The Vulnerability Revolution

How a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens is changing the world

Posted Apr 13, 2016

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

There is a shift that is beginning to happen in our psychological world today, and it is a shift that we desperately need.

It is a shift away from:

  • the power of positive thinking with its promise of personal and unlimited success and happiness;
  • the quick fix and fast escape from struggle;
  • the maverick mentality of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “never let them see you cry.”

In essence, it is a shift away from the cult of perfectionism toward the sacredness of the ordinary.

It is a shift toward:

  • recognition of our needs and our dependence on others;
  • compassion, gratitude, and humility as practices that lead to satisfaction and meaning;
  • embracing the fact and value our human vulnerability.

This shift is being fueled by the emergence of a new wave of thinkers, writers, and speakers who are leading by example: talking about vulnerability while leading with their vulnerability. I hope you know the names and work of some of these people—and, if you don’t yet, I hope you will. They are people like Ann Lamott, Brene Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rob Bell, Glennon Doyle Melton, and most everyone that Oprah Winfrey has interviewed on her television show, Super Soul Sunday. They walk in the footsteps of some folks who have been around for a while: Henri Nouwen, Thich Nhat Han, David Steindl-Rast, Richard Rohr, and pretty much anyone that Krista Tippett has interviewed on her podcast, On Being.

These folks are starting a new conversation—or perhaps reviving an old one. They are talking about the great burden of denying our emotional needs, silencing the voice of our truest selves, and hiding behind bravado, busyness, and personal achievement. They are quoting the poet Rilke on the value of silence and stillness, of finding a more humble perspective regarding our place in the universe, and of openness to learning, beauty, and love.

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

If I may be so bold, I would like to say that these folks are leading a vulnerability revolution. Not because there is any violence in it, quite the contrary. But because this small group of people is taking up the banner, singing the anthem, and marshalling a cause to change how we view ourselves, psychologically, in this place and time. They are redefining self-esteem, relationships, work, and leadership. They are redefining how we do science, business, education, medicine, diversity, ecology, fundraising, and—dare I say—even politics.

This idea of a small group of people coming together to bring about a shift of consciousness was galvanized by an On Being podcast I recently heard in which Krista Tippett interviewed the linguist and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. In the interview, Dr. Bateson spoke about the idea of “evolutionary clusters,” pointing to crucial moments in human history when a group of people got together to move the sensibility of a society forward, for the better. She said:

“Very often, major accelerations of change came out when a group of people got together and learned together and dared to think new thoughts and then pass them on. And that’s, you know, that’s true of the disciples of Jesus, a small group that — pow! Spread out, spreading ideas that they’d learned. It was true of the American Revolution, a group of thoughtful colonists thinking, actually, about French philosophy, mainly, and deciding they wanted to be independent. And the point is that the evolutionary part of that was in the relationships between the members of those small groups… A feeding off of each other’s imaginations and insights and wisdom and then spreading them out in the society going forward.”

I think that there is an evolutionary cluster that is trying to move our society forward in cultivating psychological health and well-being.

As an ordinary person finding my way in life, my ears perk up and my heart opens up, and I find myself hungry for more. As a psychoanalyst, I find myself heartened—even relieved—to discover voices from traditions far outside my own whose work resonates so profoundly. Through my psychoanalytic training and experience, I have come to believe that so many of our modern problems in living—depression, anxiety, isolation, relational brokenness, substance abuse, perfectionism, work-aholism, cynicism, to name a few—stem from our attitudes toward our most vulnerable selves. By rejecting, denying, and disowning our vulnerability, we actually do great damage to ourselves, particularly to our sense of self-worth which is so crucial to mental health.

Casey Tisdel, used with permission
Source: Casey Tisdel, used with permission

In a recent talk about the model of mental health in psychoanalysis, I shared the idea that the aim of psychoanalysis is to reach the vulnerable part of the self that is hidden behind and protected by the omnipotent part of self. I illustrated this idea with the following drawing:

The omnipotent part of self can be seen in the kind of super-hero approach that so many of us take in life: we act as if we can do it all—perfectly—on our own. We find our value in achievement rather than love; in control rather than community; and in conquering fear rather than being present to it. But behind the cape of every super-hero psyche is a little one, often frightened and in need of attention, care, guidance, and love. If psychoanalysis is to be of help, it must find and reach that vulnerable one.

So I am encouraged to see this shift in popular psychology, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and theology that is trying to reach that vulnerable one, too. This evolutionary cluster is reinforcing the counter-intuitive idea that psychological strength comes by working with our weaknesses. It is only by acknowledging our needs that we can put ourselves in a position of being helped, cared for, and loved. It also is the position from which we can learn and grow. If we want to develop security, peace of mind, worthiness and meaning in life, we would do well to join the vulnerability revolution.

Copyright 2016 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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About the Author

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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