There are three options for how to help students debunk the vulnerability myths:
- Ask students to indicate their answers by raising their hands.
- If you want to get your students up and moving, label two opposite walls in your classroom with the ‘True’ and ‘False’ posters provided and ask students to walk to the side of the room that reflects their answer.
True and False Posters available for download at right.
For each statement below and using your preferred method, ask students to indicate whether they think the statement is true or false. Before explaining the answer, give students from both sides the opportunity to explain their reasoning. This will naturally spark discussion and may even allow students to arrive at the correct answer on their own. Use coaching strategies and guided questions to help students think critically about the statement and, for the wrong answers, the implications of their beliefs.
Helpful questions that you can ask students will follow an ‘if A then B’ structure. For example, for the third vulnerability myth that you can go it alone, you might ask a student who answered true, “If it were to only let yourself feel vulnerable when you were on your own then what would your relationships look like?”
After debunking the vulnerability myths and clarifying any misunderstandings or questions, introduce students to the vulnerability armour. Explain that everyone has ways of protecting themselves from the uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability. Tell students that they can think of these protection mechanisms as wearing masks or armour. These masks and armour may help them hide and feel safe, but become suffocating. Unfortunately, if they wear their armor too long, then they forget that it is even there. The armour becomes a second layer of skin. Explain that, as students get older, it will become harder and harder to take off this armor. Fortunately, your students are still young and are probably still in the process of trying on different armor. They might not have even found something that fits yet.
Tell students that, together, everyone will work towards taking off their armour so that the whole class will be able to feel safe and confident being their authentic selves. Mention that, although everyone’s armor is unique, there are some common types of ‘equipment’ that students may use:
- Dress-rehearsing tragedy
We talked about this a little bit when we were debunking vulnerability myths related to feelings. When we experience joy, many of us will try to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario in order to avoid feeling devastated or disappointed if something bad happens. Unfortunately, studies have shown that no matter how much we dress-rehearse tragedy, the pain of loss doesn’t get any less. In fact, the only thing that this dress-rehearsal does is reduce our ability to experience joy and happiness.
- Constant disappointment
Some of us might not even want to get on the roller coaster of life. It can seem easier to always be disappointed and to always find something that isn’t going “right” rather than being vulnerable and experiencing the range of joy, love, fear, and doubt that life throws at us.
Maybe you try to perfect everything you do or every word you say to avoid making any mistakes. Striving for perfection might be your way of trying to minimize shame, fear, or blame. Like all of the other techniques, perfectionism is not healthy because you will never be able to achieve the standard that you set for yourself. As a result, perfectionism becomes a never-ending cycle of trying to do more and be better, which leads to exhaustion.
Do you ever feel like you are so busy that you don’t have time to breathe? One of the most universal ways that we protect ourselves from feeling uncomfortable is by being “crazy busy”. We think that if we run fast enough, the truth won’t be able to catch up. However, it is not possible to numb only the “bad emotions” like fear, shame, and anxiety. When we numb our emotions, we numb all of them, including happiness, hope, love, and connection.
You might find yourself responding to uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure with a specific reaction. Think about what your mom or dad would say if you asked them how you respond to being vulnerable. Do you try to protect yourself by lashing out (i.e. anger)? Do you shut down and isolate yourself? Are you able to engage in a difficult conversation and follow-through on an action plan? Maybe you are good at listening, but you tend to struggle with taking action.
- The Hit and Run
So maybe you are already working on this whole vulnerability thing and you are trying to engage in more uncomfortable conversations or to share your feelings with your family and close friends. But you still have some work to do: The “hit and run” describes when you take a step towards being vulnerable by sharing a personal experience with a supportive family member or friend. However, you are so nervous about taking this step and unsure of how to manage the discomfort that you unexpectedly “hit” the other person with your vulnerable experience and then “run” before they have a chance to respond. You might literally run or figuratively run, by picking up a different piece of armor.
