The Impact of Vulnerability

Illustration by Fuchsia MacAree

            When I was a child, I lived in a house of secret keepers. Under the guise of “privacy”, our family didn’t share details about our lives with people outside our home. We didn’t share details about who was ill, who worked where, or what we did for fun. We were a closed off bunch. We especially didn’t share things that might bring shame upon our family. We didn’t talk about things like who had too much to drink at the Christmas party. We didn’t talk about who got in trouble at school for doing what. And we didn’t talk about how much money we earned or spent. Many of our conversations were kept superficial. We answered in yeses and nos. Short and sweet. No need to disclose any spicy details! I remember frequently feeling awkward during conversations because my learned behavior led people to think I showed no interest in them. Once, a friend told me that he felt like I wasn’t listening to him because I never commented on what he had just said. It wasn’t until much later in life that I discovered my family’s way of keeping secrets wasn’t healthy. Instead, it is much more healthy and helpful to the people in our lives if we allow ourselves permission to be vulnerable.

            I’m not bashing my family here. I don’t think we’re the only family who refrained from vulnerability. In fact, vulnerability earned its name because it can feel inherently risky! Think of the conversation topics that are often seen as “taboo”. You know. Things like sex, money, health, smoking or drinking habits. Those kinds of things. Why are they taboo? Most likely it’s because people can (and sadly do) judge us harshly for them. For example, if I share my weight publicly, then there are bound to be people who will take an opportunity to pounce on me to tell me that my weight is unhealthy and that I’m a walking heart attack waiting to happen. These kinds of comments are a) not true, and b) hurtful. So if sharing personal information can be risky and even hurtful, then why is vulnerability healthy?

            The short answer is that it helps us to create human connection. If I share that I’m struggling with something, and you are struggling with the same kind of issue, then all of a sudden you might not feel so alone. In fact, if I disclose something to you that you can relate to, then maybe we can have a conversation together that we never thought possible. Maybe it’s a conversation that can be filled with healing and relief. It might make us say, “Wow! I’m not the only one!” In pastoral care, we call this self-disclosure. It’s kind of the opposite of what my family of origin did by just observing. It’s actively aligning with someone else and extending permission to go deeper and to talk about what is really on our hearts.

            Because vulnerability feels so risky to so many people, it isn’t a technique that is used far too infrequently. Think of the political landscape. If a political candidate shows any signs of vulnerability, their opponent will ambush them and use the vulnerability as a sign of weakness. The reality is that the opposite is true. Vulnerability is a sign of strength and not weakness. We also see examples in sports. Remember a few months ago when Caleb Williams and the University of Southern California Trojans football team lost a heartbreaking game to the University of Washington? Williams was the laughingstock of virtually every sports talk publication around. And although my allegiance to the University of Notre Dame makes me a vowed fan of every team that beats the Trojans, I will gladly rush to Williams’ defense for crying after a tough loss. In that moment, Williams allowed himself to be vulnerable and human. And through that humanity, I guarantee you that he made connections with every other athlete in the country who has suffered a heartbreaking loss.

            We also see negative responses to vulnerability in the entertainment industry. How many celebrities are shamed for weight gain? For parenting methods? For being seen by the paparazzi enjoying an ice cream cone while some melted ice cream drips on their shirt? Depending on our news source, we can see these kinds of shaming techniques employed daily. And for anyone willing to take Fr. Tim’s advice (and I know, that could be a comically small number of people), I want these kinds of practices to end.

            First of all, they’re not helpful. For instance, if Williams is feeling down, do we really think it’s going to help him to feel better if we laugh at him for his sadness? No. It will likely make him feel worse. Secondly, how many times have we felt similarly? How many times have we felt frustrated or sad or angry, and we broke down in tears? Speaking only for myself, I can say the answer is a whole heck of a lot! And what about someone who experiences weight gain? My weight fluctuates a lot! To the tune of 30 pounds either direction, sometimes in as little as a year! It isn’t because of changes in diet or exercise. It’s just something that our bodies do, and my body is particularly sensitive. Any doctor will tell us that the human body fluctuates as the seasons change. In fact, our body weight can fluctuate by five pounds or more in a single day! It isn’t reasonable to shame a celebrity for natural body fluctuations. But if watching Christina Aguilera’s body fluctuate over the years brings some comfort to a young woman who notices the same thing in herself, then that is the power of vulnerability.

            If we’re honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that when we shame someone for something we don’t like about them, it’s probably far more about ourselves than it is about the other person. If I shame Christina for weight gain, it’s a sign that I have insecurity about my own weight and I’m directing my attention toward her because she’s visible in the moment. If I shame Caleb for crying, then it demonstrates I’m uncomfortable with my own tears and I’m directing attention his way so it takes the focus off of me. The truth is, we all experience sadness. We all experience bodily changes. We all experience illness. We all have made mistakes. We all do things we would like to do differently if we ever have another chance. If more and more people demonstrate a willingness to be vulnerable, then we can erase the artificial stigma associated with shame culture. Each of us, after all, is just trying to live our lives as best we can. Sometimes we do well and sometimes we don’t. Neither our successes nor our failures represent a full picture of who we are as human beings.

            I know feelings of shame and fear can inhibit us from a willingness to be vulnerable. But vulnerability is really a healthy way to be. It helps us to build more trustworthy relationships with the people in our lives and it even helps us to feel safer and less shameful. If, for example, I’ve been keeping a personal secret that brings me feelings of shame, and you tell me you have similar circumstances in your own history, then it can go a long way toward helping me to realize that maybe it isn’t as shameful as I had feared after all. In this new year, I encourage all of us to examine our own willingness to be vulnerable. I’m not saying we should take unnecessary risks. There are certainly things that are our own business, and they don’t need to be shared with others. But I am saying it can be helpful and healing to take a few extra mitigated risks with trustworthy people in our lives. And perhaps by doing so, we can take the power away from the stigmas and we can work toward being more and more open with our humanity. That’s the example God gave us in Jesus: A willingness to be vulnerable and to live a life as a human just like us. Through his vulnerability and his humanity, each of us shares a piece of his divinity.

Laying it All Out There