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1. Ready

What is vulnerability?

Dr. Brené Brown, a leading researcher and storyteller in the field of vulnerability, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”. In her book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”,
Brené Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.
uses this definition to argue that “vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable”. It is easy to understand how feelings such as fear, grief, sadness, or shame are vulnerable experiences because vulnerability is often associated with ‘dark emotions’. But vulnerability is also at the root of feelings like joy, happiness, love and contentment. In Daring Greatly, Brené uses the example of love to help you understand how vulnerability is the core of every feeling.
She writes: Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 34)
“Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow – that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary, and yes, we’re open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?”

What are the myths about vulnerability?

If vulnerability is a necessary aspect of feelings and enables you to feel emotions like joy and love, then why is there so much resistance around being vulnerable? What comes to mind when you think of vulnerability? Most people associate vulnerability with weakness, or they believe that they just don’t do the “vulnerability thing” – maybe you are one of those people.

Summarized below are the six myths of vulnerability that Brené Brown has identified in her research:

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Vulnerability is
weakness. Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 35)
This is the most common and the most dangerous vulnerability myth. Why? Recall that “vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings”. If you believe that vulnerability is weakness, then you (perhaps subconsciously) also believe that feeling is weakness. According to Brown, “we have confused feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities”. In the documentary, “The Call to Courage”, Brené tells a powerful story about an interaction she had with members of troops in the Special Forces: She explained her definition of vulnerability and then asked the soldiers to raise their hand if they can think of a courageous act that did not involve either uncertainty, risk, or emotional exposure. Not a single person raised their hand. The conclusion, as stated by a soldier who had served three tours, is that “there can be no courage without vulnerability”. Vulnerability is not weakness – it is a prerequisite of courage.
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I don’t do
vulnerability. Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 45)
There is no way to opt-out of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. When you hear this phrase, you might think of the most stereotypical scenarios: A stuck-up, cold-hearted lawyer who never strays from the facts and figures, or a high-school jock who parades down the hall with an army of friends and a trail of lovers. Maybe, when you read this phrase, you are thinking “that’s me”. The truth is that if you don’t do vulnerability, then vulnerability does you. You cannot choose whether or not you do vulnerability because life is vulnerable. However, what you can choose is how you respond to vulnerability when it shows up in your life.
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I can go it
alone. Cook, G. (2013, October 22). Why We Are Wired to Connect. Scientific American.
Here’s the deal: You recognize that vulnerability is important and that there is no way to opt-out of vulnerability. So, you are going to try vulnerability on your own and see how it goes before being vulnerable with other people. Deal? No deal. When an audience member approached Brené Brown with this proposal after one of her presentations it wasn’t the first time that she was confronted with the “I can go it alone” attitude. We live in a culture where being “strong enough” to go at something alone is admired. But this ideal couldn’t stray further from the truth: Humans are wired for connection. In his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman argues that our need to connect is as fundamental as our need for food and water. Connection is necessary for survival. It is not easy to engage with vulnerability and, as you do so, you will need support and encouragement. If you start grappling with fears and hidden truths that feel too heavy to carry, then you might even seek professional help (ex. counselor, therapist, or psychologist) and that is okay.
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You can engineer discomfort out of vulnerability.
No matter how hard you try, uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure will always be an uncomfortable experience – that will not change. But what can change, is how comfortable you are with the discomfort. Like a muscle that you have to train, the more you practice experiencing discomfort, the easier it becomes to lean into. The next time you feel uncomfortable, don’t run away. Pause, take a deep breath, and sit with the feeling.
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Trust comes
before Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 53)
vulnerability.
What came first, the chicken or the egg? Do you need to trust someone before you share your vulnerabilities, or do you share your vulnerabilities in order to build trust? Trust is built over time in very small moments, which Dr. John Gottman calls “sliding door moments” because they involve making a choice between connecting with someone or turning away from them. In other words, the opportunity to build trust slides by you. Building trust might start with sharing small experiences of vulnerability with people who have "earned the right to hear them". As trust is built, relationships are strengthened, and you share more of your vulnerabilities. Brené Brown believes that “trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement”. It is very important to understand that genuine vulnerability requires boundaries and mutuality – it involves sharing the right amount of information, for the right reasons, with the right people – the people who have earned the right to hear your story.
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Vulnerability means sharing all the personal details of my life with everyone.
Vulnerability does NOT mean sharing all the personal details of your life with everyone. Vulnerability requires boundaries and those boundaries determine under what circumstances, which information, and with whom you will share your vulnerability. Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. It’s oversharing and overwhelming. To decide whether or not you should share something publicly, Brené suggests asking yourself the following questions:
  • Why am I sharing this?
  • What outcome am I hoping for?
  • What emotions am I experiencing?
  • What unmet needs might I be trying to meet?