Explain that these are just some examples of the most common types of ‘equipment’ that people use to armor up against vulnerability. Like any type of equipment, each tool might have several different models or styles that different people use in the same situation, or which one person uses across different situations. Students might also find themselves engaging in a behaviour or telling themselves something that doesn’t neatly line up with any of the examples you shared and that’s okay.
Tell students that, in the next activity, they will be identifying the pieces of their own shield so that they can work towards taking off their vulnerability armour.
For this activity, download and print a copy of the heart and shield template for students to use and review the activities instructions by explaining the following:
- The heart represents your authentic self. Fill in the different pieces of the heart with attributes, words, or dreams that you identify with (ex. outgoing, curious, energetic, dreaming to become a professional soccer player, wanting to practice law). Use colours to demonstrate the passion and truth behind each of these characteristics.
- The pieces on the second page make up the shield that you use to protect yourself from uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. Fill the different pieces in with phrases that you tell yourself or behaviours that you use to armor up against vulnerability.
- Cut out the pieces of armour. Then, place the pieces together over your heart and watch your authentic self become less and less visible. When you wear armor to protect yourself from vulnerability, you are also losing the pieces of yourself that you love most.
- Use this activity to represent your journey with embracing vulnerability. Over the course of the school year, as you start to take off your vulnerability armor, remove the corresponding pieces from your shield and watch your authentic self reappear.
Heart and Shield Template available for download at right.
Why are we talking about this?
There are a lot of misconceptions about vulnerability. When we believe these myths, like the idea that vulnerability is weakness, we become more resistant to being vulnerable and start wearing more armor. It’s important that we are able to understand what vulnerability really is and to create a space in this classroom where everyone is willing to embrace being vulnerable in order to learn and grow during this school year. This is also a skill that will be crucial to your success in everyday life: Vulnerability is at the core of feelings, relationships, and the ability to respond to your own and other’s needs. We are talking about vulnerability armor because the masks and shields we wear tend to be invisible until they are named. Once we identify the armour we use to protect ourselves from vulnerability, we become more aware of it and can start experimenting with taking it off.
What if I am not strong enough to be courageous or brave?
Everyone has the strength and ability to choose courage over comfort. It might not be easy, and you might not enjoy it at first, but it is possible. Courage often gets talked about in the context of heroic events, which makes it seem like courage is out of reach for ordinary people who live ordinary lives. However, courage originally meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart”. True courage involves being fully yourself. This might be uncomfortable, and you might feel vulnerable, but it is possible. More importantly, you will never have to be courageous or brave on your own. Your family and close friends will always be walking alongside you and can support and encourage you when you feel too tired or scared to go on.
What if I don’t have any vulnerability armour?
Everyone has vulnerability armour. You might think that you don’t have armour because you haven’t identified it yet. Our armour tends to be invisible until we are able to name it and develop an awareness of it. Sometimes, the people who think they do not wear any armor, are those who actually have the most developed masks and shields. These people might never take off their armor, so it becomes a part of who they are. Alternatively, maybe you haven’t thought deeply enough about your intentions behind certain behaviours. For example, if I am always really busy and running from one event to the next, it might seem like that’s out of my control and that this “crazy business” is simply because I am involved in a lot of things. But, when I think more deeply about my time commitments, I know that I sometimes schedule unnecessary meetings or take on additional events in order to avoid an unhappy situation at home. Lastly I would like you to think about whether believing that you don’t have vulnerability armour is armour in and of itself. Maybe this is your way of communicating that you are not ready to experience uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. For now, that is okay. Think about what you need from yourself, your peers, this classroom environment, and from me in order to take the first step towards being vulnerable in the future. Can you write yourself a permission slip?
This is stupid.
Tell me more*.
*This is a powerful conversation starter that helps you develop an understanding of the student’s perspective and the meaning behind their words. Most likely, the reason why the student thinks this is stupid will revolve around any of the above-mentioned questions. Use the responses from those questions to respond to this student’s comment and help them understand the importance of this lesson.