The Victory of Vulnerability
Fear of shame is why we avoid making ourselves vulnerable.
Posted January 30, 2012
"Turn to chapter ten and begin reading..." My history teacher, by ending that sentence with a soft pause, led us to believe there were further instructions coming. The entire class stared at him in anticipation.
After a moment he said, "Why aren't you reading? Why are you looking at my face? There is no print here, and even if there were you couldn't see it."
The class burst into laughter. Frank Biggs, one of five African-American teachers in an all-white high school, frequently made fun of his race. He was a master of the self-deprecating joke, and subsequently the most popular teacher on campus.
In contrast to my comical teacher, I was clueless about the art of self-effacing humor, but I worked hard at cracking jokes and building a reputation as a class clown.
One day, after opening with his usual bit of comedy, Mr. Biggs asked the class, "Why is Africa called the Dark Continent?"
Wanting to compete with my entertaining teacher, I blurted out an answer I thought was certain to be rewarded with laughter from all: "Because of all the darkies that live there!"
Oops! The class laughed, but not Mr. Biggs. Instead, he spent the rest of the class scolding me for my insensitivity. He made me feel shame - that burning sensation of unworthiness - that most of us avoid at all costs. He also gave me a failing grade in Conduct for the semester. It was a grade that would keep me out of the Beta Club, an exclusive organization for high-achieving students, and limit my prospects for college. It was a high price to pay for creating a cool persona.
I was reluctant to tell this story - even though I was a high school kid and that was a different era, it seemed risky because it may be perceived differently today - but then I thought, "If I'm going to write advice about vulnerability, then I should be willing to live it as well."
In a recent column, I wrote about the universal craving for connection, and how we live for our friendships. Yet, at the same time, most of us repel the very intimacy we desire from our relationships. We do this by hiding our vulnerability, by building impervious walls - personas - to protect us from embarrassment and shame. Most of this emotional armor dates back to our early youth when we were terrified by a pimple, a bad-hair day, or wearing the wrong clothes.
Back in the 1970s, my friends and I would watch the TV show Happy Days. We all wanted to be cool like the leather-jacket clad, motorcycle riding, Fonzie. But it's easier to be funny than it is to be Fonzie, so I hid behind a shield of humor.
For the most part it worked. I made the other kids laugh and that made me cool. I was content. It would be decades before I learned the subtle art of making fun of myself in ways that people can relate to on a personal level.
American novelist, Madeleine L'Engle, notes, "When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability."
The truth is that we're terrified of making ourselves vulnerable because we are terrified of shame. So much so, that many of us have experienced nightmares of being naked or in our underwear in school or at work.
Eventually, I discovered and studied the wit of Woody Allen, who dead-panned his vulnerability, "I sold the memoirs of my sex life to a publisher. They are going to make a board game out of it."
When I started dating again after my divorce, I learned to turn the humor back on myself when I was asked potentially embarrassing questions that made me nervous. I recall responding to: "Do you like to dance?" with: "I love to dance... but I'm afraid the only step I know is the Fred Flintstone."
Over time, however, I began to notice that my relationships were as shallow as my jokes. I began to crave greater intimacy with my girlfriend, but I would expect her to be vulnerable - not me. Gee, why would I think that should be reciprocal?
Now, I'm finally beginning to figure out the power of vulnerability. When you show someone your true self, you invite trust. Why does this work? It works because people understand that we are risking shame and they completely relate to that.
It's not just for personal relationships, it works in business as well. I am comfortable standing on a stage speaking to hundreds or thousands of people, but talking with a client one-on-one for the first time scares the heck out of me. When I'm nervous, I become a chatterbox and talk non-stop, and while that serves me well on the platform, it is annoying in a conversation. I now explain this fear to my prospective clients, then ask them to tell me to put on the brakes if I get too talkative, and let me know it is their turn to speak. It's funny, but it seems to be happening less often - go figure!
Dr. Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, has labeled those who are willing to be vulnerable as "Whole-Hearted People." She identifies their number one trait as having the "courage to be imperfect."
Vulnerability is disarming, and makes aggressors back down. It is the primary component of Verbal Judo which I have mentioned previously in this column.
Even dogs get it. When two dogs are fighting for hierarchy in a pack, one will eventually back down by rolling over and exposing his throat and belly. That act of vulnerability sends a powerful signal that keeps one dog from killing the other.
So, am I getting it? I looked at my website and my Facebook profile just before writing this, and noticed that I'm clearly still trying to be cool. On the other hand, I have found that the more vulnerable I am in this column the more favorably people respond to it. I'm also finding that the more vulnerable I allow myself to be in all my relationships, the more trust and intimacy I build.
I'll conclude with the armor piercing words of C. S. Lewis, from his book, The Four Loves: "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness."
Ouch! I think I'd rather risk exposing my throat. Sure, I stand a chance of getting bitten, but I might also end up being smitten. (corny - I know - but that's me!)
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is also the author of the humorous children's book: The Annoying Ghost Kid. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.