If You Want Resilience, Be Vulnerable

It’s time for me to watch something inspirational. I’ve just finished some work on an upcoming talk I will be presenting at Longwood University, and now I’m feeling dogged. Watching inspirational videos is something I do every day, not just when I need a little “lift up.” I learn a lot from other speakers who have walked the walk. I did my work for the day, but it’s been a low energy afternoon, so for an energetic boost, I’ve gone on to watch Brene Brown. She is speaking on vulnerability.

While I’m watching, I can’t help to think about all the emotional exposure that she’s going through, standing up there on stage, willing to be herself in front of others. How uncomfortable that must be. I start to think about all the emotional resilience that she’s built over her career. I mean, come on, she’s on stage, completely unclear how people are going to take what she has to say. She’s being authentic to herself talking about a subject matter nobody likes to talk about, let alone admit that they ever are…vulnerable that is.

I’m past my 10-minute quota of listening and now I’m in a curiosity phase. I wonder who else has something to say on building resilience through vulnerability. I jump on Google and search ‘how to build resilience’, and all of these things come up: how to build resilience in children; how to build resilience for parents; how to build resilience in Paris; how to build a cat full of resilience; resilience and your horse. I add the word ‘through’ to my search. Now I’ve got: how to build resilience through meditation; through psychotherapy; through eating a low-carb diet… Finally, I type in the ‘vulnerability.’ Nothing. Nada. My cursor is left alone blinking in the Google search. I can’t be the only one who’s ever searched for this, can I?

Maybe.  Because honestly vulnerability sucks to feel, and I can’t imagine ever intentionally searching for it. Unfortunately, the only way to be creative, to have love and joy in our lives, to feel happiness, and belonging, is to embrace vulnerability. To be fully ourselves. And that is some scary crap right there, but it doesn’t make it less true. Think about it. The only way to build our physical resilience is to withstand more weight, more stress, to endure. To literally bring ourselves to a point of physical stress that will make us exceptionally uncomfortable. But we are willing to do it because we want to get bigger, we want to get stronger, and we want to endure longer and become more physically resilient. In the same fashion, if we want to become more emotionally resilient, the quickest and most effective way of doing this – I believe the only way of doing this, is to allow for emotional stress, to allow ourselves to feel our uncomfortable emotions. Allow ourselves to be vulnerable. 

This means we need to love others without knowing we will be loved back. To try for that job that there is no guarantee we will get and know that we may feel like we failed if we don’t get it! To hope for an outcome in a situation that we can put effort in but have no guarantee that it will turn out the way we want. Every single time we say it’s OK to be ourselves, every time we allow our emotional door to open to feel joy, happiness, and confidence, but we also leave it open for feelings of sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. 

Brene said that being vulnerable is like walking into the arena. It’s showing up. If you’re in the arena long enough, a hard truth is that you’re going to get bloodied. As true as this is, I would suggest an alternate truth. A scarier truth that might lead you to vulnerability as a first choice instead of a last resort: 

You are already in the arena whether you like it or not. 

If you are breathing, have a pulse, and can feel. If you try to hide away or stifle your feelings from time to time, express them openly at other times, and even occasionally slam the emotional exposure door shut on others, you are in the arena. Even if you repress, run from, or ignore your uncomfortable feelings, it doesn’t really make them less uncomfortable does it? The truth is the world is filled with external stimuli that can have enormous direct effect on your feelings. The more you shrink away from ‘unwanted’ feelings, avoiding the situations in which you feel them or the people that bring them out in you, the more you try to avoid being vulnerable, the more emotional atrophy sets in, and thus the more uncomfortable you are. 

Emotional atrophy doesn’t mean that you feel less, it means that smaller and smaller things in the external world (people, events, etc.) have a greater and greater effect on you, leaving you feeling ever more uncomfortable. Because you are not building your tolerance, your resilience to feeling uncomfortable gets less and less and you recede from confrontations, altercations, uncomfortable discussions, as you stop ‘showing up.’ The act of showing up, of being present, of taking the risk to be equally available for happiness and disappointment is being vulnerable. And that vulnerability, that act of showing up fully, and practicing how to center yourself after every emotion, is the only way to build resilience.