Embracing “Vulnerability” and being “Brave”. Personal conversations on “Stepping into the Arena”.
Previously, I wrote about what I think it really means to live life fully. Inspired after taking part in Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly™ Facilitator training (rooted in Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, above), I wrote about the importance of showing up in life, being seen and living bravely.
The feedback I got was overwhelming. People reached out, feeling moved and inspired to change their approach to life. Inevitably, similar to the feedback Brené Brown received, I also got a lot of the following kind of responses:
“I get the whole “living bravely” thing, but it’s a tough world out there. Do I really have to put myself out there? And if I do, can I go in with a little bit of armour?”
The answer is a resounding, Yes you do, and, No you can’t. Full stop. To borrow from Brené, vulnerability is “the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for—joy, faith, love, spirituality” and the list goes on. In short: everything you’re looking for in a fulfilled, happy and healthy life starts right here, in being truly, and uncomfortably, vulnerable and brave.
To help explore and explain these concepts and Brené’s work a little further, I’ve enlisted the help of journalist and writer, Rachel Jacqueline, to conduct a “Q&A” with me.
What is vulnerability?
RJ: Thanks Justine. The first question I have relates to vulnerability. For many people, even the word “vulnerable” feels uncomfortable and something to avoid. What do you mean when you say that we need to be “vulnerable” in order to live a whole-hearted life?
JC: If you look up the definition of “vulnerability” it means “open to attack”. It conjures images of walking into the arena, with bulls charging at you. The word feels uncomfortable because, well, it is uncomfortable. But rarely is the comfortable choice the courageous choice. In Chinese “vulnerability” translates to “weakness”, which is a bad thing – no one wants to be perceived as weak! But vulnerability is all about showing up, allowing yourself to be seen, when there are no guarantees as to how it will turn out.
But here’s the thing: when we are exposed to the possibility of attack and of failure, we are also exposed to the possibility of greatness. Think back to all the most wonderful, treasured moments of your life. Picking up the telephone. That first kiss. Finally getting fit and reaching that goal – a race, a competition. Having your first child. Getting top marks. Getting that promotion. Finishing your degree. Moving countries. Making a life and a career in a new country. The list goes on. What great joy in life hasn’t been marred by some struggle?
When we are exposed to the possibility of attack and of failure, we are also exposed to the possibility of greatness. Think back to all the most wonderful, treasured moments of your life … What great joy in life hasn’t been marred by some struggle?
Vulnerability goes hand in hand with all these wonderful things that make life worth living. If you want the full spectrum of life, vulnerability is a non-negotiable.
So many of my clients explain that they do want all these wonderful things – joy, achievement, love, happiness. But their desire is only at an intellectual level. They’re not prepared to work through the discomfort to achieve them; to get their hands a little dirty in their pursuit. They fear letting go of their defences, of falling down with their face in the dirt. And that fear holds them back.
I tell them, It’s OK, you can go through life safely, without ever getting hurt. You can keep doing what you’ve always done. But don’t expect a different outcome.
I truly believe the dictionary definition of vulnerability needs to change. Vulnerability isn’t about being weak; it’s about being open. Open to both failure – the sticky and uncomfortable moments – and success. To do otherwise is to only half live. Yes, you may fall flat on your face, but you will get up and be stronger for it, and experience greater things. We can’t have a rainbow without a bit of rain.
What is shame?
RJ: Similarly, you talk about “shame” as the reason people don’t open up to vulnerability. What does shame mean in the context that you use it?
JC: Shame is a dirty, disgusting, bottom-sucker fish kind of word, isn’t it? Shame represents those same dark places in ourselves that we don’t want anyone to know about. But shame is universal. We all have those parts of ourselves that we think are shameful and unique, but they’re really not. The longer I am on this planet, the longer I am convinced everyone has a shame story they don’t want to share. But when you hide shame, that’s when it festers and grows.
Bringing our stories of shame out into the light of day – exposing them, talking about them, sharing your experiences – means shame can no longer grow. It shrivels up; it doesn’t have any power over you anymore.
I think a really powerful example of this is eating disorders, which are so closely entwined in feelings of shame and secrecy. By supporting an individual struggling with an eating disorder to take the courageous step of bringing their struggles and shame-fuelled stories to the surface, in a safe environment, those stories no longer have the power to define them. Brené talks about the importance of ‘owning our stories’ so that we can write a brave new ending. Re-writing our shame stories can help us to move forward towards an authentic life.
This is where “vulnerability” comes into the equation: Bringing our shame into the light of day takes courage, and being vulnerable. But as I said earlier, being vulnerable means we have the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of life.
Stepping into the arena
RJ: Can you give me a personal example where you didn’t step into the arena – and what was the impact?
JC: One of my personal arenas is around public speaking. I received negative feedback on my speaking and training a few years ago and it triggered me into a shame spiral. I stopped taking up speaking opportunities; I didn’t want to engage with the discomfort of being judged.
But yet, when I thought about it, I really enjoy public speaking. I really enjoy teaching others, and sharing what I’ve learnt. It’s really scary, yes, and opens me up to criticism of course, but it also brings me great joy. I feel the impact of not stepping into the arena is ultimately a denial of joy. To not take up these opportunities means I would not be living an authentic life – something that I value tremendously.
RJ: On the other hand, can you give me an example where you did step into the arena, and the difference in outcome?