What is vulnerability armour?

Brené Brown uses the term “vulnerability armour” to describe the masks and armour that you wear to protect yourself from the discomfort of vulnerability. Although your masks and armour are as unique as the discomfort, pain, and emotions that you’re trying to minimize, there are three common pieces of armour that many people turn to:

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Foreboding Joy Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 119-121)
Think about the last time when everything was going well in your life. Maybe you were in a wonderful relationship, everyone in your family was healthy, and you recently got a job promotion. During this time, did you ever hesitate because things seemed too good to be true? Were you waiting for the “other shoe to drop”? Believe it or not, Brené’s research found that people feel the most vulnerable in joyful moments of their lives because they fear losing that joy. Foreboding joy is a way to minimize vulnerability during joyful moments and is best described as a continuum that runs from rehearsing tragedy to perpetual disappointment. People who dress-rehearse tragedy always imagine the worst-case scenario and prepare for disaster. On the other hand, people who live in perpetual disappointment do not allow themselves to experience joy because they believe that it’s easier to live disappointed than it is to dip in and out of feeling joy and disappointed. Regardless of how you forebode joy (i.e. where you fall on the continuum), everyone picks up this armour for the same reason: You are trying to “beat vulnerability to the punch”. The antidote to foreboding joy is practicing gratitude. In Brené’s studies, “every research participant who spoke about the ability to stay open to joy also talked about the importance of practicing gratitude”.
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Perfectionism Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 130)
According to Brené Brown, “perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels the primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame”. Perfectionism is an attempt to run away from vulnerability; to make yourself untouchable. There are two very important characteristics of perfectionism:
  • Perfectionism is self-destructive: It will never be possible for you to attain what you perceive as perfect, so you destroy yourself trying to achieve perfection.
  • Perfectionism is addictive: We blame dark-feelings (ex. shame) or negative experiences (ex. blame) on not being perfect enough.
Overcoming perfectionism, which Brené describes as making a journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.”, forces you to practice self-compassion.
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Numbing Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery. (Pg. 137)
You’re probably familiar with the idea that alcohol and drugs are tools to numb uncomfortable emotions such as fear, grief, or anxiety. Although this is true, the most universal numbing strategy is actually being crazy busy. “We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us”. The problem with this armor is that it is not possible to selectively numb emotion. When you engage in behaviours that numb fear, pain, or grief, you are also numbing joy, love, and hope. The antidote to numbing is less straightforward and involves cultivating a greater awareness of your emotions, being more mindful, and leaning into discomfort.

What is Courage?

According to the
Merriam-Webster dictionary, Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Courage. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
courage is defined as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty”. Too often, courage is associated with untouchable people, unimaginable actions, and rare occurrences. Some people might even think that courage,
like leadership, Dudley, D. (2010, September). Everyday leadership [Video]. TED.
has been put on a pedestal and placed out of reach. In her book
The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing. (Pg. 12-13)
Brené Brown speaks beautifully about ordinary courage:
“The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting your life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting your vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.”

Where can I learn more?

TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown

#daringclassrooms Learning Lab Video: Why be vulnerable when armour feels safer?

#daringclassrooms Learning Lab Video: What does vulnerability look like?

Netflix Special, Brené Brown: The Call to Courage


Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations: Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HTtlEQijrY

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VFg9ay9t38


The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts

What will students learn?

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to…

  • Effectively communicate the three elements of vulnerability and how these apply to their everyday life  
  • Debunk the vulnerability myths
  • Recognize the presence of vulnerability armory and develop a willingness to take off their armor
  • Understand the relationship between vulnerability and courage
References
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Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Hazelden Publishing.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery.

Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Random House.

Cook, G. (2013, October 22). Why We Are Wired to Connect. Scientific American.

Dudley, D. (2010, September). Everyday leadership [Video]. TED.

Gottman, J. (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement For Couples. WW Norton.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Courage. Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2008). Finding Common Ground.

Restrepo, S. (Director). (2019, April 19). The Call to Courage [Video]. Netflix.

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