Listen more and talk less

• Listen to Brene Brown talk about vulnerability:

Michell Stanley is a psychotherapist, certified life coach, and owner of Moksha Living, a holistic life coaching and therapy practice in Washington D.C. Michell’s approach strives to help clients to discover the path of fulfillment and holistic wellness through self-study, emotional healing and skillful action.