Embracing vulnerability: how being vulnerable can develop strength and deepen connections
One of the things I love about being a therapist is that I am constantly learning about myself and what I still need to work on. Many therapists, including myself, come into the profession following their own experiences of suffering, mental and/or physical challenges, and recovery in whatever form it takes. It’s a journey of self-discovery and deep healing which leads us to a place of acknowledgement and acceptance and equips us with the ability to recognise and understand the suffering of others, as well as the tools to help them use it to transform their own lives.
But it’s not an easy journey. Facing your own insecurities and deep shame can be extremely challenging and difficult at times, as it forces us to expose our deepest and darkest fears. Learning to accept yourself for all your parts, including the bits we try our best to hide and shy away from, no matter how messy, broken, shameful and downtrodden, can be a painful process which takes huge amounts of courage to explore. Exposing those weaknesses to someone for the first time is one of the most vulnerable things you can do, especially if you’ve spent your life trying to mask and avoid them at all costs.
In these moments of complete vulnerability lie the keys to everything you want your life to be. It gives us the power to truly accept ourselves and be accepted by others. Brené Brown, the world’s leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, points out that “you cannot selectively numb emotions”, she says that “you can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing other affects and emotions. When we numb those, we numb joy, gratitude and happiness too”. She also points to the “three things that allow shame to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgement”, and suggests that “if we can share our story with someone who has empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive”.
My struggles with vulnerability
For me, vulnerability has always been one of the most difficult things to deal with. Growing up with parents who were addicted to drugs and alcohol created an unstable and sometimes dangerous home life. Our house was often buzzing with hedonistic characters and we were subjected to all sorts of things a young child probably shouldn’t see. When my dad finally got sent to prison for dealing heroin and my mum was featured on the evening news, it was inevitable that my friends parents found out and I suddenly found myself abandoned by my friends and subjected to bullying at school, which at 6 years old was confusing and of course pretty distressing.
But other than this and all the other difficulties that are wrapped up in a lifestyle fulled by drugs and alcohol; social services involvement, continued bullying and financial, emotional and mental struggles etc., the fundamental lesson that I had been taught by both of my parents was that feelings were not something to be embraced, they were something to be escaped and numbed at any opportunity. I don’t blame my parents for any of this of course, I recognise that they were suffering and that they were only doing the best they could with the tools they had. But these were the lessons I was taught, and so it’s understandable that I struggled with dealing with my own feelings and later went off the rails myself.
When I reached 15 I dropped out of school and had already started experimenting with drugs and alcohol myself, it was a normal part of life for me and I appreciated the moments of relief they gave me from feelings of being different or unworthy. I had found a new family in the underground party scene where I finally felt I belonged and society’s opinions of me didn’t matter. I had made a new identity for myself, where people knew and liked me and accepted me for who I was. We were free and it was fun, for a long time, but as they say what goes up must come down, and the come downs hit us all hard in the end.
Change is possible
At the age of 23 I realised I was depressed. The drugs and alcohol could only cover up so much of it anymore and I felt a deep sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction with my life. I wanted more, from myself and my future, and I knew it would be a hard road to get there but I also knew that if I carried on the way I was going, I could quite possibly end up (as many of my friends had already) either in prison or completely losing myself, my mind or, sadly like some I had already lost (including my own father), potentially my life.
I secured myself a place on an art foundation course and studied photography, art and jewellery design and although I loved the feeling of having a purpose again, it was by no means easy. On my way to the induction day I had my first real panic attack, I had no idea what was happening to me, all I knew was that I was crippled with fear and feelings of dread about being judged and rejected by fellow classmates and teachers.
I didn’t know much about anxiety at the time and hadn’t connected it to my earlier experiences of being outcast at school. All I knew was that I felt different, stupid, unwanted and a failure, and that the swirling feelings in my chest and head and redness of my face were so strong I couldn’t possibly hide how uncomfortable I felt about being there. I felt I would stand out like a sore thumb and everyone would know I wasn’t meant to be there. I was strange, weird and defective in my eyes and I had no doubt others would see that too.
