Why Vulnerability Leads to Strength
Want to hear something obvious? To overcome our own inner obstacles, to get over our emotional limiters – in short, to deal with our shit – we must first admit it exists. The impetus to seek a cure can only come about after acknowledging there is something that needs curing.
As obvious as that sentence is – and I did say it was obvious – the human mind is a slippery sucker and often things that should be self-evident simply aren’t. We’re built with an emotional blind spot. We can’t always approach our emotional burdens logically because of the way we’re put together.
We’re creatures hardwired to avoid pain, especially when it’s without clear reward. It’s mighty difficult to face any kind of struggle unless we get something at the end of it. We suffer at the gym because it makes us look good and feel healthier. We toil in our place of work because it gives us money, resources and in one way or another, power.
Yet when things have a much murkier correlation – such as tackling our emotional insecurity for an unspecified better future, or dealing with loss under the promise of a vague sense of personal peace – we reject this path of suffering because it doesn’t seem worth it.
Opening ourselves up to such emotional vulnerability for an intangible outcome we can’t rightly picture is often too crappy a deal for our mind to accept. So we reject the struggle, deny the pain and instead, just soldier on.
Now I know what you’re thinking and yes, there’s nothing wrong with that on a superficial level. There is virtue in stoic resilience. This is emphasised and re-emphasised by the myths and tales we tell each other as a society. The constant exposure to films and books and songs of heroic characters that are physically and emotionally stronger than you could ever be have influenced our behaviour. We see pain and fear as an expression of weakness. Thor isn’t scared. Atticus Finch isn’t afraid. Rocky isn’t weak. Frodo marches on. Jesus died a terrible death for other people. So we learn from these stories that we are weak, and we should be stronger. So we do what we can when times feel tough: Hunker down on our own determination, grit our teeth and push on. because that’s what we’ve been taught is right.
Yet this means vulnerability becomes even more taboo because opening up to our inner turmoils would be admitting we are not the same as those heroic figures. We are hurt, we are – God forbid – victims. So taboo is this admission and this word that our mind won’t let us admit it as much as our social mythology doesn’t embrace it. No one wants to play victim, so we harden up instead of healing. But there’s no point putting on armour and battling through if the pain is inside rather than out. All that armour is going to do is keep that pain contained, buddy.
On top of all this, to be logical about emotional suffering, to look at it like an amoeba under a microscope, is more than a little tricky. It’s damn difficult to tell what is normal day to day melancholy and what is the pain we tuck away in a corner of our mind and refuse to look at. To identify emotional pain and where it comes from, what it looks like and the forms it manifests itself in is often a scientific leap too far. Self-examination is like trying to look at your own eyeballs. Weird and difficult without some form of mirror.
So what’s to be done? Well if you’re really in emotional pain I’d of course suggest finding a good therapist and let them guide you through the woods. There’s plenty of great help out there. But for the rest of us, how do we ensure we’re not burying our insecurities under a steely facade?
This is where vulnerability steps in. All we can really do as humans is open ourselves up and try to feel the gulf between what we want to think and feel and what we actually think and feel. Then take a leap of faith to try to understand why that difference exists.
Dredging up a traumatic issue, or even a mildly unhappy one, can be immensely painful, but it is the only way to be rid of it. Looking for pain is akin to kicking up a hornet’s nest, it will bring with it its own troubles. Yet there is no other way for our self-sabotaging minds to pinpoint the problem. And once we do this we can begin to develop the emotional antibodies to beat it.
The quiet and courageous act of admitting we’re weakened, that something is hurting and we need to fix it, that we are not perfect, is vulnerability.
This is why every 12 step programme begins with a statement of vulnerability, a declaration of a grim truth that can no longer be ignored: I am an alcoholic. I am an addict. I am a victim of abuse. I need help. It’s the grandest truth we will ever have to declare because it begins a process of healing.
There is no shame in this vulnerability. Only strength. Everyone we meet in life loves something, is scared of something and has lost something. Everyone is human. Everyone is vulnerable. Embracing vulnerability is the first step to reclaiming your phyche. It’s the first shot fired in the battle for happiness.
The fear of our pain is the only real power it has. It is what pushes and drives all other problems. The great news is that we can control that power, we can intervene and shine a light on the pain and begin to deconstruct it. We can take the power back. It’s an ongoing process, a state of mind that requires work and diligence, but it sure beats wearing all that heavy armour.
There’s a theme in Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsh which says if we look at a fear, it disappears. It disappears in the light, it does not stand up to scrutiny, it is a paper tiger.
Bullying thoughts, emotional pain, traumatic pasts and substance dependencies are all scared of the light. They all need to dwell in the dark recesses of our minds so they can fester and grow and appear unconquerable. If we deny the pain, we allow it to live on. We feed it and we are unable to tackle it.
But denial is just an emotional work around with an expiry date.
Denial of the pain rots us from the inside as we pour endless mental energy into building walls around it in our minds. But those same walls trap us in also. M Scott Peck’s bestselling book The road less travelled proposes that no healing can come from any method other than walking the uncommon path, the path of confronting and exposing our pain. The path of vulnerability.
So we are faced with a task. You are not alone. I am not alone. We all must face our pain, no matter its size or nature. It is a noble fight and an important one, for you fight for your soul. Yet it will always be easier than we fear. You are always stronger than you believe.
The key to a better life is within you. Held by you. Embrace vulnerability and love yourself. Allow yourself to be scared. On the other side of fear is the person you’ve always wanted to be.