Hello Beautiful People!
After the positive response to my post on Insecurity and Personal Growth last week, I thought this very honest, raw post would be a fitting follow up. It also so happens to coincide with Valentine’s Day tomorrow, which can be rather difficult for some, as well as the 10 year anniversary of my official cancer diagnosis. Today I’m going to discuss the value of vulnerability.
I’m curious: how many of you upon the mention of “vulnerability” automatically associate this with weakness and negative connotations come to mind? Likely a great many do, and that may be because in many societies we have been socially conditioned to perceive vulnerability as a weakness. (It should be noted that limited research exists on this and there appear to be cross-cultural inconsistencies within the literature).
However, perhaps vulnerability isn’t a weakness at all. Consider this: humans are social creatures and many traits we exhibit have been evolutionarily preserved. By this I mean that since our early ancestors, qualities in individuals that were useful, such as altruism, stuck around because such qualities helped promote survival. However, for the most part qualities that were maladaptive (such as an inability to cooperate with others) and did not help an individual to get along with their social group were unlikely to be passed along to future generations (through reproduction).
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, feeling vulnerable is something all of us have experienced at one point or another. It’s innate and has been evolutionarily conserved, therefore it must serve some sort of beneficial purpose to survival. So why are we taught to perceive it as a weakness? Could it be instead that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable in social situations are actually at an advantage? As research suggests, this may indeed be the case.
Allowing oneself to be vulnerable facilitates social bonding and helps cultivate closer relationships with important individuals. Historically, this would have helped with survival because it’s good to have someone who’s “got your back” when things get rough.
Yet in the modern emotionally constipated climate in which we live, the notion of being vulnerable has all but been suppressed.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness” – Brene Brown
Given the evidence, it is plausible that we are actually fighting against years of evolution for an adaptive and beneficial trait. Further, perhaps this discrepancy is resulting in negative consequences regarding our ability to function socially and build the close, intimate relationships we often crave with others. Moreover, this suppression of innate vulnerability may be fueling the increasing levels of anxiety and depression which many individuals now struggle with.
From my own experience, I’ve come to understand that vulnerability IS a good thing, but requires balance. Here’s a personal example: On February 14th 2006 I was diagnosed with a stage IV malignant tumour in my throat. I was told that if I did not undergo surgery to remove my larynx (voice box), followed by chemo and radiation, I would without a doubt soon die. I still remember lying in the hospital bed hiding under the covers, crying for hours. Then came the rage, as I angrily told everyone I’d rather die than have to end up with no voice, all alone, and unloved (oh the theatrics and naivety of teenagers haha, but I genuinely believed this would be my future at that time). I had resolved not to receive the surgery; to simply allow myself to die rather than face a future of struggle and uncertainty.
What made me change my mind were my family and friends. I saw how much this hurt them and how afraid they were, and it broke my heart to see their pain. I’m a very empathetic person and find it distressing to watch others suffer. Fortunately, this motivated me change my mind and I agreed to have the surgery.
After the surgery physically I recovered quickly. It’s amazing how rapidly the energy returned to my body once I didn’t have an enormous tumor sucking the life out of me (quite literally). But soon after came the chemo and radiation treatments, which nearly did kill me. I underwent 6 weeks of radiation and 3 intense chemo sessions. The chemo made me extremely sick. Then there was the radiation, which burned my skin, scarring it and the underlying tissue. Due to the pain and nausea, and fact that everything tasted metallic (a side effect of the treatments) I could eat very little. But I’m stubborn and I refused to give in to my broken body. It was my anger and the walls I’d put up since my diagnosis that I believe got be through it. I’d resolved to be invulnerable. To show no weakness to the disease that was trying to take my life.
For example, the radiation suite was on the basement floor of the London Regional Cancer Center and there was a flight of spiral stairs to get from the main floor to the basement (or of course there were also the elevators). I’d decided that no matter what I would take those stairs every single day, down and back up. Though near the end I was so weak I literally had to crawl up them (what a ridiculous sight I must have been hah), I still forced myself to take the stairs. I laugh about it now, even though I recall how at the time it was exhausting for me to do this. But this was my way of fighting back and proving to myself that I was not vulnerable, but rather I was tremendously strong. Death was not an option.
My (perceived) invulnerability had served it’s purpose: I survived. However, after all of the struggle and treatments my walls did not come down, but rather stayed up for years. Unfortunately, it took me several years to realize that I needed to let my walls come down in order to move on with my life. I needed to learn how to be vulnerable again. This was a terrifying prospect for me. I’d experienced considerable trauma and the emotional and psychological aftermath nearly consumed me. I didn’t know how to be vulnerable anymore, but I knew that I needed to learn how to cultivate my vulnerability so that I could start living again.
And so I began meditating and practicing yoga. Reading as many books as I could (“Happiness” by Matthieu Ricard, is one of my favourites and has helped me greatly), and learning all I could on how to open myself up to others and to the world; on how to be vulnerable again.
One of the most influential sources that helped me rediscover my vulnerability was a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she discusses the power of vulnerability in a delightfully humorous way, and how it IS ESSENTIAL to allow oneself to be vulnerable. Because, as you will learn:
Vulnerability allows us to connect with others; to experience joy, happiness and love
Please, if you do one thing today make time to listen to this talk because the message is tremendous and truly life changing, especially if you’re struggling with how to allow yourself to be open to others and the world; with how to be vulnerable and accept yourself. I still get shivers when I listen to this talk; it’s truly brilliant.
What I can tell you about vulnerability based on research that has been done, as well as my own experience, is that it is not a bad thing. Indeed, in the years since my cancer I’ve come to understand that those who allow themselves to be vulnerable are the stronger ones. It’s easy to put up walls to protect yourself from the pain and fear you may feel by putting yourself out there and being open to others and to new experiences. It takes far more courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open, knowing full well that you may get hurt and you may fail.
And that’s okay. Pain and failure suck. No one wants to experience that, and yet without it how can we grow? If we’re not making mistakes and experiencing things there is little opportunity for growth.
I would now like to challenge you to be vulnerable. Let down your walls and open yourself to life. Be curious. Go on adventures. Learn and grow. Step outside your comfort zone. LIVE! My experience has taught me that life is brief and can end very suddenly and unexpectedly. So please don’t hide behind your walls and shelter yourself from life, because you only get this one.
You will feel fear, and it will be uncomfortable, and that’s perfectly okay
Do not allow whatever it is that you fear stop you. We all have fears. Acknowledge that fear, then walk right through it. I am no longer afraid of dying. Having almost done it before, it doesn’t scare me anymore. What I’ve realized and what I now fear most is the prospect of not allowing myself to live, savor, and experience every opportunity this life offers me.
One of the most remarkable characteristics I’ve come to appreciate about individuals is their ability to overcome adversity, to adapt and to heal, so long as there is a willingness to be open to recovery. This requires vulnerability. It’s taken me nearly 10 years, but I have finally learned to be vulnerable, and I’m a much happier and more fulfilled person for it, able to love and accept love. Whatever walls you’ve built, for whatever reason, consider that perhaps it may now be the time to let them down and to let life in.
With love and gratitude,
ps. If you’re ready to take a step outside of your comfort zone, leave a comment about something that you fear or which makes you feel vulnerable. Simply getting it out in the open is the first step to overcoming it! 🙂