But I pushed on regardless and completed my first ever qualification, and it was about 2 years later while studying at university that I finally realised I was suffering from an anxiety disorder. This was both freeing and unsettling at the same time: at least I understood why I felt the way I did, but what was I to do about it? Would I ever be able to live a normal life or would I only ever be able to manage these awful feelings I felt inside? These were different times too of course, when mental health issues were much lesser understood and help was harder to come by. And having been conditioned to believe that all figures of authority were out to get you, including mental health practitioners who would just lock you up if you told them how you really thought and felt, it was hard to know where to turn.
I struggled intensely with interactions and feelings of not being good enough, and eventually I quit Uni' as I couldn’t cope with the hot flushes and freezing up whenever someone spoke to me. I felt completely alien in that environment and I just gave in to the fears, feeling that I would never be normal so I should just stop pretending.
Rewriting your story
Despite all of this I was determined to make something of myself, and after setting up my own jewellery business I somehow found myself in teaching - which was a huge trigger for my fears of being judged in all sorts of ways as you can imagine. But although I had become better at managing it, my anxieties continued to dictate my life and I’d developed unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with it. I was drinking heavily and became dependent on sleeping tablets in a bid to control my frequent panic attacks and intermittent insomnia. It was in a moment of deep despair that I realised I couldn’t go on like this and I finally decided to get the help I needed and seek out some form of therapy.
After going through the official route of psychotherapy through my doctor in earlier years I realised the analytical route wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see the point in dwelling on my depressed feelings any further and I wanted tools to help me in the now. I was lucky to find an NLP therapist who helped me truly understand for the first time about why I was experiencing these emotions, and transform them with hypnosis and mental reprocessing. It was a few years later when I found a Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist, who helped me solidify this change and turn my life around completely. She helped me to see my story as just that, a story, and to start to see myself as a valued member of society and the world, and encouraged my desire to get into therapy myself.
I was finally able to see my challenges as opportunities – after all they had given me the courage and resilience that I had needed to get through some difficult moments in my life, and had made me the person I am today. I was finally able to be truly grateful for these challenges and see them as an opportunity to help others struggling with their own difficulties in life. I had found my true calling and I had my past to thank for it.
Why vulnerability is important
In the past I would never have had the courage to tell this story in public, I would have hidden it at all costs for fear of being judged. But now that I no longer judge myself for these things, I no longer hold on to the fear of judgement from others. Our stories are the fires in which our identities are forged and I am lucky to have experienced such a rich and complex life filled with brilliant and enriching characters, including my parents who, despite their faults, were also extremely loving and inspiring people. But I tell this story now in the hope that it inspires others to believe that change is not only possible, it is completely achievable. No matter what your story is you can choose to rewrite it however you want, you are the author and the actors of your own script so why not rewrite it in a way which serves you? Your own self-judgement and fear is all that stands in the way of you doing this.
In our deepest fears lies our greatest courage
It is in our most feared moments of vulnerability that we find our courage, and it is in these moments of courage and vulnerability that we allow other people a glimpse of our true selves. More importantly though, by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable we give others permission to be vulnerable too. Have you ever seen someone struggle with a speech on stage, tripping over their words and reddened in the face, and ever felt anything other than deep empathy and respect for their courage to continue? It’s in these moments of exposure that we see we are all the same, we all share the same human qualities, fables and sufferings, the same fear of rejection, longing for acceptance and desire to be seen.
Vulnerability creates opportunities for connection
When we build a wall of defence between ourselves and the world around us we cut ourselves off from others and lose out on opportunities to create the meaningful connections we desire in our lives. By offering others a glimpse of your own vulnerabilities you are saying, “I’m not perfect, and it’s ok for you to not be perfect too”. It can tear down barriers and build bridges over the most troubled waters and most importantly, it could be the one thing which leads you to making some of the deepest connections in your life.
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