Vulnerability was supposed to save us all. It was supposed to connect and heal us.
Here’s the issue with vulnerability: it hasn’t connected us or healed us. In some ways, it has cracked open wounds that society is not equipped to handle.
I recently wrote an article that elicited a response from someone on Facebook along the lines of, the only thing wrong with this article is that the author didn’t call a friend and “share vulnerably.”
This assumes not only that I’m not “vulnerable” with my friends (which I am) but also that people in general know how to handle conversations containing vulnerability—“the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.”
What I’ve observed is that we’ve collectively been encouraged to be vulnerable as a way to connect, but simultaneously have not been collectively educated in how to respond, show compassion, or hold space for others.
I am a yoga teacher. I’m literally surrounded by people more capable of holding space than average. The issue isn’t my friends. My friends and colleagues and community are generally high on the scales of compassion, empathy, and connection.
This isn’t necessarily common. I’m not convinced that the idea of vulnerability without a trampoline of unusually supportive loved ones is wise.
I’ve been told stories of clients who have suffered a miscarriage and were met by comments about how “it’s for the best.” Translation: the recipient of this news had no idea how to respond.
I’ve heard stories of women in deep pain and shame about their relationship issues simply being told to run, or that their partner is an ass; as if dismissal and simple declarations could erase ambiguity, indecision, and difficulty.
In my own life, I’ve shared things and been told to either meditate them away or see a therapist.
Meditation and breathing are great tools, but they don’t remove external circumstances like the hooker living upstairs who is wreaking havoc with her pimp and accompanying drug-addled friends who were stealing everything that wasn’t nailed to the wall. Breathwork wasn’t going to bring back my feelings of safety and security, no matter how much the advice-giver simply wanted my truth to go away.
Seeing a therapist might sometimes be a good idea, and possibly could have been when I was struggling with lone parenting. But the advice to make an appointment felt dismissive at a time when I needed human connection and companionship—to say nothing of the fact that I had no health plan to cover expensive visits that wouldn’t have changed the circumstances of being mentally ragged and physically burned out anyway. “You should see a therapist” is another way of saying, “I’m not sure what to say” at best, or “What you need to do is to pay someone to listen” at worst.
Vulnerability is only as good as the person we choose to share it with and their capacity to respond. We don’t always know what someone else’s capacity to respond is.
So at the moment, we are encouraged to share; but we are not taught how to receive. There is grave irony in the idea that my “vulnerable share” online was met with criticism. A subliminal “Go talk to your friends, if you even have any” isn’t much better than “Go talk to a therapist” when we are simply speaking from the heart about our life experiences.
So if vulnerability isn’t a panacea to connect us and make us whole, what is?
Compassion and self-compassion might be closer truths to healing and helping us connect.
These two things move together in one wave.
First, we learn how to speak kindly to others. Then we learn to speak kindly to ourselves. Compassion and self-compassion might also be reversed.
Much as we are harder on ourselves than on others, I dare say almost none among us think it is appropriate to be essentially dismissed when sharing something meaningful or vulnerable.
Consider how your body responds when told these things: a recoil, a pit in the stomach, or a sense of shock and shame. It does not feel good to be dismissed, no matter how unintentional it was in the first place.
Can you be kinder to others? Can you be kinder to yourself? Can you meet someone else’s news and openness with new words? Can you tell the person you don’t know what to say?
We must be vulnerable in order to be compassionate. But we must also meet vulnerability with compassion. If you do not have the skills to do so, it’s best to be honest with both yourself and others that you don’t. Don’t give advice, don’t listen, don’t make Facebook comments.
The truth is that we live in a world where we are encouraged at every turn to be “vulnerable.” But we are also hyper-focused on the “positive,” because nobody has time or interest in negativity—or even truth. We are afraid of “giving energy” to dark things, negative things, or things that are not “manifesting” some positive outcome.
But our bodies carry the truth. Our bodies carry the stress and strain of negativity and the stresses and strains of life itself. Compression, pressure, strain, and inflammation happen when we carry around anger, shame, guilt, loss, and grief that we pretend is fine, or that we have vulnerably shared and had dismissed.
When everyone else is afraid that “we get what we focus on,” the faster we can dismiss someone else’s reality, the faster we can move on to The Secret and manifest the life of our dreams.
Just yesterday I was told not to waste my time responding to a negative situation—that it was a waste of my energy.
My body holds a different truth. One sentence of kind truth can be compassionate, self-compassionate, and life-changing.
It is possible to be kind and compassionate and listen without trying to solve someone else’s problem. It’s possible to hold negativity without taking it on. It’s possible to listen and respond without dismissing. It’s possible to acknowledge the difficulties to yourself. It’s possible to simply say, “Wow, that sounds like a truly difficult situation,” or “I have not experienced anything like that. I can’t even bring myself to understand how you process that.”
Our bodies need this kind of self-compassion and our souls need to both give and receive it within community.
Compassion and self-compassion are the missing health and wellness skills in our vulnerability tool kit. Without them, vulnerability is just dangerous. We cannot crack ourselves open only to be run over by the nearest car asking why we weren’t walking alongside our friends.