Vulnerability and Courage

Talking about journaling to groups of writers, artists, or those who have never journaled is one of my favorite things. So, last Thursday, when I was talking to PaperWorks in Tucson, I was having a great time. I ask people about why they journal and what they write about. The answers are always so interesting–people don’t want their journals read after they die, people are afraid strangers might pry. Keeping a journal opens you to being vulnerable.

lovelettersAs I sometimes do, I talk about my mother–the angry woman who would challenge me with, “No one ever loved me enough, not even God!” When she was dying, and I was cleaning out her house, I came across her love letters to my father. They showed me another woman, one I had never met, and could scarcely believe existed, much less was the same woman I called my mother. When I tell this story, I tell audiences I will choke up, because I do.  I don’t cry, but my voice waivers and I have to pause and swallow. And when I did that, I saw several women look away. One was shaking her head, frowning.

We are not supposed to choke up, that’s a sign of weakness. How many times have you seen people interviewed after horrible, gut-wrenching tragedy and as they try to answer a personal question in front of a TV camera and they start to cry, they say, “I’m sorry.” For what? For crying in the face of tragedy? Shouldn’t the person jamming a microphone in the face of someone struggling with tragedy be apologizing?

So, there I stood, choking up, and suddenly realized I did not feel shame nor embarrassment. This was hard stuff I was sharing. “Vulnerable” comes from the Latin wdaringgreatly_final525-resized-600ord meaning “to wound” or “capable of being wounded.” It’s brave to make yourself open to that. Shame researcher Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”  In her latest book, Daring Greatly, Brown says, “The profound danger is . . . we start to think of feeling as weakness. . . .It starts to make sense that we dismiss vulnerability as weakness only when we realize that we’ve confused feeling with failing and emotions with disabilities.” Then Brown says something powerful and important: “If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it. . . .Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

It’s very hard to stand up and admit to being vulnerable. Someone could make fun of us. Someone could attack us. And that’s what our inner critic tells us–stay shut off, keep those emotions stuffed down. And the value of that? We become fearful, and that ignites the ancient fuse of fear-anger-blame-alienation.

Being vulnerable is hard. Admitting your complicated emotions is hard. Not running away from your emotions, sitting with them, facing your truth, actually talking to your inner critic–now that takes courage. Being vulnerable in front of friends is a risk, in front of strangers, well it may feel like eating glass. But I know from experience that when you are vulnerable you are powerful. Authenticity always is.

This doesn’t mean blurting out your entire life story under the guise of vulnerability. It does mean not going out in the world with your fists up so you can take the first swing before your imagined enemy swings at you.

If you are interested in learning more about the courage of vulnerability, you can read Five Insights from Brene Brown or watch her Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability.

—Quinn McDonald doesn’t always have the courage to be vulnerable, but she’s finding it easier every time she tries.