But what exactly is acceptable vulnerability and what is not? – my thoughts

Like so many of you I love Brené Brown‘s work on vulnerability and shame. Her new book Daring Greatly is awesome too. I totally get the courage needed, and the subsequent terror afterwards, when we take off our armour and allow a little glimpse of the mess and chaos that lies behind most of our behaviour. The older I get the more I feel we are all just a breath away from that inner chaos and if too many life events topple us over – we lose our footing and that is indeed a terrifying place to be.

I think this is what makes us human, helps us to connect to each other and allows us to really live our best, most honest, most exciting life – together. Bad behaviour, nastiness, bullying always comes from a hurt place inside a human being. When ones gets that it’s so much easier to be kind, compassionate and not to take things personally. As my late husband used to say “hurt people hurt people.”

Bruce Springsteen talks about this with his usual tender, heart wrenching honestly on Springsteen on Broadway and admits that he isn’t sure why anybody wants to see the real him (God if only he knew!) He suffers from depression. This doesn’t surprise me, I think it’s the strength of our own self hatred and shame that often is the source of many mental illnesses. We all need to forgive ourselves a little more – I know I do.

And, in my humble experience, it often is the most lovely people who hate themselves the most.

I’ve written a lot about my life and I’ve talked on many public stages about what has happened to me and how it left me feeling. I’ve always worked as a writer and story teller – it’s how I make sense of the World. But I honestly can’t tell you that writing or talking has helped me in any way. I know I’ve been crippled with self doubt and terror at the thought of sharing too much or the thought of people rolling their eyes saying “oh not that tragic woman again.”

What I do love is when other people write to me and say “thank you. You made me feel better/less lonely/that I can do this if you have.” That makes it all worthwhile. I’m no saint but I’m fundamentally driven to serve a purpose in this world. Forget money/status/position – I want to have been useful to others in my life.

Charley Mackesy, author of the Times’ best selling book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse (if you haven’t read it I beg you to get it now) was on Radio 4 this morning talking about the colossal success of his book and about being brave. . He said he didn’t ever see himself as a brave man, in the traditional sense, but when his friend Bear Grylls, who certainly is a brave man in the traditional sense, asked him what’s the bravest thing he’d ever done he answered “asked for help”.

I still find asking for help one of the most incredibly difficult things to do – I trace mine back to a very painful childhood memory when I kept asking and somebody I loved wouldn’t give it to me (feeling very vulnerable admitting this). Intellectually I get what happened, it wasn’t my fault or really their’s, but boy does that memory still have power to drive my behaviour.

I was a great newsroom reporter. I was little and blonde (so a bit of a target) and had to cope with what I saw, at the time, as necessary low level sexual harassment – although now view that slightly differently. I was tough, spirited and never, ever cried at work. Ever. I was so often credited for my “steely calmness under extreme pressure” – in reality I was totally disassociated from the world and everybody in it. I allowed nobody close so nobody could let me down again/or hurt me – but at the same time I couldn’t truly love anybody either. Sure it got me respect/ promoted – but personally and spiritually it was a horrible place to be.

So Brene’s work on vulnerability has been life changing for me and I try to practice every single day. I know I care deeply about my fellow human being and about being a decent person – but I have to fight that frozen feeling at all times.

A few weeks back I was at a conference and a person (I don’t want to reveal any details so as not to hurt) got up and told their story. It was a dark story indeed. Strangely I felt I wanted to leave the room, stop listening, run away… It wasn’t the content – this never phases me – I think it was the intent. These were unprocessed feelings/events that seemed to be being emptied out onto the audience – I felt emotionally drained and really sorry for the person. I felt like we’d all been used as therapists for something very difficult. If I’m really honest I kind of felt used and I’m quite sure this was not the intention.

But Brene says vulnerability is good – so I didn’t understand my reaction. I checked in with others and there seemed to be unanimous agreement that the talk had repelled rather than drawn people in. I read Brene more deeply and I think I got close to what had happened. She talks about the need to never use people you don’t know/audiences to relieve yourself of uncomfortable feelings. It doesn’t work and it makes another person run for the hills – leading to less connection/more loneliness. Relationships are built slowly and surely – trust so hard to win is so easy to break. It is crucial that we all respect the space and minds of others – we must never stand on stage and use it as a personal therapy session.

This makes pure sense to me. I do a lot of public speaking and over the years I’ve learnt to take time afterwards to focus inside and to really ask myself “how did that feel, why did I do it and have I helped anybody by sharing?”. I’ve talked a lot about my daughter and I’ve come to understand that my daughter’s memory is so sacred to me – that I need to tred extremely carefully around what I share and what I don’t. Her dignity in death matters as much as in life. And there is also a group of people who are allowing you into their space, giving you their time – I try to think very, very hard about what will help them not what will help me. I pay a therapist to help myself. My job is to give them something that makes them feel a little better about the world – however small that is.

So in short this is what I think practising successful vulnerability is and is not:

It is:

  • having the courage to be humble and admit that it isn’t all alright sometimes
  • sharing thoughts that we have already worked on and understand ourselves first
  • admitting when we feel scared and don’t know what to do
  • telling somebody we love them for the first time and realising they may not feel the same way
  • showing up when we’d rather stay shivering under the bedcovers
  • being honest when somebody has hurt your feelings and not covering up
  • not people pleasing
  • not rescuing
  • asking for help and knowing and accepting that somebody else may not be able to help – but to love them anyway
  • crying but with no expectation that anybody else will make things better for you
  • making friends, falling in love, telling your family that you love them

It is not:

  • sharing photos of yourself shaving your legs (I’ve seen this)
  • sharing your addictions, your affairs, the fact you hate your spouse/sister/best friend with people you’ve just met
  • expecting people to make something better for you
  • sharing too much too quickly
  • whinging
  • gossiping

Love to hear your views and have a fabulous weekend

Debbie xx

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