Years ago, while attending a relationship workshop taught by psychologist and spiritual teacher Patricia Sun, I witnessed an exchange I will never forget.
During a Q&A session, a woman spoke up and said, “I wish my husband could be more vulnerable. I just want to know what he really feels.”
Patricia answered bluntly: “Oh no you don’t.”
Taken aback, the questioner responded meekly, “What do you mean?”
“If there’s something you don’t already know about what your husband feels,” Patricia explained, “that means he’s keeping some feelings from you. And, there’s probably a good reason. That is, you might be horrified by what those feelings are. In fact, what you probably really want to know is that he feels only what you want him to be feeling.”
I think about this exchange whenever I hear the idea of vulnerability touted as a psychological or spiritual ideal. This ideal certainly has a trendy cachet nowadays. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, a full-page Eileen Fisher ad entitled “Power. In the Words of Women,” features Colleen Saidman, author of Yoga for Life, proclaiming:
“Power means having the courage to be yourself. Power is also having the courage to be vulnerable, to show up without your armor.”
Really? If we revisit the Oxford English definition of vulnerable, it’s pretty challenging to see any connection of this quality to power:
1. susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm
To all those who blithely assume vulnerability to be some kind of sweet and harmless openness—to which we can kindly respond with an “aw shucks” tenderness—it’s important to remember that vulnerability can cut both ways.
That is, someone who’s vulnerable enough to share with you his or her real feelings may make you feel vulnerable. You may want to run and hide, recoil in disgust, file a restraining order, or simply wonder how you ever got the crazy idea that you really wanted to hear this other person’s authentic, heartfelt, and deeply twisted feelings.
If someone volunteers vulnerability without being asked, it’s even worse. Do we really want to hear out the true, unsolicited feelings of the narcissist or sociopath, or see them tweeted by the current so-called leader of the free world?
There is, however, a powerful way in which we can express or witness vulnerability.
It begins with acceptance of the notion, “Nothing human is alien to me,” as the Roman dramatist Terence put it. That means we can acknowledge whatever another person might truly feel and admit—be it selfishness, lust, manipulativeness, passivity, passive-aggressiveness, or outright savagery—and likewise admit we’ve been there, felt that, and found it forgivable.
Hence, the potential power of vulnerability actually lies in forgiveness. But, forgiving is not the same as approving of everything that’s within the human capacity to feel or express. And, it doesn’t mean simply “showing up without your armor.”
Forgiveness is the key to power because it’s a state of mind in which we can witness anything without feeling “susceptible to harm.” When nothing can offend, disturb, or threaten our equanimity—because we have, in a very real sense, forgiven everything in advance—then we are truly powerful.
This is a spiritual capacity. It stems from an identification with the energy within us that’s invisible, timeless, infinite, and whole. When we identify only with the shaky, fractured ego and the time-limited body, we will feel vulnerable all the time—but only in the worst ways—because the ego and the body suffer constant threats.
To constantly remind ourselves that we are not merely what we appear to be is a demanding, moment-by-moment discipline.
But, I wouldn’t want to be vulnerable without it.
Author: D. Patrick Miller
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Sara Kärpänen