JC: Roller coasters. I’m petrified of them. But I went on one recently with my daughter, who is also not comfortable with them. As a parent, I believe we need to model the behaviour we want in our children and not just talk about it. So I stepped into vulnerability and embraced the combination of being afraid and courageous as I buckled in with my courageous daughter by my side. At the end of the ride I was left with a huge smile on my face as the experience was incredible – not because of the actual ride, but because of the look I saw in my daughter at the end of it. I would do it a million times again if it meant that it helped my daughter to embrace the concept of “Daring Greatly”.
RJ: Can you give some other example of common “arenas” in life that people should develop the courage to step into?
There are plenty of examples. For women in particular, I believe it’s often career or life objectives: waiting for everything to be perfect before they put their hands up for something. When looking at job descriptions, they tend to focus on the requirements they don’t quite fit into, and then pass up the opportunity. In men, I find it’s missing opportunities with family, as they’re not prepared to engage with their emotions.
In teenagers that I work with, I believe another area is always sticking to the “accepted route” rather than the road less taken. When everyone else is apply for an Ivy League university, applying for a smaller school, which may be a better fit for their personality and ambitions, takes an immense amount of courage.
We don’t “step into the arena” when we pass up opportunities that make us feel uncomfortable – professional networking opportunities, or social opportunities. Ultimately, we don’t step into the arena when we don’t try because we know there is a possibility that we might fail.
We don’t “step into the arena” when we pass up opportunities that make us feel uncomfortable …Ultimately, we don’t step into the arena when we don’t try because we know there is a possibility that we might fail.
The “support crew”
RJ: You talk about the importance of having a support crew of people who are in the “supporter’s section” of the arena with you. What advice do you have in selecting your own support crew?
JC: It’s a good question, and it’s a difficult one to answer. Particularly living in a foreign country, it can be difficult to find the right people to support you. Your family is a good place to start, but it may not be the right choice for everyone as, sadly, not everyone has a supportive relationship with their families.
On the other hand, friends are the family that you choose. I think the most important character traits of a “support crew” is authenticity and compassion. They’re the ones with your best interests at heart and who are not going to sugar coat. They’re not the type of people who make you feel uncomfortable in your struggles. They’re the ones who are going to help pick you up when you’re down, dust you off, and get you back in the arena.
The other point is that you can have different support crew for different aspects of your life: family, career, relationships. Sometimes it’s helpful having a neutral party, like a counsellor, in that role too. It really gives you an opportunity to take all the shields off. Personally, I have a supervisor for my work who I make sure I speak to regularly and I find the chance to speak with her very therapeutic. It’s an opportunity for me to not be in the role of mother, wife, counsellor, friend for an hour, and be totally vulnerable and open.
Finally: YOU. You need to be your own support crew, too. You need to believe in yourself. You need to be honest with yourself. You need to stand up for yourself, and treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Realise that when you’re saying “yes” to others – when you let their opinions matter – you’re really saying “no” to yourself.
RJ: On the other side of the support crew are the “critics” who don’t count. Who are common critics that people face in life that they should no longer tune into?
JC: They’re the anonymous attackers; the internet trolls. To give an example a bit closer to home: They’re the anonymous angry mums on Hong Kong mums with fake profiles that rip into other mums!
As Brené says, the critics are the ones that aren’t in the arena in their own lives. And, to paraphrase Brené, “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your criticism or feedback”. However, this doesn’t mean that we don’t take on the constructive comments – the one that help us grow and be better – but frankly, those who are just hurling abuse from above, they’re not the ones who matter.
Finally, and again. YOU. Perhaps the most common critic that we all know are the critics we have in our own head. Our negative self-critic. Our inner perfectionist. That’s the negative self-talk that we need to tune into and stay curious about what our minds are trying to tell us. We need to work out whether the self-talk is worth listening to in order to protect us from danger, or whether it is just us struggling with taking that courageous step into vulnerability. Bottom line – stay curious about it.
RJ: So how do you stay open to meaningful feedback that can make you better at what you do, but also filter out the stuff that will hurt you and just bring you down?
JC: I think the most important part of filtering feedback is asking the question: Why does this sentiment make me feel like this? Some feedback is truly awful, from truly awful critics, but sometimes we don’t like feedback because it’s a little too close to home. Remember, it’s not criticism unless you let it be, it’s feedback, and you chose how your process it. Being open to meaningful feedback really requires you to be true and authentic to yourself and who you are.
Next, it’s about being compassionate to yourself when you do receive feedback. Give yourself permission to get what you need to not internalise it and take it personally, and let it sink in in a constructive way.
The physics of vulnerability
RJ: Brené Brown explains the physics of vulnerability as follows: If you’re brave enough often enough, you’re going to fall. What’s been one of your toughest falls? And how have you picked yourself up afterwards?
JC: I’ve talked about this before, but when I had a major injury three years and was confined to a wheelchair for a few months, and wasn’t able to do the things I wanted to do, that was really difficult for me. For someone active and out there like me, it was really tough to feel so physically helpless and dependent on others.
How did I pick myself up? To be honest, I’m still picking myself up. I am still not 100 per cent. It’s a process. But rather than get overwhelmed by the entirety of the process, I believe rising after you fall is about setting a multitude of little goals along the way. Take each day as it comes, but each day trying that little bit harder, and stretch that little bit further than yesterday. Right now I’ve set myself a goal to ski this season. That’s the goal right now – not full recovery just yet, as I know that it’s a bigger process.
And, importantly, remember to reward yourself for the little successes as well as the big successes. They’re just as important. I will most certainly be rewarding myself after my first day on the slopes this season!